Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians

Directed by Anne Makepeace

A Co-Production of Anne Makepeace Productions, Inc. and WNET
Narrated by Sheila Tousey
Voice of Edward Curtis: Bill Pullman
Associate Producer: Candace Schermerhorn


This graceful and grace-filled documentary about the work of photographer and documentarian Edward S. Curtis fills a badly needed niche in the history of photography.  At the time of his death in 1952, Curtis had been all but forgotten as a photographer and his work relegated to the libraries of a few rich contributors and photography enthusiasts. 

Fortunately for all of us, Curtis was rediscovered in the 1960s and eventually his work was donated to several prestigious collections of photography, including the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution, among many.   Debate will surely continue to rage in the Native American community about the "rightness" of Curtis's work--did his work truly steal something vital and precious from these people?  Did a white man profit from the images of an oppressed people?  The documentary and the facts about his life bear out that Curtis did not profit from these photographs, seeing as he had to go to work in the film industry to make ends meet and died nearly penniless and forgotten.  However, all one has to do is see the beauty of these images, see the dignity and honor and power in the faces of those who sat before his camera, and view the objectivity with which he documented traditional cultural ceremonies and dress to know that Curtis captured cultures that were quickly being lost to time, disinterest and the unforgivable policies of the US government towards Native peoples.

Many persons in the documentary stated that without Curtis's images, ways of wearing traditional dress and the components of some ceremonies would be lost forever.  Without his wax cylinder recordings, song of long ago would also be gone.

Our man Bill's lovely reading from this man's diaries and correspondence adds only to the marvelousness of this film.  Thanks, Bill, for giving life to Curtis's words and thoughts.

Be sure to visit the Smithsonian's excellent online exhibit Frontier Photographer: Edward S. Curtis

For information about the documentary visit the website for Bullfrog Films, the production company.

"Coming to Light" was shown as part of the American Masters series on Public Broadcasting System.  Visit PBS's website for further information about the series and for links about Edward S. Curtis. 

Visit the links to the Curtis Gallery and the Library of Congress to learn about Curtis's photographic techniques and his contributions to our knowledge and understanding about Native Americans and their cultures at the turn of the 20th century.


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updated 7.17.01