November 8, 2001

Cornell Cinema: Coming To Light

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Coming to Light develops like a well-curated museum exhibit. The film follows Edward S. Curtis’s rise and fall by examining his overwhelming contribution to anthropological photography and by recounting some interesting biographical details. After all, his photographs are a testament to a thoroughly personal vision of documenting Native American life in the beginning of the 20th century. The documentary approaches his biography by way of his experience as a once-succesful photographer whose acheivements have been forgotten and overlooked for half a century.

Curtis’s project of documenting the North American Indian which took thirty years to complete is recorded in a series of twenty volumes of photographs and written accounts. These tomes may give a good idea as to the lives of the Native Americans, but they tell little about Curtis; they do not include Curtis’ struggle for financing for the project, his failing relationships with his wife and children, and his obstacles in presenting authentic images of tribal traditions which are only performed illegally. Thankfully, Coming to Light includes information on this controversial photographer that would not be found in any historical account.

Much of the tension of the film is created by contrasting views of who exactly Edward Curtis was; was he a Native American confidant or an enemy? A man meant to salvage the culture of the tribes he visited or a photographer looking to exploit the exotic nature of the people he photographed? A servant to the job he felt was his destiny or an egomaniac? At the end of the film, one can not be sure.

One can assume that Anne Makepeace intended to leave Curtis’ character somewhat ambiguous. Some of his anthropological techniques are criticized. For example, Curtis often asked his subjects to dress up for his photographs; this begs the question, would a photograph of an ordinary man asked to wear a tuxedo be an accurate portrayal? Like many of his contemporaries, Curtis obscured modern objects, such as alarm clocks, in the photographs of the Native Americans, and therefore distorted what their life was truly like. Yet, had Curtis not collected such an exhaustive number of photographs, wouldn’t the loss have been incredible?

The film’s didactic quality is balanced by the pleasure in seeing these beautiful images. Influenced by the photo-secession movement, Curtis carefully composed his photographs like individual narratives about life at that time. Still, these photographs are a point of contention amongst many of the relatives of the subjects. Some who see their parents or grandparents in the photographs wonder why it is necessary to bring up issues from the past while others are thrilled that they have a lasting memento of long gone traditions and relatives.

Curtis tried every way to sustain himself through his passion of cataloging the Native Americans. He made documentaries, recorded their songs, and even filmed a narrative piece of the Native Americans, before Flaherty’s much more famous Nanook of the North. Sadly, these projects failed to be successful with the public and Curtis died with little money and little fame. Without Anne Makepeace’s documentary, many would never know that chroniclers and photographers of Native Americans in the 20th century are indebted to a man who has long been an invisible presence in their work.

Archived article by Diana Lind