How to Make a Photobook [Like Edward Curtis]

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All photographs from The Library of Congress Edward S. Curtis Collection

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.

Timothy Egan

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1st Edition, 1st Printing edition, October 9, 2012.

I heard it as a Dreamscape Media audiobook.

This artist called himself, “A stenographer of the great mystery.”

How To Make a Photobook

Wow, I just finished a remarkable book that should be called How to Make a Photobook. It is the entertaining story of Edward Sherriff Curtis, the auteur behind an epic book work, The North American Indian, a 20 volume set of books we do not own at ICP, but one that was never of great interest to me until I found myself unable to stop “reading” this book.

To my astonishment, and then delight, the story of the man who made the book, and the wild 30 year bookmaking enterprise he remained committed to, turns out to be a dramatic tale that has room in it for most of the important people of the era: Theodore Roosevelt, J. Pierrepont Morgan, his intriguing librarian Belle d’Acosta Green, Cecil B. deMille, Robert Flaherty, E.H. Harriman, etc.

The hero at the end of the book is a Seattle librarian who corresponded with him, and, presumably, provided the rich autobiographical notes that the author drew from, together with really laudable research, to narrate the decades of photography, filmmaking, audio recording, and publishing.

As I say, we do not have the 20 volumes in our little library, but it is around the corner at the Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library. If I was reading the analog book, I would have feasted on the illustrations, but I do a portion of my “reading” via audiobooks, and this was such a case.

So, I found myself searching each night through the Curtis Collection in the Library of Congress’ marvelous digital collections for photographs I had just read [heard] about the making of. Some examples of the photos from LC are above.

Here is the record for the epic Curtis book in Worldcat, the world’s largest online catalog, with a sense of where there are copies:

Whatever position you take on his motives or anthropological credibility, the book is thoroughly informed and informative, and never hagiographic or clueless about the Quixotic quest of Curtis. Curtis called himself, unironically, “A stenographer of the great mystery,” which demonstrates the kind of humility and sincerity that comes through in his whole life story, in spite of the showmanship and theatricality of his work.

Also, as the title implies, he barely slept for 30 years because he was obsessed with the daunting race against time [and disease, and missionaries] to capture what remained of the nation’s first people.

And now, as promised in the title of this post, here are the rules for how to make a photobook like Edward Curtis:

1. Choose a subject that you will never tire of, or have doubts about.

2. Think big, really big.

3. Convince the wealthiest man in the world to contribute funds to realizing the work by convincing him of its enduring value.

4. Take no salary at any time, nor expect one.

5. Have a successful portrait business back home to support yourself and family.

6. Surround yourself by smart and dedicated people who are not too eager to be paid on time.

7. Befriend the president of the United States, and ask him to contribute a text.

8. Oversee all aspects of the production with an eagle eye.

9. Don’t shy away from innovation in scholarship or technology.

10. Be strong, healthy and resilient.

Check out how many works about this book work we have in the library [and an artist file too!]

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