"I'm trying to save the business. I think I've discovered something, though. Just tonight. I think I may know how to make a portrait ... of the moon."
Alexandra Brown grew up in her father’s portrait studio, an old barn with windows cut through the roof for the sunlight. She makes her first portrait, a magical image of her mother wreathed in dust and smoke as she stomps out a fire in the studio, at the age of nine. Photography is in her blood.
Years of mercury fumes from the daguerreotypes wreak havoc on her father’s mind, and when Alexandra takes over the studio twenty years later they’re nearly bankrupt. One night, working alone in the studio, Alexandra sees glowing shapes move across the floor, streaming through her father’s telescope as it points at the moon. She realizes she can photograph the moon itself.
The discovery awakens something in her she had never felt before. But the business is in trouble, so she continues to make portraits. One of an ex-slave, looking for land up north with Lincoln’s Homestead Act in his pocket, and another of an intriguing couple: a one-armed explorer with his adventurous wife.
Seeing her moon photographs, they offer her a thousand dollars to join an expedition to photograph a solar eclipse --- in the wild Dakota Territory. It would change everything.
Alexandra is brilliant and fiercely independent. She doesn't know her own strengths - or her weaknesses. Despite the fact that she misses the scientific caravan, she determines to set out across the frontier anyway.
Before she gets far, she comes across Sterling, the ex-slave, still holding his pamphlet from Abraham Lincoln...
Caroline's father sells Alexandra the eggs she needs to do her Collodion photographic work. Even though Caroline can't read or write, Alexandra sees her natural intelligence and hires her as the studio assistant. Inspired by Alexandra's accomplishments, Caroline is soon keen to learn as much as she can. She is fascinated by Alexandra's on again / off again relationship with Jacob ... perhaps more than she should be.
Emma Powell (based on an actual, historic figure) is a confident, fearless explorer who accompanies her husband everywhere - including to the top of Pike's Peak, on an expedition to explore the Colorado River, and even on the battlefield to dress his wounds in the Battle of Shiloh. She is intelligent and worldly, and she is an instant inspiration to Alexandra, who has never left the county.
"I don't take orders from nobody. I'm a free man. It's your wagon,but I'm a free man. And I want half that money now."
Sterling is headed north, armed with a pamphlet advertising Lincoln's Homestead Act, which allows anyone to make a claim of 160 acres on the frontier for eighteen dollars. He's looking for a piece of land to claim, far away from the contentious south, where he can bring up his family and live in peace. He makes his way through Ironton to buy supplies at Bambridge's General Store, and nervously pays three dollars to Alexandra for a portrait holding a copy of the Thirteenth Amendment.
But 1869 is not a good time for African-Americans, regardless of the fact that slavery is officially over. Only a mile out of town, a group of local thugs overtakes him and burns his wagon with all of his supplies.
When Alexandra finds him the next morning, he is skeptical about the idea of traveling with a white woman, despite the fact that he needs a wagon, her money, and her supplies. The reality of the situation wins out, and he reluctantly agrees to accompany her.
Sterling is wise if uneducated. "Nobody let me go to school, Miss Brown. I'm as smart as you, but nobody ever taught me nothing." His determination to find a homestead for his family equals Alexandra's determination to capture her portrait of the eclipse. For a while, their purposes serve each other, and a friendship develops. But Sterling never wavers from his path.
"I appreciate the work you're doing for me."
"I ain't doing this for you, Miss Brown. I got my own plan."
Once a brilliant scientist, Alexander's mind has been wrecked by years of inhaling mercury fumes from Daguerreotype photography. He recognizes Alexandra only in moments of lucidity, otherwise calling for a son, Alexander, than he never had. Still possessing his intelligence, Caroline begins to care for him, hoping he will teach her things from the vast library in the old farm house where he wanders around, under the tireless care of Alexandra.
John Powell (based on an actual, historic figure) is a Union Army captain and scientific explorer. With his wife at his side, he climbed Pike's Peak and explored the Colorado River valley - all with only one arm (his right arm was blown off in the Battle of Shiloh as he raised it to signal "charge" to his troops. He has a scientific mind and is extremely impressed by Alexandra's self-taught method of photographing the moon.
Jacob has known Alexandra since they were children. As his hog farming business takes off, Jacob begins hinting he's ready for Alexandra to quit the portrait business and come be his wife. But he can't understand the fascination she has with learning and her sudden desire to leave the county they've lived in all their lives. "I wish I was as bright as the moon," he writes in a note to her.