The woman in the photograph was a poor soul, without friends, the subject of ridicule among Seattle schoolchildren. She lived in a hovel. When the growing city of Seattle cleared its native population, she remained where she was, and the city grew up around her. Kick-is-om-lo was her name, but that was difficult to pronounce, so the local folk called her Princess Angeline. In 1896, Kick-is-om-lo was paid one dollar to pose for this picture–the equivalent of what she was able to earn in a whole week–by a struggling young photographer named Edward Curtis. To say this would be the first of many such images would be a substantial understatement.
Within a short time, Mr. Curtis’s photography practice was beginning to thrive, mostly in connection with his nature photographs on nearby mountains (he was, in his way, a predecessor of Ansel Adams, but that’s not why he became famous). Instead, he began to photograph the native people who lived within traveling distance of his home. His fledgling studio became a place to buy these extraordinary portraits, these scenes of natives who were both nearby and exotic, these souls who some perceived as savages and others as victims. They were dying. The number of natives was rapidly declining. Their languages were dying out. Soon, the people who spoke those languages would be gone, too.
Curtis found opportunities to photograph native people in their own habitats. He used a camera and an early sound recorder, and he began to build a collection. Some individuals trusted him, many did not. He was “deeply affected” by a Sun Dance that lasted five days. Neglecting his family, and in time, his Seattle photography business, he followed the path that many creative professionals have since followed. He began an obsessive effort to photograph, many, and then, most of the remaining native communities. His trips began to cover areas far from home. He would stay away for a year or more. In time, he found kindred spirits, including, for a long while, former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, who, like Curtis, enjoyed a deep appreciation of America’s natural and, to a somewhat lesser extent, native history. They became friends; Curtis made formal portraits of T.R.’s children and hung around the family estate at Sagamore Hill for a good while.
To continue, and to fulfill his creative vision, Curtis required far greater resources than his local photography business would ever provide. He required an investor at a time when the philanthropic community was just beginning to take shape. He planned to:
make a complete publication, showing pictures and including text of every phase of Indian life of all tribes yet in primitive condition, taking up the type, male and female, child and adult, their home structure, their environment, their handicraft, games, ceremonies, etc…
His bodacious plan: an expensive, limited edition twenty volume set containing “fifteen hundred full-page plates”
He managed to get himself into the office of J.P. Morgan, who reviewed the proposal ($15,000 per year for 5 years to cover all expenses), told wealthy banker that he had already spent over $25,000 on the project, that he was completely out of money.
Morgan said no. Actually, what Morgan said was, “I will be unable to help you.”
But Curtis didn’t take no for an answer. Instead, Curtis reached into his portfolio and began to cover Morgan’s desk with stunning photographs of natives, the likes of which Morgan had never seen: the salmon people of Puget Sound, the picture of Chief Joseph that Teddy (sorry… the President) loved so very much… And, bless his soul, Curtis left Morgan’s office with the commitment he needed.
But that’s just the start of an even wilder adventure that eventually finds Curtis producing one of the world’s first documentaries, and, eventually, finishing the whole project, destitute, so long after this intended deadline that, well, nobody cared about the books, Edward Curtis, or natives anymore (the Depression was an important reason why). The books, the original photographs, the obsessive life, all seemed to be for naught–until they were rediscovered decades later.
Now, you can see these pictures simply by clicking here. The link takes you to the Library of Congress collection of Edward Curtis’s work. Mr. Curtis overcame all sorts of stunning setbacks, but he did what he promised to do. And, thanks to him, we can at least begin to understand a culture that our people destroyed not so very long ago.
The one caution: nearly all of these images are very, very serious. Critics point out that Curtis’s vision of the stoic native presents an extremely limited, and so, distorted view, of the real lives of the people who made America.
The book is called Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis. It was written by Timothy Egan. The book was given to me as a gift. You should do the same for yourself, and for every creative soul in your life. It is a remarkable story, beautifully told, and of course, illustrated with the work of a master photographer.