"Offers an extraordinary experience of living history.
It cannot be praised enough." Alan Trachtenberg, Neil Gray
Professor of English and American Studies, Yale University
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, his 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