ePostcard #157: A Naturalist’s Bookshelf
Archival Photo Credit: Self-Portrait of Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952). Created: circa 1889 date QS:P571,+1889-00-00T00:00:00Z/9,P1480,Q5727902 to 1899 (Public Domain (File:ECurtis.jpg). Published in The American Magazine, December 1910; The Seattle Star. November 2, 1910. p.4.
A NATURALIST’S BOOK SHELF
Archival Photo Credit: These stunning portraits are by the great American photographer, explorer and ethnographer Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) and are courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Edward S. Curtis Collection (Public Domain).
The portrait in the center of the collection above is of a Kwakwaka’wakw girl wearing abalone earrings and a woven cedar bark cloak, circa 1914. She was featured in Curtis’ 1914 documentary silent film —In the Land of the War Canoes. Although Curtis fictionalized the world of the Pacific Northwest coastal peoples of the Queen Charlotte Strait in making the documentary, the script was written and directed by Curtis and acted entirely by Kwakwaka’wakw native people, who also served as advisors for the film. By organizing indigenous peoples to dramatize and thus conserve on film an ancestral way of life, Curtis was the first to employ the term “documentary” to describe this historic film.
BOOK OF THE MONTH
Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan (Winner of the National Book Award). Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York City (2012).
Whenever I need visual inspiration for writing about the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, I turn to my personal library and the hauntingly beautiful images taken by Edward Sherriff Curtis (1868-1952), the legendary American photographer, explorer and ethnographer. Curtis dedicated more than 40 years of his life to portraying the people and vanishing lifeways of North America’s indigenous inhabitants. With extraordinary vision and perseverance, he traveled throughout the continent photographing and documenting the stories, rituals and cultural heritage of more than 80 tribes, taking more than 40,000 photographs and making some 10,000 audio recordings.
In the early years of this epic undertaking, his most powerful backer was Theodore Roosevelt, and his patron was J.P. Morgan. Despite this initial support, Edward Curtis was forever broke and often disparaged as a romantic immortalizer of indigenous people, a perfectionist, and roundly criticized in academic circles as an ethnographic upstart in pursuit of an impossible dream. Curtis’ lasting legacy to us—the 20-volume masterwork entitled The North American Indian, is the most definitive archive of the American Indian ever produced. It should not be surprising that this colossal undertaking profoundly changed Edward Curtis, transforming him from a seemingly detached “through the lens” observer to an outraged advocate for indigenous people.
As I read this compelling biography a second time, I came away even more impressed with what Curtis achieved against all odds. Faced with an impossible timeline that demanded the trust of the indigenous people he photographed, the fact that he earned that trust at a time when efforts focused on cultural obliteration were accelerating is truly remarkable. Prize-winning writer Timothy Egan deftly captures the essence and genius of Edward S. Curtis in a narrative crafted with exacting research, portraying the man behind the images and the profound sense humanity that drove his work. I include the covers of two other books below that provide further information about Curtis’ photographic legacy and the cultural heritage of eleven tribal communities in the Pacific Northwest. There are many other books I could recommend but this is a start. Enjoy walking the pages.
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I enjoy your postcards so much! Thank you for these book recommendations on the inimitable Edward Curtis and his life’s work, for which we are so grateful. I hope our library has these books… if not… request to buy. Listening to Our Ancestors looks like another book I want to read, and I’m sure the visuals are stunning.
Thank you, Audrey. I am so glad to hear from you. I was aware of the Curtis photographs of the Indians of the United States but those of the Pacific Northwest are new to me. I will try to find the books through our library. How are you? Have you been up on Frost Island for the summer? I hope you are well and enjoying life.
For even more context, listen to Knut Berger’s podcast on Mossback at https://mossback.podbean.com/ about Edward’s brother Asahel Curtis, also a photographer of the PNW. It’s from March 2022.
Thank you for this podcast suggestion! I will do it!
Thank you Audrey for your comments and recommendations about how he has captured the history and traditions of the natives through his lens.
His images are hauntingly beautiful.