New York Times Journalist Timothy Egan Wins Evans Biography Award
Thursday, Sep. 26, 2013
Timothy Egan, an online columnist for The New York Times, and Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist was presented with the Evans Biography Award Sept. 20 at Utah State University for his book Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher about the life of documentary photographer Edward Curtis who chronicled the life of Native Americans at the turn of the 20th Century.
“We went to every place that Curtis traveled to and without exception in every one of these places, the tribes had prominently displayed his photos,” Egan told the gathered audience. “And they told us, that in these images in the eyes of these people: ‘I see my blood, I see my people.’ He was a portrait photographer and he tried to show the universality of the faces—not the noble savage, not stick figures—but real human beings, and the tribes even today can see that.”
The Evans Biography Award is a $10,000 prize for excellence in biographical writing about people who have shaped the character of the Intermountain West or “Mormon Country” as award progenitors David Woolley Evans and Beatrice Cannon Evans called it — a region historically influenced by Mormon institutions and social practices. David Evans, founder of a Salt Lake City advertising and public relations agency, and Beatrice Cannon Evans, a historian and family genealogist established the award in 1983. A national jury selects the winner of the Evans Biography Award out of works published in the prior year.
Egan, a longtime journalist and opinion writer for The New York Times, won for his ability to produce a work of serious scholarship with popular appeal. His biography chronicled the life of Edward Curtis, a prominent photographer of the Seattle elite who abandoned his studio to document the everyday life of Native Americans in the American West at the turn of the 20th century. Curtis’s dream to photograph the country’s indigenous people before their traditions disappeared was backed by Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan. Over several decades Curtis shot more than 40,000 photographs, preserved 10,000 audio recordings and produced a documentary film.
“It is Egan’s scintillating prose and imaginative talents that elevate this superb biography to a prize-winning level,” members of the jury noted. “[It] deserves to stand as one of the truly great renderings of an American personality and his moment in history.”
The book begins with the tale of Kickisomlo, “the last Indian of Seattle” living in squalor along Puget Sound. The city was named for her father, Chief Sealth, and became a place she wasn’t legally allowed to reside.
Curtis recognized that photographing Princess Angeline, as she was later named, was important to capture how indigenous people in Seattle lived before it was lost to further Western expansion and government mandates.
“Already, official histories had established a consistent narrative of natives welcoming the passage of one era to the next,” Egan wrote. “The face of Edward Curtis’s last Indian of Seattle would say something else … Angeline was the start of the longest, most comprehensive and ambitious photographic odyssey in American history.”
Angeline connected him to other Indians who then connected him to others still living the old way. For three decades Curtis paid for access to witness their everyday life. In addition to taking photos, he began collecting tribal narratives and writing them down.
“I want to make them live forever,” Curtis once said. “It’s such a big dream I can’t see it all.”
Egan’s book may help to see this dream realized.
Egan comes from a family of nine, whose mother loved books and a father with the Irish gift of finding joy in small things. Egan is the author of seven books. His nonfiction work on the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time, won the 2006 National Book Award. A lifelong journalist, Egan now writes an online opinion column for The New York Times. Prior to that, he worked as a national correspondent for the paper, roaming the West. He shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 with a team of reporters for their series “How Race is Lived in America.” Egan graduated from the University of Washington and holds honorary doctorates from Western Washington University, Willamette University, Whitman College and Lewis and Clark College. He is a third-generation Westerner and father of two children.
The awards ceremony was held at the David B. Haight Alumni Center of the Utah State University and was presented by the Mountain West Center for Regional Studies, a department of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Contact: Barbara Warnes, program assistant, (435) 797-0299, email@example.com