Coming to Light

Coming to Light

Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) was a driven, charismatic, obsessive artist, a 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.

84 minutes Directed by Anne Makepeace A Co-Production of Anne Makepeace Productions, Inc. and WNET Narrated by Sheila Tousey Voice of Edward Curtis: Bill Pullman

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Coming to Light