Photographs of Memories

Photographs of Memories

by Guest Blogger December 28, 2012

A Review of the Images and Narratives of Edward Sheriff Curtis
To Catch the Lightning by Alan Cheuse (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2009)
The Shadow Catcher by Marianne Wiggins (Simon & Schuster, 2008)
Edward Sheriff Curtis by Joanna Cohan Scherer (Phaidon Press, 2008)

This review first appeared in Issue 26: In the Margins. Reviewed by Linda McCullough Moore 

The release of Alan Cheuse’s book To Catch the Lightning followed fast on the heels of the paperback publication of Marianne Wiggins’ widely acclaimed novel The Shadow Catcher. Inasmuch as both writers fashion fictive narratives around the life and work of photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis, they are interesting to read together. And while we’re on the subject of catching lightning and shadows, these two books must also vie and reverberate with the stunning collection of photographs, Edward Sheriff Curtis, edited by Joanna Cohan Scherer.

Edward Curtis was the visionary who charged himself with the task of photographing every American Indian tribe, the man who undertook to document in words and pictures both a people and a way of life that sadly and swiftly vanished. More than a century later, his work stands as the finest lasting visual record of this native tribal culture. Curtis devoted years of his life to the arduous enterprise, winning fame in his day, even photographing the family of Teddy Roosevelt and being richly funded by J. P. Morgan. His work necessitated drama and adventure. It also meant he often had to leave his wife and children in Seattle to live what lives they would. A novelist may be forgiven for thinking there’s a story here.

Good art makes us lose consciousness. We look at Curtis’s sepia images of native faces, and we are rendered unconscious of anything outside the frame. The mastery of this artist frees us from all consideration of clunky cameras, nasty chemicals, and late nights spent in dank darkrooms. It’s just us and the image. So it is with fiction, properly conceived and executed. Within a page or two, we’re out cold. Such is the experience with Wiggins’ cunning book, The Shadow Catcher. At first I wasn’t sure if I was reading some long introduction, but by page three, I no longer cared. I was just happy to be reading anything this woman wrote, willing to let her take me where she chose to go. And a good thing too. Wiggins has her readers stuck in L.A. traffic before we have our seat belts on, then sweaty and disheveled, late for a posh lunch, and just as quickly (and convincingly) we are suddenly in the 1880’s in cold Minnesota making do on oh so very little, then packing up a life and moving it to Seattle, just before the town goes up in flames.

Time slows, and we—flies on the wall—get to witness a falling into love that lets us feel so many things we will forever be so fond of feeling. And here’s the magic part. We buy every word. We believe it happened just this way. Then, just as we’re prepared to travel so deliciously with Curtis and wife Clara through their days, there comes a phone call in the middle of the night and Wiggins is told her father’s dying—never mind that he’s been dead for thirty years—and just like that we’re driving through the desert to Las Vegas. What’s interesting is how little any of this time and place and character shift matters. When you’re in good hands, you’re in good hands. And if you trouble yourself to wonder what any of this has to do with anything, you’re so happy just to be there, that you don’t much care. In the end, the widely disparate parts weave themselves together, and we sigh and say, Oh yes. It’s all one story. I had forgotten that time and place and personality don’t ever change that. (One quibble here, standard issue of mine: When will someone write a story where we do not find out in the end that the main character is gay? When will an author craft a conclusion in which sexual orientation is not made to stand for explanation of all that’s been and will be? It’s not just formulaic, it’s reductive and demanding all at the same time, asking homosexuality to answer all the questions, some of which might well be better met with: We just don’t know.)

There is so much in this book to like. Drop dead gorgeous prose, perspective and philosophy. Writing that does what it was created to do. Wiggins writes:

The sound my country makes at night. . . . the sound my nation exhales as it sleeps is the sound of prayer, the sound of Jesus Christ arising from the basalt in the Rockies, splitting hearts of granite as he shakes off chains of time . . . it is the metallic hiss of money in the forge, the sound of slavery’s jism misspent in anger and assimilation . . . the sound of History slipping into coma, cosmic silence—the sound my country makes—a note so confirming and annuncitory that it seems to bend into itself . . . the way a shadow bends . . . wailing gently. Out here on the edge, in California, turning in my bed, the nation at my back, I hear a single note, heralding arrival. The sound of a train whistle. The sound my country makes.

I am afraid that my state of consciousness in reading Alan Cheuse’s book was different. I was conscious through the entire proceeding, awake the whole time. I was never unaware of the author hard at work crafting a story, however sympathetic with his strivings—scholarly and diligent and impressively researched—I might be. Cheuse, like Wiggins, experiments. Certain chapters in third person, some in first, with what too often felt like carefully considered phrases on almost every page. I don’t want to think about word choice and phrasing options while I’m camping in a fierce storm on the prairie. In alternating chapters, I felt I was reading a young adult novel, that is, I felt I was there to be explained to, to be told, then told again, just in case I didn’t get it. Telling isn’t showing, no matter how many tribes get visited, no matter how often a man may royally disappoint his wife.

I found the two central characters, Curtis’s scholar scribe and his Indian friend, contrived. They felt too purpose-built. I found too many images top heavy. Overreaching, overwritten. And the book is too long. At five hundred pages, way too long.

Things suffer by comparison. I’m sorry, but they do. What Wiggins is able to offer is the experience of connections across generations and wide continents between the people then and there and the people we are now. Curtis does the same.

We connect intimately, individually with the faces in the photographs that Curtis created, and I use the word advisedly. Curtis’s photographs have sometimes been questioned as to how representative they are of people and of time and place. There is a fair amount of fretting over whether he dressed his subjects up in clothes they might not have worn that day. Is the photo accurate? Is it genuinely the way that person was? In the end, we don’t care. We like the pictures. We love the pictures. And we know they tell us something that is entirely true.

When I picked up Wiggins’ book I thought I’d want to later research the facts of Curtis’s life, but as I read I realized this was and would remain very much beside the point. I don’t know if I am meant to take her own memoir sections of the book as fact or fiction. And I like not knowing, much as my aged next door neighbor tells me that he likes not knowing the names of the flowers that bloom around his door. He says it is the flowers that he likes. I like not knowing because it allows me to get lost inside this novel in a way I am not able to do in Cleuse’s. Part of the appeal here is that we never wonder if it’s real, because we know that it is true.

Now, what of the actual collection of Curtis’s photographs by Joanna Cohan Scherer? How shall I begin to describe these images that so beautifully unsettle, worry, chronicle and delight? I shan’t (I’ve been waiting years to use that word). You will simply have to upend the piggy bank, forgo lattes, sell your miniature spoon collection, and get yourself a copy. Page seventy-one alone is worth the price.


Read Issue 26: In the Margins.

Linda McCullough Moore is the author of a literary novel The Distance Between and a new story collection heralded by Alice Munro, This Road Will Take Us Closer to the Moon, as well as more than 300 shorter published pieces. She lives and writes in western Massachusetts, where she mentors aspiring writers by phone and email and pony express.

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