Monday, January 26, 2009
Photographer Edward S. Curtis, known as “The Shadow Catcher,” created a defining moment in American publishing history with The North American Indian, a collection of more than 40,000 images and rare ethnographic information on over eighty American Indian tribal groups. He spent thirty years photographing American Indian tribes west of the Mississippi, ranging from the Mexican border to the Arctic.
Born near Whitewater, Wisconsin in 1868, Curtis exhibited an interest in photography from an early age, constructing a camera and processing prints by the time his formal education ended with the sixth grade. He married and had four children after his family moved to Seattle. Following a chance meeting in 1898, on Mt. Rainer with a group of mountaineers, including experts in the areas of conservation, forestry, Indian ethnography and publishing, Curtis launched his North American Indian project.
Despite continued financial hardships during the thirty years it took to publish the twenty-volume The North American Indian, Curtis was able to employ technicians, scholars, and researchers to assist with collecting intricate details of past and present Native American cultures. His dedication to recording as much detail of traditional life as possible is evident; his work includes descriptions of dwellings, food, clothing, burial customs, games, and mythology. The final volume was published in 1930. Edward S. Curtis died in Los Angeles in 1952 at the age of 84.
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
In The Shadow Catcher, Marianne Wiggins combines fact with fiction, past with present, and words with images in the unconventional telling of two compelling stories, set nearly a century apart, yet seamlessly intertwined. In one narrative, a novelist named Marianne Wiggins has written a novel, also titled The Shadow Catcher, about the photographer Edward S. Curtis, who came to fame through his attempts to photograph Native American people before they vanished from the American landscape. Wiggins’ story takes a turn when she is called to the death bed of her father, a man she knows died when she was a child. In the other historic narrative, we follow the story of Clara Phillips as she journeys across America and into the life of Curtis, the enigmatic photographer she would marry.
For years, Marianne Wiggins toyed with the idea of writing a novel about Edward S. Curtis. She wrote and rewrote large chunks of her novel, but struggled to find the interior tension that would sustain the work. Finally, two revelations pointed out the direction she was seeking: the truth, and not the illusion, of his life and work, and its correlation with her own complicated history.In researching the legendary photographer, Marianne Wiggins discovered that the reality of Edward S. Curtis was often not what it seemed. While his mission was to capture an image of truth before it vanished into history, Curtis saw nothing wrong with dressing a Navajo as a Sioux or removing a modern artifact that might betray whatever historic “truth” he was trying to convey.
Curtis was an absent husband and father, and Wiggins came to realize how closely this absence paralleled the emptiness left behind when her own father committed suicide. Threading elements of her own life into the novel, Wiggins was able to weave its two disparate storylines into a single haunting portrait of family history and personal loss.