Fall Arts: Timothy Egan on Edward S. Curtis

How our city's most famous photographer was lost and found.

"He's like Indiana Jones," says Timothy Egan, riffling the pages to show me an image in his forthcoming book, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis. Staring back from an 1899 self-portrait taken in his thriving downtown-Seattle studio, the 31-year-old photographer Curtis wears his hat at a rakish angle, sports a neat and vaguely bohemian beard, and is dressed as if from the Filson catalog. (Indeed, that local company had been founded only two years prior.) He looks ready for action, ready to climb Rainier (which he did, several times), ready to go shoot some Indians—with his view camera, of course. More than a century later, sitting in the sun outside a Seward Park coffee shop, Egan says of Curtis today, "He's sort of a background figure—he's everywhere!"

True. The historical photos of early Seattle, and his famous Indian portraits, make Curtis' sepia images too ubiquitous for his own good, too romantic, almost banal. They're on law-office walls and in the new Chihuly Garden at Seattle Center. Local museums are full of them. The Pioneer Square gallery Flury & Company helped create a new market for his photos in the early '70s. Curtis photographs are even sold next to the coffee cups and baseball caps in The New York Times, I mention, which brings a chuckle from Egan—that's his employer, where he earned a Pulitzer Prize and now writes sharp, skeptical op-eds for its website.

Yet today Egan calls Curtis "a lost Seattleite . . . our almost-forgotten Michelangelo figure in some ways. He's totally underappreciated." How did that happen?

Though born in Wisconsin, Curtis (1868–1952) moved to Seattle as a teen. Self-made and self-educated, he became the city's pre-eminent photographer, an artist/entrepreneur "like Chihuly today," says Egan. Short Nights relates how Curtis, married and successful, became obsessed with a side project that derailed his career, destroyed his marriage, and left him destitute and forgotten. His Indian obsession began with a sad, dignified 1896 portrait of the aged Princess Angeline, the last surviving daughter of Chief Seattle, one of the few natives who ignored the prohibition against their living within the city limits (yes, their rightful home). For a $3 fee, Egan writes, Curtis captured her "as a frozen image of lost time." He was the modern young settler on one side of the frontier, she the ancient ghost who barely registered in the chemical wash over his glass-plate negatives.

In Egan's telling, Curtis subsequently embarked upon his 20-volume The North American Indian not out of colonial guilt or commercial greed, but from of a tangle of impulses. Like anyone who moved to Seattle before and after the Klondike Gold Rush, he wanted to get rich. But like other newcomers who explored the wilderness on expeditions with The Mountaineers, Curtis came to revere the West and its original inhabitants. He was an anthropologist, huckster, and artist. Fortuitously meeting some well-connected East Coasters on Mt. Rainier, he vaulted into the social circles of railroad magnate Edward Harriman, Gifford Pinchot—central to Egan's 2009 book The Big Burn—and President Theodore Roosevelt. Using those connections, Curtis secured the financial backing of financier J.P. Morgan to underwrite The North American Indian.

Short Nights isn't just a regional story, since it roams the American West and visits the tycoons and politicians back East, but it certainly starts here. After Princess Angeline, one of Curtis' finest early portraits was of the Nez Perce Chief Joseph during a 1903 visit to Seattle—where he attended a UW football game! With the frontier closed and Indians mostly confined to reservations, it's difficult to remember how the Old and New Wests briefly overlapped. One of the last great chiefs from a Stone Age civilization was respectfully depicted by a young man with a newfangled camera. And that encounter was news. As Egan writes, Alden J. Blethen and his new Seattle Times put Joseph and Curtis' later pictorials on the front page. And Curtis, it's fair to say, loved and used that publicity. He could show those clippings to Roosevelt and Morgan.

"He is the first real Seattle celebrity," says Egan of Curtis. "He was as big as Bill Gates is now." As described in the book, Curtis met Roosevelt several times (TR wrote the forward to the first volume of The North American Indian). He shot Alice Roosevelt's wedding photos and intimate snapshots of the president's other children—some reproduced in Short Nights. Within a short decade, thanks to his publishing success, says Egan, "He's very well-known in and out of Seattle," a national figure. Traveling the country, from Roosevelt's Long Island mansion to Morgan's Wall Street offices, "He's a bit character, he's Zelig-like," says Egan. And this was heady stuff for a bootstrapping lad with a wife and young family at home. The initial acclaim for The North American Indian, and the need to keep traveling and publishing, took a toll. It is in the second half of Short Nights, after Curtis' swift rise, that we see "the pathos of that life."

 

Today, Egan readily admits to two big gaps in his book (published next month by Houghton Mifflin, $28) that a fiction writer would gladly fill in. First was the collapse of Curtis' marriage. There's no record of any affairs on the road. His bitter ex-wife—who assumed control of the Seattle photo studio—later burned all her letters. Then there's Asahel Curtis, whose Northwest images are often confused with those of his older brother. Edward sent Asahel to Alaska to cover the Gold Rush, then claimed credit for the images. They had a falling-out and never spoke again. Egan interviewed an octogenarian Curtis nephew, but to no avail. All we have is the man and his opus.

"I really do think it's a masterpiece," says Egan of The North American Indian. "There's only five sets of them in Seattle," including those at the UW and the Seattle Public Library. He's spent considerable time with white gloves on in the archives, not just examining photos but reading the text: "The anthropological part of it is what most people don't know about. He was never just a photographer." From the Hopi to the Inuit to the Navajo, Curtis was taking diligent notes and later making sound and movie recordings. He hired editors and writers to work with him during the long process (1907–30, originally planned for five years). Over time, Curtis grew more sympathetic to his subjects and their loss of land and culture, says Egan. "He becomes an advocate—goes from being a dandy to seeing the U.S. through their [Indian] eyes." But, lacking a Ph.D. or an Ivy League pedigree, Curtis wasn't taken seriously in academia.

That's one reason, along with the Depression, that the photographer settled into Californian obscurity during the second half of his long life, which included minor work in Hollywood. It's an amazing yet sad life story. Someone should organize a companion museum show to complement his book, I tell Egan. But who has time for that? Then he walks back home to write a New York Times column, and I head to the office—where, yes, two dusty old Curtis photos are in our archives. His Indians are with us still.

bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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