Photography has always been an anonymous art. For every Ansel Adams who transcends that anonymity by sheer force of artistry, timing, or skillful marketing, there are thousands of others whose identities remain hidden behind even the most famous of photographs.
It’s not surprising, then, that filmgoers will recognize many of the photographs shown in the documentary Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians, which screens 1:45 p.m. June 11. It’s also not surprising that few would have known Curtis’ name before seeing the film. Fewer still would know that Curtis devoted the better part of three decades to creating these works, that he sacrificed his health and his marriage to them, and that he died in total obscurity despite them.
”Like everyone else, I had seen Edward Curtis’ work but never knew his name,“ says Anne Makepeace, who wrote and directed the documentary. ”Actually, it was Mark Fishkin, director of the Mill Valley Film Festival, who first told me who Curtis was and suggested I make a film about him.“ As Makepeace began to read about the man whose early 20th-century photographs of Native Americans have become classics of their kind, she discovered there was more than meets the eye both to the images and to the artist behind them. ”It was staggering what he created and yet his life was a tragedy in the personal sense,“ she says.
Curtis labored from 1900 to 1930, taking more than 40,000 photos of 80 tribes for a 20-volume work called The North American Indian. Though the publication received initial funding from tycoon J.P. Morgan, when that money ran out Curtis mortgaged his own home and borrowed against his portrait photography business in Seattle to keep the project going. That and his near-constant traveling put him at odds with his wife Clara, who, it seems, endured his obsession as long as she could before finally divorcing him in a bitter proceeding in 1919.
Curtis did much more than just take pictures of North American Indians posing in ceremonial dress or enacting then-banned religious and social rituals. He also wrote the book’s detailed text, which covers everything from daily tribal life to complex religious practices and ceremonies. Along the way Curtis also made 10,000 wax recordings of tribal songs and filmed a full-length feature in 1914 called In the Land of the Headhunters, about a Canadian tribe.
Curtis’ prolific career and tragic life were only part of the story for Makepeace. As she began to retrace the photographer’s steps, visiting descendants of the subjects in Curtis’ photographs at reservations from Arizona to Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea, her focus shifted to another theme entirely. ”What first brought me to the project was Curtis’ story; what took over for me was the Indian experience,“ she says.
Makepeace literally went door to door at the Hopi reservation where the photographer had spent much of his time, trying to find relatives of Curtis subjects to interview. ”I’m sure they thought I was some Jehovah’s Witness,“ she says with a laugh. ”When we held an exhibit of Curtis photos at the community center on the reservation, though, it was so amazing and moving to see people come in and recognize their relatives. Some even brought in field prints that Curtis had made and given them. It was this wonderful reclaiming of the past, and it transformed my feelings.“
It also transformed her documentary from a look at an artist’s life into an exploration of how the cultures Curtis believed were vanishing before his very eyes never really disappeared at all. The film features footage of modern-day religious ceremonies intercut with Curtis’ vintage photos of the same rituals some 80 years before. Interviews with descendants of Curtis’ subjects also dramatically illustrate the film’s theme of the enduring nature of North American Indian cultures.
When Makepeace began her research on Curtis in 1990, she envisioned the project as a dramatic feature and even managed to obtain funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities; she had hopes of presenting it on the now-defunct PBS program American Playhouse, which had aired an earlier Makepeace film. By the time her original script was finished in 1995, though, Playhouse was gone and federal arts funding had been slashed.
By then Makepeace was expanding her directorial focus to include documentaries. ”When funding [for the dramatic film about Curtis] became impossible, someone suggested I make it a documentary,“ she remembers. ”I said, ‘I don’t do documentaries’and then I did a documentary.“ Her first documentary Baby It’s You, which chronicled Makepeace and her husband’s own saga of conceiving a child, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998 and aired on POV on PBS later that year.
With one documentary under her belt, Makepeace went back to her desk and reinvented the Curtis project in that format. Funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was forthcoming, and the film was completed in the fall of 1999. The 85-minute film, which was shot on digital video, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January and will screen at festivals in Florida, Portugal, and Germany later this year. It has also been picked up for theatrical distribution in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco and will air on PBS’ American Masters series in January 2001.
Though Makepeace still intends to make dramatic films, she is obviously smitten with the documentary filmmaking process. ”Real life comes up and surprises you,“ she says. ”If you have the camera running at the right time, it’s more interesting than anything that anyone could make upor at least anything that I could make up.“
Well said Steve.
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