The main room of Mount Baker Theater was packed for Pulitzer prizewinner Timothy Egan’s discussion of his book “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher” about Seattle photographer Edward Curtis. As Egan flipped through pictures taken by Curtis, he told Curtis’ life story and about his photography.
Curtis, who spent 30 years photographing Native Americans in the early 20th century, was “the most famous person in Seattle” at his time, Egan said. Egan joked that he was “the original Seattle celebrity.”
Curtis started out as a portrait photographer with a side interest in shooting portraits of local Native Americans, of which there were few. At the time, the only Native American allowed to live in Seattle was Chief Sealth’s daughter, Princess Angeline, Egan said. His desires broadened when, in 1891, he rescued three gentlemen who were lost on a hike. They turned out to be the head of National Geographic, head of the Forest Service, and the founder of the Autobahn Society. They were impressed by his work and arranged for him to meet Midwest Native Americans who still lived “by the old ways,” Egan said.
At the start of the 20th century, there were only 200,000 Native Americans, Egan said. Curtis worried that they would die out, so he set out to shoot pictures of all the Native tribes that still kept some of their traditions, he said.
Despite Curtis’ work, he died poor and forgotten by most until his work was rediscovered after his death. “This is the typical story of an artist,” Egan said.
Patricia Herlevi, a former Western student with a background in theatre, art and music said that she found the photography interesting. “It’s moving to me because it’s tragic.”
Christiana Claassen who does marketing and public relations for Whatcom Museum, said that Egan’s book does a good job of talking about the complex issue of the relationship between Native Americans and white people through the lens of Curtis’ life.
For more information on Curtis and his work, the exhibit “Mingled Visions: Images from the North American Indian by Edward s. Curtis” is on display in the Lightcatcher building of the Whatcom Museum until May 10. His book, “The North American Indian,” is now in the public domain. Audio recordings he made of Native American songs are not available from a central source, but are also available online.