Catching Curtis’s Shadow

Published in the Redwood  Coast Review, Summer 2010

Once, in India, I visited a Hindu temple swarming with pilgrims, elephants, priests, housewives, children, smartly dressed businessmen and a Western tourist or two—the usual improbable blend, which was quietly and joyfully accepted by the those around me. Then I noticed a European woman standing a few feet away from me, bearing a camera in front of her midriff. She was sweeping her arm back and forth in front of her, vigorously gesturing. I realized two things at once: that she wanted me to step out of the way so she could take an “authentic” picture with just native Hindus in it, and that I hadn’t seen that kind of peremptory body language since my plane had landed in New Delhi.

What do we see when we encounter a photo?  Does seeing a photo make some­thing true? What does the photographer choose to include and what to exclude? What is it we are trying to catch? The life and career of Edward Curtis (1868-1952), pioneer photo­grapher and Old West adventurer, has been the subject of a national bestseller and a local museum exhibit. Turning over the contradictions, sacrifices, struggles and successes of this one life helps us to consider our own need to produce and consume images, the trouble we have owning and naming what we see, and our collective urge to do so anyway.

The Shadow Catcher, Marianne Wiggins’ acclaimed 2007 novel, is at once a fiction­alization of Edward Curtis’s life, told from the point of view of his long-suffering wife Clara, a giddy romp through the author’s daily trials, and a detective story-cum-psychological investigation into her own missing father. A self-taught photographer from a poor family, Edward Curtis built up a successful photography studio in Seattle at the turn of the century. He enlisted the help of financier JP Morgan to outfit a series of expe­ditions to native American lands throughout the West, including Alaska. Between 1899 and 1929 he took 40,000 photos, culminating in the publishing of his multi-volume magnum opus, The North American Indian. Popular enough to be requested to photo­graph the wedding of Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, he fell into obscurity even in his own lifetime. At a time when travel in the West’s wild terrain was lengthy and risky, he followed his mission steadfastly and perhaps obsessively, at the cost of his finances, his health, and his marriage. After a bitter divorce, he reconciled with his four children, whom he had hardly seen. (He seems to have stopped home just long enough to conceive them.) He lived to an old age and died at the home of one of his daughters.

These are the facts, which Wiggins plays fast and loose with. She gets to: she’s writing a novel, manipulating and arranging events to suit her fancy much as photog­raphers do before they snap the shutter. Following in the footsteps of influential post­modernist WG Sebald, Wiggins inserts photos randomly throughout the text, thus creat­ing a new/old genre: the postmodern picture book. The photos loom in sometimes disturbing ways, creating new associations and juxtapositions simply through their unmoored status. We are left to wonder, what do these pictures represent? Are Curtis’s carefully staged tableaux of native life any less theatrical than a supposedly candid snap­shot of the author’s parents in the 1940s? Did Curtis have a right to rearrange the details of the natives’ life so? Was he exploiting them or lending them dignity? Wiggins leaves this matter open, but the novel, told from Clara’s point of view, is bent to show the dam­age inflicted by fathers and husbands who leave their family to pursue their dreams. This motif is as old as the dream of the West, a vast and supposedly innocent frontier upon which a man could make his mark.

Lurking behind the book’s title, too, is the entire history of the recorded image and the human reaction to it, which usually ranges from extreme aversion to infatuated adherence. In her influential and brilliant book On Photography, Susan Sontag said that photos are seen as “something directly stenciled off the real… the registering of an ema­nation.” To have proof that something happened is to view a photograph. Wiggins plays with us and with that, for we cannot tell what is real or not in her story. It starts out with a description of a frantic journey through Los Angeles traffic to meet with a Hollywood producer and her agent. The purpose? To make a book she has written called “The Shadow Catcher” into a movie. We are already in La-La land here, for we have just started reading a book called just that. Is “The Shadow Catcher” that is being made into a movie identical to the one we are reading? When we finish reading it, will it then be that book?

In The Shadow Catcher Edward Curtis is portrayed as single-minded to the point of obsession, so focused on his photography work and, later, his mission to photograph the Indians that he cares little about anything else. He brutally deflowers Clara and, soon after, declares to her, “We shall have to marry.” He is naively surprised when she has other ideas—the plucky Clara had been about to leave for Seattle to seek her fortune. Yet he is also irresistible—handsome, mysterious, and yet available. They share an interest in portraiture: Clara’s father had been a portraitist before the newly arrived art of photog­raphy rendered his job irrelevant. He was roughly in the same position as a typewriter salesman would have been in 1983.

Wiggins meditates on the similarity between Curtis’ abandonment of his family and her father’s own, as her mind roams over the wide, beckoning spaces of the American West. It’s as if she knows that Western women have a competition that they are bound to lose—the endless sweeps of nature itself that will draw off their men.

Alternating chapters with the tale of Clara’s and Edward’s rocky romance is Wiggins’ own saga: she gets a call that a man bearing her father’s name is dying in a Las Vegas hospital when in fact he died on the East Coast thirty years ago. Intrigued, she drives from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, where she discovers an elderly and rapidly failing African-American man in a hospital bed. Quickly, she pieces the mystery together: her father hung himself in the woods thirty years ago, and this other man came along and, perhaps shocked out of his senses by observing what looked like a lynching, took his wallet and assumed his identity. He left behind a ten-year-old son, who is stationed at a nearby Army base and who is named, in one of those neat turns of complimentary that reminds us we are in a fictional world, Curtis Edwards. Wiggins’ meeting with Colonel Edwards is the denouement of the book, as the two of them reminisce about the early loss of their fathers.

In the hospital corridor, Wiggins comes across Mr. Shadow, a Navajo man who is in possession of an actual shadowcatcher, a sacred object which his father owned. His father, named “Owns His Shadow,” was photographed by Curtis. The story of this photo, its rediscovery, and that of the shadowcatcher itself ties the threads of the narrative together, as revelations about Curtis’s life follow that of Wiggins’ own father.

What are we to make of all this? Certainly to some, Wiggins’ easy relationship with a native American and an African-American will grate, with its assumption that their struggles are all the same. However, a subversive and profound point is subtly driven home: Owns His Shadow, Mr. Shadow’s father, has kept the Shadowcatcher; he defines himself, whether with Curtis’ help or in spite of it is up to the reader to decide. Wiggins’ title is apt in more than one way: the shadow of a great man’s achievement is the litter he leaves behind, the wreckage of his personal life, the neglected wife and children. The novel functions as indeed a kind of catcher of this kind of action.

I was prepared to dislike Curtis, then, when I walked into the Grace Hudson Museum exhibit of his work last fall in Ukiah. Wasn’t he a ruthless exploiter of the natives he photographed, not to mention his own wife and children? Wasn’t he just out to conquer his subjects, much as Audubon killed birds in order to stuff them, to appropriate their image for his own purpose? Yet this wasn’t at all what the exhibit brought forward. Rather, it displayed photos of members of various tribes in all their diversity and partic­ularity. It documented the photographer’s meticulous and often herculean efforts to find and familiarize himself with his subject. It showed him as an advocate of native groups, struggling to assert their humanity in the face of a massive assault on their culture. For example, photographs of sacred ceremonies were meant to counter the government’s outlawing and banning of these same ceremonies, not to tread on hallowed ground with­out permission. The exhibit told how Curtis, exhausted and demoralized after years of grinding travel, unceasing labor and diminishing funds, broke down in court when Clara had him arrested for lack of payment of child support in Seattle. Here is movie material indeed, although it is an exchange Wiggins did not include: the judge, bewildered, asks the weeping man why he chooses to pursue this work when he is not making any money. “Your Honor,” he responds, “it was my job, the only thing I could do that was worth doing… a sort of life’s work.”

Here, we are reminded that natives were jailed for attempting to speak their own languages or perform their religious ceremonies. In this view, Curtis was a hero who recognized the validity of their culture and attempted to document it. He died poor, a fact Wiggins acquiesces to as well. I also learned facts which modify some of Wiggins’ claims, such as that Curtis did enjoy close relations with a couple of his children (there were four) later in his life. One of his sons accompanied him on his later photography expeditions and was present when he died.

Before Clara could be awarded custody of her ex-husband’s studio and all its assets, two employees smashed all of Curtis’s glass-plate negatives. No one knows for sure, but it’s commonly thought that their daughter Beth was responsible. Wiggins reads the destruction of Curtis’s plates as an example of how children abandoned by their fathers idealize them and blame the mother for their absence. I see it as a tragic instance of how unhappy fami­lies tend to destroy what is best in them. After all, smashing the plates damaged several things–Curtis’s work, Clara’s maintenance of the studio, and the children’s legacy. It is a shocking act, which reverberates throughout the whole exhibit.

The fluidity and conditionality with which we “read” events, as well as books and photographs, may be the most interesting subject of all. Like many artists and innovators, Curtis emerges a cipher, a liminal figure posed between the domestic and the wild, the native and the white world, the ancient art of portraiture and the new one of photography.

And what of the subjects of these photos themselves? How do they feel about it? A corner of the Grace Hudson exhibit bore testimonials from present-day native Ameri­cans who found a grandparent or other ancestor of theirs in the photos, and thus renewed their sense of history and pride. Curtis is seen as a visionary, preserving photos of a way of life that was rapidly dying due to European encroachment. Yet not all natives or their allies feel the same appreciation. They point out that Curtis, an outsider, still controlled the image. He decided what to photograph, how and when; he took liberties, faked con­texts (removing a wristwatch, for example), falsified data in order to achieve a particular effect.

In a revived environment of self-assertion and ethnic pride, members of oppressed groups claim a right to shape their own identity. Having it foisted on them even by well-meaning outsiders is more and more seen as passé. When I visited a museum of contem­porary Native American art in Santa Fe, for instance, I saw a vital and fascinating blend of old and new. “Indians” were not images in a museum, unchangeable icons on which we could project our longing and pity. They were evolving, owners of their destiny, busy creating a fusion of tradition and innovation. We have to beware of this as we approach photos, that is as we approach images, which is pretty much what we do all day. A snap shot is just that, a moment come and gone. The subject has already changed by the time he or she moves out of the frame. We are alive, vital, indefinable.

Then why take photos? Robert Frank wrote, “There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment.” (quoted. p. 122, On Photography) There is an undeniable frisson  of contact one feels in Curtis’s finest photos. Several of them, close-ups of older men and women, bear a remarkable humanity and pathos. The expres­sion—defiant, struggling—bears a close resemblance to Curtis’s own. Their bare appeal goes beyond the liberties he took in making the photographs. They hint at a genuine affinity established between photographer and model.

We would do well to remember that photography was a relatively new medium which its practitioners were still learning to master. Photography was still the domain of specialists and those with a particular artistic sensibility in the early twentieth century. While there were early forays into the candid photo, the idea of taking a sponta­neous snapshot was not part of popular culture in the time Curtis was traveling the West. Photography still modeled itself upon portrait painting, where a subject gazes often stiffly at the camera. Iconic objects which represent their status or important aspects of their life are arranged about them. Likewise, Curtis got natives to dress in clothes meant for special occasions while they were going about everyday functions. He had members of one tribe wear the clothing of another. He removed wristwatches and other attributes of modern living. He was very careful about what went into his frame. He was a documentarian, not an innovator.

Photographers always wrestle with the question of how to remain true to their subject. Are they manipulating reality or just capturing it as it is? Yet the more they strive to remain objective, the more they end up portraying themselves. It is inevitable. For the more true you are to yourself, the better you can see others.

This principle is crystal clear with Curtis, and makes for a fascinating comparison. He himself is a marvelous photographic subject. His expression is jaunty, daring, defiant even; he possesses a stare at once haunting and haughty. It’s hard not to like him, even as you are exasperated with him—which is pretty much the stance Wiggins took in her novel. He is an Old West Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, trekking vast distances under severe conditions in order to meet and photograph an embattled people.

Images are presumptuous. That is the purist objection. In modern culture, the image is our coin of currency, modicum of exchange. This is never more obvious than now, when people make avatars of themselves online and post photos to represent their life in cyberspace. Images are more ubiquitous than ever, but they are getting farther removed from reality. Altering images is accepted and common. We assume ownership of what we see. This, after all, is what image-making was about, from earliest times: the hunter magically capturing his prey in a drawing. It is also one reason that both Islam and Judaism forbid forming images of the divine. But is it always motivated by a simple effort of control? There is something else going on here: a form of reverence and expres­sion. We draw pictures of what we want to understand. We sketch it, in both senses of the word, traces of longing and attempts at meaning on tabula rasas as wide-open as the West itself.

We are becoming more and more aware that our minds are themselves great image-makers. We can become trapped in the products of our thoughts, or we can share them, put our cards on the table, so to speak, and negotiate a shared reality. Marianne Wiggins opens up the novel form so that photographed as well as verbal images simply play across the field of our mind. The Curtis exhibit was set on a more fixed point of view. Still, we are left to walk around, shake our heads at the beauty of the old Western landscape and the brutal fate that one people dealt to another, allowing the images of this brave, foolhardy, and  misunderstood photographer to enter our eyes. If we can accept the contradictions of his own life, perhaps we will be better able to tolerate our own, and won’t have to raise an arm to sweep away whatever doesn’t fit into our frame.