March 12, 2013

Vanishing Cultures photography project

Photographing Vanishing Cultures With a Huge Camera, Hoping for an Even Bigger Impact

By Alysa LandryA two-story-high photograph of Joe Yazzie towers over the viewer—every scar, wrinkle and hint of emotion on his face magnified. That face, larger than life, is the very essence of a Navajo man caught between traditional and modern worlds.

Yazzie’s portrait will greet the curious who come to see what promises to be the largest photo exhibit in history—not in terms of the number of photos, but in the size and resolution of those photographs.

Chicago-based photographer Dennis Manarchy is making photographs that dwarf most other prints: at 24 feet tall and with a resolution of 97,000 megapixels, he hopes each portrait will tell the story of one of America’s vanishing cultures.

“We’re going to start the exhibit with my portrait of Joe Yazzie, who is Navajo,” Manarchy says. “When you walk into the exhibit, you’ll see Joe. Your head will be smaller than his pupil. As you approach, you will be engulfed by him.”

That “total cultural immersion” is what Manarchy has in mind for the exhibit, which has been in the works for 12 years. “You’ll remember this for the rest of your life,” he says.

Manarchy plans to unveil his supersize, traveling exhibit, Vanishing Cultures: An American Portrait, by 2014. The exhibit space, which will be about two-thirds the size of a football field, will show America a snapshot of itself, Manarchy claims—a snapshot taken before some of the most precious and endangered cultures in the country deteriorate further.

“Portraits are powerful,” he explains, “but they are so much more powerful with stories. In America, there are essential cultures that are vanishing. The people aren’t vanishing, but the cultural identification is vanishing.”

Take Yazzie, for example. Born near Gallup, New Mexico, he attended boarding schools in which he was forbidden to use his native language. After boarding school, he relocated to Chicago, then was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. In the process, Yazzie lost much of his Navajo culture. “When you leave your culture, when you’re very young and you move to the city, then when you go home, you don’t fit in,” Yazzie says. “You miss what you were supposed to be, what you were supposed to learn from your parents, your grandparents, the medicine men.”

Yazzie married an Italian woman after his wartime service. His two sons had little interest in the Navajo culture, and his 8-year-old grandson has no knowledge of it. “We are losing our tongue, our songs, our culture, our heritage,” he says. “It will not be brought back.

“This project is really about a face that’s going away soon,” Yazzie says. “They’re saying, You better get to know this face because you’ll never see it again. And it’s not just the face, but the story behind it.”

The portrait of Yazzie, 70, a graphic artist in Chicago, represents one of 50 cultures Manarchy hopes to capture on film during a year-long journey that will take him from the Inuit people in Alaska to the Cajun communities in the swamps of Louisiana. The project will include about a dozen American Indian tribes, many of which are experiencing loss of culture and language at alarming rates as the younger generations move to cities.

Manarchy is focusing on cultures that are intact and represent an important chunk of American history. His itinerary includes stops among the Amish of Pennsylvania, railroaders of West Virginia, cowboys of Idaho, motorcyclists of South Dakota and blues women of his hometown of Chicago. Tribes on the itinerary include the Chickasaw and Shawnee in Tennessee, the Comanche Nation in Texas, Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, Hopi in Arizona, Navajo in Utah, Northwest Indians in Washington, Blackfoot in Montana, Cheyenne in Wyoming, the Inuit in Alaska and the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Manarchy and his team plan to stay for a week or two each in 25 to 35 locations, shooting portraits of people representing 50 unique cultures that are being swallowed up or homogenized.

“The purpose of the project is to go to the home environments of different cultures,” project director Chad Tepley says. “Most of these people won’t travel 10 to 15 miles from their homes in their lifetimes, so it’s really important to get the camera to them.”

Manarchy, a commercial photographer with decades of experience, is looking to tell the stories behind every photo, and to preserve cultures with the biggest snapshots he can manage. For that, he insists he needs a big camera. His will fit snugly inside a semi-trailer and produce negatives that are six feet tall.

He also plans to produce documentary films and other educational materials about every culture he encounters. The finished exhibit will include portraits, filmed footage, the negatives and the giant camera itself, which weighs about one ton. “This will be a powerful educational tool,” Tepley says. “It will be a visual social studies class with videos of the cultures. It will be a very powerful way to show children what’s out there.”

The exhibit will be particularly poignant when it comes to teaching children about American Indians, Tepley says. The federal government recognizes 566 American Indian tribes today, though many children grow up believing tribes are the stuff of history or folklore. “They are not aware of the role these people played or the true perspective of how tribes have evolved,” Tepley adds.”

During the planning of the project, Tepley and Manarchy researched tribes to pinpoint the ones whose cultures were most intact. They enlisted help from an advisory committee, including members of several different American Indian tribes who are offering cultural advice and will introduce him and his camera to Native communities.

By its nature, the project is bringing various cultures together, says Wendy White Eagle, Ho-Chunk, a project advisor. “I think the conversation today is more important than ever about how everyone is connected,” she says.

Although the exhibit will preserve the cultures as they are being expressed now, the project is not meant to discount future generations who will continue to celebrate tradition. “The world is evolving, not [so] much vanishing,” White Eagle says. “There are people coming behind them, and the expression of the culture might be different, but the core values might not be.”

Natives respond

I quoted the article at length because it refers several times to the "vanishing" concept. This generated a lot of feedback on a Facebook thread started by Adrienne Keene of the Native Appropriations blog. She wrote:Wow, Edward Curtis 2.0? "Vanishing Cultures"? Looking for communities that have their culture most "intact"? Curtis did the same thing--he went to communities that had what he thought were "real" Indians, brought costumes, and physically manipulated photos to erase signs of modernity to fit his created image of Indianness. Glad to know we've come so far. The portraits are beautiful, but framing the project this way really bothers me.Others chimed in:Wait, I'm vanishing like Micheal J. Fox in Back to the Future?

Vanishing cultures? I don't see anything vanishing around these parts, except clean water thanks to mining. And fighting THAT would be a lot more beneficial than taking giant pictures of people's faces.

I like what the Ho-Chunk woman they interviewed said: “The world is evolving, not [so] much vanishing,” White Eagle says. “There are people coming behind them, and the expression of the culture might be different, but the core values might not be.”

I don't think we should be in the business of defining ourselves as having no future existence...

I would agree that using the word vanishing is a bit sensationalist, but I don't think his project is being used to exploit any culture such as Edward Curtis did. He might turn a profit after his 17 million dollar budget is covered, but he's attempting to use real images of real people and their stories.

"Vanishing" = unimportant...needs help... infantile...less than...failed...etc.

Agreed. Vanishing isn't accurate . . . and makes it seem less important to fight for their preservation.
My thoughts on the subject:

White Eagle and the photographer himself both contradict the "vanishing" theme at points. But the article repeats the "vanishing" claim repeatedly as if it's a fact.

The writer and ICTMN should've taken a more critical look at the concept. They shouldn't have let a non-Native photographer define it for them.

As people involved in Indian country know, tribes and tribal organizations have launched many language and cultural preservation projects in recent decades. The influx of gaming money has greatly assisted these projects.

Obviously tribal cultures have evolved since Columbus arrived, Americans expanded across the continent, the Indian Wars ended, the government tried to assimilate and terminate tribes, and the modern era of pop-culture and media saturation began. Some cultures have vanished, and many are struggling with change. But some have remained strong, and some have come back with renewed vigor since the activist period of the 1960s and '70s.

So the "vanishing" concept--i.e., a straight line going downhill--is much too simplistic to capture the reality of Indian country. In graphical terms, you'd have lines going in all directions. Some trending down, some trending up, some with jagged peaks and valleys.

Giant photos = game-changer?

Also, I'm not sure how much the giant portraits will help. Edward Curtis didn't just do portraits. He photographed a lot of cultural scenes, some of which he staged. These photos arguably did more to document the changing cultures than his portraits did.

Manarchy talks about filming videos of the cultures, and those will help. But note that hundreds if not thousands of people are photographing and filming Indian country every day. Other than taking really big pictures, is Manarchy doing something they aren't?

The article makes it sound like Manarchy is riding to the rescue before the final death knell sounds. In reality, these cultures will continue with or without him. His project will be one of thousands documenting their evolution. In the grand scheme of things, I doubt it'll be a breakthrough or game-changer.

If you want to reverse cultural decline, a key factor is making kids excited about and proud of their traditional cultures. You do that by making it cool to be an Indian. By producing blockbuster movies or TV shows starring Native actors. Developing Native celebrities in music, fashion, or sports. Electing a Native president or appoint one to the Supreme Court. Things like that will have more of an impact than giant photographs in a museum, I bet.

For more on documenting Indians via photography, see Japanese Photographer Specializes in Codetalkers and Project to Photograph 562 Tribes.

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