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Coming to Light

Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) was a driven, charismatic, obsessive artist, a pioneer photographer who set out in 1900 to document traditional Indian life. He rose from obscurity to become the most famous photographer of his time, created an enormous body of work — 10,000 recordings, 40,000 photographs, and a full length ethnographic motion picture — and died poor and forgotten. His work was rediscovered in the 1970s and is now synonymous with photography of Indians.

Coming to Light tells the dramatic story of Curtis' life, the creation of his monumental work, and his changing views of the people he set out to document. The film also gives Indian people a voice in the discussion of Curtis' images. Hopi, Navajo, Eskimo, Blackfeet, Crow, Blood, Piegan, Suquamish, and Kwakiutl people who are descended from Curtis subjects or who are using his photographs for cultural preservation respond to the pictures, tell stories about the people in the photographs, and discuss the meaning of the images.

In 1900, Curtis attended a Piegan Sundance, a ceremony that had recently been outlawed. Curtis believed this would be the last Sundance, and it was this experience that set him on his path to document traditional Indian cultures. Eighty years later, some of Curtis' photographs inspired the Piegans to revive the ceremony, and it is still going strong today. The documentary begins with footage shot at a contemporary Piegan Sundance last year intercut with Curtis' 1900 photographs that led to its revival.

When Curtis began photographing Indians, he believed that their cultures were vanishing. When he finished in 1930, his own work vanished into obscurity, then was rediscovered in the 1970s and helped to inspire the revival of traditional culture on many reservations.

Coming to Light presents a complex, dedicated, flawed life, and explores many of the ironies inherent in Curtis's story, the often controversial nature of his romantic images, and the value of the photographs to Indian people and to all Americans today.

'COMING TO LIGHT tells more than the story of its main subject, 'Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians.' It tells, too, of the tragedy of cultural loss and hopes for recovery of memory. The film honors the great achievements of Curtis by placing his pictures in a vibrant frame of sorrow, desire, and promise. In its sensitive and intelligent fusion of image, sound, and story, the film offers an extraordinary experience of living history. It cannot be praised enough.' Alan Trachtenberg, Neil Gray Professor of English and American Studies, Yale University

'The Odyssean photographic career and poignantly forlorn private life of Edward S. Curtis are charted with impressive sensitivity in this very welcome portrait...It's an outstanding subject, one that...emerges compellingly in documentary form.' Todd McCarthy, Variety

'Beautifully filmed, skillfully edited and well-paced, Coming To Light is highly recommended for courses on North American Indians, visual anthropology, and American popular culture. Well researched and deftly touching on the complex politics of cross-cultural visual representation, Makepeace's film exhibits a balanced perspective on Curtis as a trailblazer in visual ethnography.' Harald Prins, American Anthropologist

'A beautifully crafted epic...' David Ansen, Newsweek

'An unusually well-balanced view of Edward Curtis' life and works as the best known photographer of North American Indian people during the first part of the twentieth century.' Bill Sturtevant, Curator of Ethnology, National Museum of National History, Smithsonian Institution

'Remarkable, a fascinating and thorough look at a photographer whose 40,000 images recorded Native American life.' Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

'A phenomenal film. Well crafted, intelligent, and beautiful to behold...brings historical depth and cultural context to our understanding of Curtis' photographs and his monographs on Native Americans...I highly recommend this piece for use in Art History courses, Photography courses, Native American Studies, and especially in Anthropology.' Julia Thompson, Professor of Anthropology, Mount Holyoke College

'Anne Makepeace has done total justice to the myth and the man that Edward S. Curtis was. Coming to Light is a thoroughly researched masterpiece of its own, honoring the man whose portraits continue to honor the beauty and glory of American Indians.' Wishelle Banks, Nevada Outpost

'This superlative movie will serve the classroom well, for its historical value as well as the many issues it raises: the nature of culture, cultural representation and revitalization; Native perspectives, and the ongoing relationship between Indians and non-Indian' Raymond A. Bucko, Creighton University (Anthropology Review Database)


Main credits

Makepeace, Anne (Producer)
Lacy, Susan (Producer)
Pullman, Bill (act)

Other credits

Camera, Uta Briesewitz, Jennifer Lane, Emiko Omori; editor, Jennifer Chinlund; voice of Edward Curtis, Bill Pullman; sound, David Springbett, Lewis Wheeler; composer, Todd Boekelheide.

Docuseek2 subjects

Distributor subjects

American Studies
Human Rights
Indigenous Peoples
Native Americans
Social Justice
Social Psychology


Edward Curtis, photographer, photography of Indians, Hopi, Navajo, Eskimo, Blackfeet, Crow, Blood, Piegan, Suquamish, Kwakiutl, cultural preservation, Piegan Sundance, sundance, vanishing cultures, North American indians,"Coming to Light",Bullfrog Films,doc,art

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