How a lone man's epic obsession led to one of America's greatest cultural treasures: Prizewinning writer Timothy Egan tells the riveting, cinematic story behind the most famous photographs in Native American history -- and the driven, brilliant man who made them.
Edward Curtis was charismatic, handsome, a passionate mountaineer, and a famous photographer, the Annie Leibovitz of his time. He moved in rarefied circles, a friend to presidents, vaudeville stars, leading thinkers. And he was thirty-two years old in 1900 when he gave it all up to pursue his Great Idea: to capture on film the continent's original inhabitants before the old ways disappeared.
An Indiana Jones with a camera, Curtis spent the next three decades traveling from the Havasupai at the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the Acoma on a high mesa in New Mexico to the Salish in the rugged Northwest rain forest, documenting the stories and rituals of more than eighty tribes. It took tremendous perseverance -- ten years alone to persuade the Hopi to allow him into their Snake Dance ceremony. And the undertaking changed him profoundly, from detached observer to outraged advocate. Eventually Curtis took more than 40,000 photographs, preserved 10,000 audio recordings, and is credited with making the first narrative documentary film. In the process, the charming rogue with the grade school education created the most definitive archive of the American Indian.
His most powerful backer was Theodore Roosevelt, and his patron was J. P. Morgan. Despite the friends in high places, he was always broke and often disparaged as an upstart in pursuit of an impossible dream. He completed his masterwork in 1930, when he published the last of the twenty volumes. A nation in the grips of the Depression ignored it. But today rare Curtis photogravures bring high prices at auction, and he is hailed as a visionary. In the end he fulfilled his promise: He made the Indians live forever.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Egan (The Worst Hard Time) turns his attention to one of Seattle's most remarkable-yet all but forgotten-residents. In the late 19th century, Edward Curtis was the era's reigning portrait photographer, so well respected that President Theodore Roosevelt chose him to photograph his daughter's wedding. Yet in 1900, at the height of his fame, Curtis gave it up to pursue what would become his life's work-"a plan to photograph all the intact Native American tribes left in North America" before their ways of life disappeared. This idea received the backing of J.P. Morgan and culminated in a critically acclaimed 20-volume set, The North American Indian, which took Curtis 30 years to complete and left him divorced and destitute. Unfailingly sympathetic to his subject, Egan shadows Curtis as he travels from Roosevelt's summer home at Sagamore Hill to the mesas and canyons of the Southwest tribes and to the rain forests of the Coastal Indians and the isolated tundra on Nunivak Island. Egan portrays the dwindling tribes, their sacred rites (such as the Hopi snake dance), customs, and daily lives, and captures a larger-than-life cast. With a reporter's eye for detail, Egan delivers a gracefully written biography and adventure story. Agent: Carol Mann, Carol Mann Agency. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
October 07, 2012
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