Tall, handsome and quick-witted, Edward Curtis knew front-page fame as a celebrity photographer during America's Gilded Age. But at heart, he was Indiana Jones with a camera.
Curtis spent 30 years producing "The North American Indian," a 20-volume set with 2,200 haunting photographs that documented more than 80 tribes, including such well-known leaders as Geronimo, Red Cloud and Chief Joseph. At home in the outdoors from the days of his Minnesota boyhood, he logged tens of thousands of miles, risking his life in a small boat on the undammed Columbia River or paddling a kayak past a calving glacier in Alaska.
J.P. Morgan financed the wildly ambitious project with $2.5 million, and President Theodore Roosevelt encouraged Curtis, who created vivid portraits of Native Americans while documenting their customs, dances and languages through interviews and audio recordings. The New York Times praised "The North American Indian" as "the greatest achievement in bookmaking since the King James Bible."
Still, when Curtis died at age 84 in 1952, the anthropologist and ethnographer was broke, lonely and forgotten. The New York Times devoted a mere 77 words to his passing.
Author Timothy Egan, who covered the West for The New York Times and lives in Seattle, recounts Curtis' cultural quest in "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher." The 2012 book, recently released in paperback, won this year's Chautauqua Prize. Mr. Egan's earlier work, "The Worst Hard Time," garnered the National Book Award in 2006.
The son of an itinerant preacher, Curtis left school before age 12. A chance encounter on one of the world's most dangerous volcanoes changed his life in 1898. On a summer evening, while photographing a glacier on Mount Rainier, he guided six lost climbers away from a treacherous ice field and up to safety in his refuge at Camp Muir.
Among the middle-aged climbers Curtis rescued was George Bird Grinnell, founder of the Aubudon Society, editor of Field and Stream magazine and an expert on America's Plains Indians. Another grateful climber was Clint Hart Merriam, a co-founder of the National Geographic Society.
"Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis"
By Timothy Egan
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (available in hardcover, paperback and Kindle).
Days later, the men visited Curtis' photography gallery and studio in Seattle. In 1899, Merriam invited the photographer aboard a large ship to explore Alaska; the expedition included Gifford Pinchot, later a top aide to President Theodore Roosevelt and a two-time governor of Pennsylvania. That trip was the beginning of a lifelong journey to record what Curtis believed was a vanishing race.
"The American government's philosophy was to erase their religion, language, culture ... and to put them in schools and wash the Indian out of them," Mr. Egan said during an interview at Chautauqua Institution this past summer.
Curtis knew that as the 20th century dawned, only 237,000 Native Americans lived in the United States. Today, with a population of 2 million, they make up about 1 percent of the U.S. population.
Curtis spent whole summers living with a tribe so he could develop its members' trust.
"Sometimes, he would spend all summer posing someone. Some of these natives would appear in a cavalry coat because someone in their family had killed a soldier," the author said.
In the beginning, Curtis traveled in a horse-drawn wagon with nearly 1,000 pounds of equipment, including heavy glass negatives. He developed images in the field, opening up his tent flap to manipulate light. A technician at his studio in Seattle put the finishing touches on the photographs. Later, Curtis traveled by car.
He also hired translators, including Alexander Upshaw. The son of a warrior chief, Upshaw was taken from Montana's Crow reservation and sent to a school in Carlisle, Pa.
"He could speak perfect English and knew the ways of the white man," Mr. Egan said, adding that Upshaw helped Curtis do some of his very best work on the Crow Indians.
Historian Edward Meany became Curtis' close friend and able assistant. A professor at the University of Washington, Meany knew the Nez Perce Indians and introduced Curtis to Chief Joseph.
From the 1950s through the '70s, some academics attacked Curtis for posing Native Americans, dressing them in costumes borrowed from the Smithsonian and manipulating images.
"He was after a certain look. He didn't want pictures of Indians getting handouts or pictures of Indians begging in the streets," Mr. Egan said. "He would ask them, 'How do you want to appear?' "
After Curtis made a photograph of two Indians and noticed that it contained an alarm clock, he found a way to erase it from the picture.
"He was a pioneer at many things, including Photoshop," Mr. Egan said.
The author, who traveled widely for his research, said Curtis' photographs are usually displayed prominently at Native American reservations.
Like many artists, Curtis paid dearly for being a perennial stranger to his wife, children and Seattle gallery. "He lost everything. His family broke up. His wife left him," Mr. Egan said. "He lost the gallery in the divorce.''
Despite Curtis' flaws, Mr. Egan said, "He did more than anyone, Indian or white, to preserve Indian culture at a point when it was in peril."
Using a wax cylinder recorder, Curtis, in some cases, recorded the last Indian to speak a tribe's language as well as Hopi and Navajo songs.
"The tribes can go back through Curtis' recordings and listen to the songs. The tribes really appreciate that," Mr. Egan said.
Marylynne Pitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1648. First Published October 6, 2013 4:00 AM