November 21, 2008

The father of Native photography

Native exposure:  Lee Marmon’s photography

A UC Davis exhibit of photographer Lee Marmon’s 60-year career, from reservation life to Palm Springs’ golfing glitterati[H]is father made an auspicious suggestion: “You ought to document some of the old ones so we won’t forget them.”

Today, his images of tribal elders are the heart of a photographic oeuvre spanning six decades. The now 83-year-old Marmon, considered the “father of contemporary Native American photography,” has spent his life documenting Native American people and landscapes. And the exhibit Lee Marmon: Master Photographer, now at the C.N. Gorman Museum in Davis, is a short joy ride through a career that has taken Marmon from the Diné’s revered Canyon de Chelly to the White House, and from manicured SoCal golf courses to the cluttered workspace of Lucy Lewis, renowned Acoma Pueblo potter. This concise show of about 40 photos, arranged thematically by Gorman curator Veronica Passalacqua, brings into sharp focus the breadth and depth of Marmon’s lifework.

Marmon began his career by shooting elegant black-and-white portraits of “the old ones.” A crisp 1949 image captures Jeff Riley beating a drum for his grandkids, who, Marmon says, were dancing outside the picture frame. Another, from 1963, advertises the power of Walter Sarracino, then governor of Laguna Pueblo. He poses regally, in suit and bowtie, holding the symbol of his office: a silver-tipped Lincoln cane given to the tribal nation in 1863 by the 16th U.S. president. (The cane symbolizes the sovereignty of Laguna government and the United State’s trustee responsibilities to the tribe.) And there’s Marmon’s signature image, “White Man’s Moccasins” (1954), which almost never happened.
Lee Marmon, photographer

During a packed talk in a UCD lecture hall a few weeks ago, a sprightly Marmon recounted this near-miss to a rapt audience. The portrait’s subject, Jeff Sousea, was camera-shy, though he routinely spun tall tales for tourists who gathered at the Pueblo’s dusty plaza. Marmon had pursued Sousea for a while, but was always rebuffed. One day, while delivering groceries for his father’s trading post, he tried again. “It just happened that I had my camera in the pickup.” Marmon said. He also had a cigar.

The result of their collaboration is the now iconic photo of a contented, puckish “Old Jeff” basking in the sun, cigar in hand. He wears high-top Keds that clash with his traditional-looking head scarf and beaded necklaces. This internationally known image has come to symbolize the collision of cultures but also the resilience of Indian Country’s peoples.
Below:  “White Man’s Moccasins” by Lee Marmon, 1954.

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