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

Director: Anne Makepeace
Screenwriters: Anne Makepeace

Institute History


Look at almost any photograph of Native North Americans taken between 1900 and 1930, and you will see a small piece of the remarkable lifework of Edward S. Curtis. A self-taught man who built his first camera while still a child, Curtis moved to Seattle in 1887 where he became the society photographer. A prize-winning photograph of the aged daughter of Chief Seattle, taken nine years later with an enormous fourteen-by-seventeen-inch, glass-plate camera, changed the course of Curtis’s life and by 1898, he had begun a thirty-year mission to chronicle Native American life before it was lost. Struggling for funding, subsidizing his fieldwork with proceeds from the Seattle studio, and eventually sacrificing his marriage, Curtis forged ahead, producing some forty thousand photographs, ten thousand audio recordings, a full-length motion picture, and a twenty-volume work, his magnum opus, The North American Indians. He died in 1952, an almost- forgotten figure, but still retaining his children’s loyalty and an enthusiasm for exploration.

Coming to Light interweaves the story of Curtis’s life with the results of his work, and through it, we see the world he sought to preserve. Many of the Hopi, Navajo, Cupig, Blackfoot, Blood, Piegan, Suquamish, and Kwackiutl people who knew Curtis or descended from those who worked with him appear in the film, and through their voices, these old, sepia-toned photographs recall a life that no longer exists. While Curtis’s work is not without controversy, we owe him an enormous debt for constructing a visual memorial to the Native North American.

— Nicole Guillemet

Screening Details

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