Debate Magazine

Shadow Catching with Edward S. Curtis

By Cris

In the late 1990s I was introduced to Edward S. Curtis in what I suppose is the usual fashion: by collectors of his photogravures. Without knowing anything about Curtis or his project, it was easy to fall in love with the investment-grade images which look fantastic hanging on the wall. Over the years I became vaguely more familiar with Curtis and his project but still never really appreciated the full scope and scale of his North American Indian project, which took nearly 30 years to complete and constitutes a great cultural treasure.

For those not familiar with Curtis, Christopher Cardozo provides a nice introduction:

Edward Curtis attempted the impossible and in the process nearly achieved it. He sacrificed his livelihood, his financial security, his marriage, and, ultimately, his physical and emotional well-being. Between 1900 and 1930 he created The North American Indian project, the most extensive (and expensive) photographic project ever undertaken, which was hailed as “the finest set of books since the King James Bible”. The cost, in 2010 dollars, was over $35,000,000. Curtis traveled and socialized with presidents, kings, and chiefs. He produced over 40,000 negatives for his Native American project, 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of language and music, over 4,000 pages of highly regarded anthropological text, and a feature length film. He also crisscrossed the country by train over 125 times, giving lectures and exhibitions (selling out Carnegie Hall twice). His magnum opus, The North American Indian, is still widely hailed as the most beautiful and lavishly produced photographically illustrated set of rare books ever created. Thus, Curtis was a stunningly prolific and award-winning photographer, renowned ethnographer, entrepreneur, filmmaker, writer, lecturer, mountaineer and adventurer.

This is a fairly typical description in that it pays obligatory homage to ethnography while focusing on photography. It is the photography, after all, that first brought Curtis fame and constitutes his most enduring legacy. His ethnography, on the other hand, is largely ignored. This is unfortunate.

Although Curtis’ work and life has spawned a huge and thriving cottage industry, nearly all of the derivative material is devoted to the images or “gravures.” Few are interested in the ethnographic text that accompanied the 2,228 images Curtis selected for the 20-volume set. While I regularly encounter bits and pieces of the text and references to it, I’ve been unable to find it in a single book or convenient format. It can be accessed through Northwestern University’s spectacular digital archive of the complete set, but this is a cumbersome process for those interested mainly in the text. If anyone knows of a better way to access this invaluable material, please let us know.

All of this has been on my mind because I just finished Timothy Egan’s newly published Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis. As popular biographies go, it’s extremely well-done. A recurring theme is Curtis’ interest in Native American spirituality or religion. Before leaving for the field, an academic expert told Curtis that one tribe (the Apache) had no religion. When Curtis asked how he knew this, the scholar stated that he had asked the Apache and been informed they had no religion. Curtis obviously knew better, and he eventually came to know that what the Apache (and other Native Americans) had was much more than mere religion. It was nothing less than an all-encompassing worldview.

In his early work, Curtis — probably without much reflection, used “religion” to describe his observations:

“The Apache is inherently devoutly religious; his life is completely molded by his religious beliefs. From the morning prayer to the rising sun, through the hours, the days, and months — throughout life itself — every act has some religious significance.” (Egan 126:27)

What Curtis is describing here is not, of course, religion as we understand it. It is an expression of animist ontology. Curtis eventually dropped this loaded (and restrictive) terminology and began using language that more closely (and accurately) accords with the animist weltanschauung:

“It is thus near to Nature that much of the life of the Indian still is; hence its story…is a record of the Indian’s relations with and his dependence on the phenomena of the universe — the trees and shrubs, the sun and stars, the lightning and rain — for these to him are animate creatures.” (Egan 139)

Later, when introducing his Kwakiutl film to an audience, Curtis goes straight to the heart of the matter:

“My greatest desire tonight is that each and every person here enter into the spirit of our evening with the Indians. We cannot weigh, measeure or judge their culture with our philosophy. From our analytical and materialistic viewpoint, theirs is a strange world. Deity [animist life force] is everywhere. It is often said of certain tribes that they are sun-worshippers. To call them sun-worshippers is, I believe, in most instances about as nearly right as it would be to call all Christian people cross-worshippers. In other words, the sun is but the symbol of the power.” (Egan 211-12)

As is apparent, Curtis was no slouch of an ethnographer or analyst. The Kwakiutl film is now recognized as a classic. Here is the winter ceremony:

If I’m not mistaken, it appears that Maurice Sendak watched this and copied the costumes!

Shadow Catching with Edward S. Curtis

As for what these costumes may represent and how they work, we can get a good sense for it in this passage from Eduardo de Castro’s classic article on Amerindian perspectivism:

[The Indians] speak of bodies in terms of ‘clothing’. It is not so much that the body is a clothing but rather that clothing is a body. We are dealing with societies which inscribe efficacious meanings onto the skin, and which use animal masks (or at least know their principle) endowed with the power metaphysically to transform the identities of those who wear them, if used in the appropriate ritual context.

To put on mask-clothing is not so much to conceal a human essence beneath an animal appearance, but rather to activate the powers of a different body. The animal clothes that shamans use to travel the cosmos are not fantasies but instruments: they are akin to diving equipment, or space suits, and not to carnival masks. The intention when donning a wet suit is to be able to function like a fish, to breathe underwater, not to conceal oneself under a strange covering.

In the same way, the ‘clothing’ which, amongst animals, covers an internal ‘essence’ of a human type, is not a mere disguise but their distinctive equipment, endowed with the affects and capacities which define each animal.’ It is true that appearances can be deceptive; but my impression is that in Amerindian narratives which take as a theme animal ‘clothing’ the interest lies more in what these clothes do rather than what they hide. (482)

The animist world is much deeper and more kaleidoscopic than it appears.


de Castro, Eduardo V. (1998). Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 4 (3), 469-488 DOI: 10.2307/3034157

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