Indian photographer's life examined in novel

NPR commentator Alan Cheuse examines the plight of Joseph and other American Indians at the turn of the 20th century by illuminating the man who took made the portrait - Edward S. Curtis.

The Seattle photographer spent 30 years documenting the traditions of about 80 Native American tribes. His 20-volume collection, "The North American Indian," is still considered a singular achievement that continues to influence how we see Indians in this country.

Cheuse's "To Catch the Lightning" is a fictional account of how Curtis produced this work - at tremendous personal expense.

Curtis saw his subjects as a dying people and his photographs as the only means of preserving their traditions, many of which were waning even as he began his project. His enthusiasm and confidence win him support from prominent naturalists such as President Teddy Roosevelt and J. P. Morgan, although he must eventually shoulder all the project's printing burdens himself. He also fails to win over his wife, Clara, who keeps his photography business running in Seattle while he makes extended field trips.

There's no doubt Curtis' work and intent were genius. Cheuse finds Curtis just didn't focus well on anything out of camera range. The photographer lets the world around him - his wife's resentment, his fundraising problems - blur as he plays with the past. The contemporary Indians Curtis posed in traditional garments that were out of place on a reservation could see what he was missing: Time does not stop.

To belabor his point that Curtis' life was intertwined with the lives of the Indians he photographed, Cheuse crosses his path with an Indian who leaves behind his own family on the Plains for city life. The two men recognize they have left people in their wake, yet continue walking out of their own times.

Unfortunately, Cheuse puts these pictures of the domestic fallout from personal risk-taking in an ugly frame - the narration of William Myers, one of Curtis' loyal assistants through the years when there was no end to the project in sight.

Myers' over-earnest, grating intrusions force too much exposition into the novel. Curtis' long life was frequently marked by sudden stops and starts and abrupt changes of direction. Using Myers' clunky narration to follow Curtis weighs down a story about a spirit trying to break free of convention and achieve the impossible.

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