The Photography of Lee Marmon

Marmon, Rosita, nd

The Photography of Lee Marmon

Lee Marmon’s photographs have been exhibited in numerous exhibitions and are published in a number of books, including The Pueblo Imagination, a book compiled by the artist and his daughter, author Leslie Marmon Silko, with poets Joy Harjo and Simon Ortiz. His work is in numerous collections, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.  One of the exhibitions that I saw the artist speak about consisted of thirty-nine photographs taken between 1950 and 1995 and are of Native people and their communities in the Southwest.  Marmon, from Laguna Pueblo, photographs people and place with a sensitivity arising from his own situation as a community member.  The works were primarily black and white photographs, supplemented with a few color prints.  Marmon’s photographs center around three subjects: people, landscapes, and traditional dances.  Marmon’s choice of subject, primarily elders, has been discussed by the artist as a means of honoring and remembering these individuals for the future. On a purely practical note, he has also observed that older people are not concerned about looking conventionally attractive, whereas younger people are anxious to look their best in photographs.[1]

            Photography has a 180-year history, but Native Americans have only been using photography for the past three generations. Theresa Harlan identifies the slow spread of photography to Native artists as a result of the upheaval and hardships during this time period.[2] Native artists also were sometimes resistant to photography as a medium because of the historical use of photography by white photographers to “capture” images of Indian people as objects of scientific study and as social and political propaganda. Edward Curtis’ photographs, while beautiful, were staged photographs that were used to promote inaccurate conceptions of Native peoples. Perhaps the most damaging use of photography against Native peoples was as propaganda promoting the trope of the “vanishing Indian.” These early photographs have such power that not even recent photographs of Native Americans can escape comparison on some level to the work of Curtis.[3]  Such a comparison is likely to be made by viewers considering Lee Marmon’s photographs.

            Native artists have to live within the community they interpret, and are not casual visitors to Indian country. They are part of the community so they express something about themselves in their work.  They are not trying to peek over the cultural curtain. Yet they are trying to let the viewer look through their lens, with the eyes of a Native person, to see a Native reality and see a Native moment.[4]


            How does Marmon’s work differ from historical, non-Native photographic representations of Native people? Does a Native reality, a Native moment emerge?  Marmon’s photographs are seldom posed, unlike Curtis’. During an artist’s talk, Marmon described taking many of these photographs while he was delivering groceries, asking permission to quickly snap a picture or two before rushing off to his next delivery.  The realities of everyday living are present in the photographs.  A photograph of famous Acoma potter Lucy Lewis, for example, is related to other historical photographs of pueblo potters at their craft but is presented with more honesty and less romanticism.  In the foreground, blurred slightly by proximity to the camera lens, a set of car keys sits on a large grinding stone.

            There is a quietness and stateliness in many of his photographs. They are not so much a captured moment, a stilled action, but more a moment of stillness that has been prolonged – not just by the camera’s presence but by the reproduction of the image and its display for decades later.

            Marmon, Lucy Lewis, Acoma Potter, 1961Of course, Marmon’s photographs are not just about stillness or dignified portraits of elder of the communities of Laguna, Zuni, Acoma, and other pueblos.  Many of the photographs are about work as well. In an arresting color photograph from 1949, titled Mr. and Mrs. Sheya, the couple are shucking corn outdoors.  Large piles of enormous ears of shucked corn fill the foreground.  To the left of Mr. and Mrs. Sheya is a pile of un-shucked corn. The color and composition of the photograph are strikingly beautiful. I found it  to be the strongest the color photographs by Marmon that I have ever seen. In addition to the wonderful formal qualities of this photograph, there is a subtle air of continuity about it that implies work done and work yet to do, a portrayal of a repetitive task performed cooperatively, companionably. The enormity of the piles of corn cobs dwarfs the human beings performing their task. The corn is not an object that is being acted upon but has a presence that makes it an entity in its own right.

            Girls at Clothesline, Laguna Plaza, from 1954, is another image of work.  The girls are situated on a raised area, hanging washing on the line.  The photograph is taken from a point below and to the left of the girls, who have their backs to us. A breeze floats the washed white laundry into the air. The laundry line divides the sky along a diagonal line. The laundry itself has a luminous quality to it, evocative of the cool air the wet clothing emanates as the moisture evaporates into the dry desert air. What might be viewed as a tiresome chore has acquired beauty and satisfaction here, qualities valued in pueblo life. Marmon has said this is one of his favorite photographs.[5]

            Marmon’s photographs of ceremonial dances are very appealing to non-Native viewers, as they are events that have been part of the romanticization of Native cultures of the Southwest.  However, Marmon’s dance photographs are different from ones done by outsiders. In most cases, the camera has been positioned in such a way that the perspective of the photograph is very similar to the perspective of pueblo artists in easel paintings and drawings of such ceremonies, that is, from above and slightly angled from the line of the dancers.

White Man's Moccasins (Jeff)I cannot go without mentioning Marmon’s most famous photograph, titled White Man’s Moccasins, which is often reproduced in large format for exhibitions, and has been widely reproduced in print.  The photograph shows an elder seated against an adobe wall in three-quarter view. He wears a shirt, trousers, headband, much silver and stone jewelry, and clearly visible Converse All Stars high top basketball shoes that have seen better days.  The photograph is appreciated for its irony – its juxtaposition of the “traditional” and the non-traditional, the combination of the age of the man in the photograph and the fact that the kind of shoe that he wears is one that sever seems to go entirely out of fashion with youngsters but is seldom seen on anyone beyond their twenties.  This photograph represents adaptability, practicality, and the deliciousness of contradictions.  If one knows that the cigar in the man’s right hand was a gift offering, there are added depths of meaning to the photograph. Marmon had asked this elder if he could take his photograph previously but had been refused.  One day, Marmon brought the elder an offering of tobacco in the form of an excellent cigar. The gift of tobacco goes beyond an item of monetary value; it is a gift which connotes respect and honor.  The photograph then becomes a document of the exchange of honors. It was an honor for Marmon to be permitted to take the photograph, requiring that Marmon also honor the man sitting for the photograph. The elder sits, face lifted with an expression of wry pleasure, holding his cigar in his hand. There is satisfaction in his face and body language.

            Jolene Rickard, a Tuscarora artist who often utilizes photography, observes, “The more perspectives on Native American experiences that can be seen, the faster the meltdown of the noble, highly romanticized Indian of our past.”[6] Marmon’s photographs broaden images of Native experience during the 1940s-80s.  Marmon takes us beyond the quaint, the ethnographic, the old West.  His work brings Native men and women forward as real people, not symbols.  In Laguna Women Plastering, from 1955, a woman making adobe plaster pauses for a moment, holding out a double handful of plaster to the camera, laughing, reminds us that, as Jolene Rickard has observed, photographs are ultimately of your family, or of someone else’s family.[7]   Marmon’s photographs are not of anonymous Indians. More often than not, the photographs are titled with the names of the people in them. Some of the photographs are literally of Marmon’s family, such as Susie Rayos Marmon’’s 110th Birthday, a color photograph from 1987, and Mrs. R. G. Marmon with Grandchildren, a black and white photograph from 1955.

            Marmon, as one of the earliest Native American photographers, has produced a significant body of work. While not radically innovative in an immediately apparent manner, Marmon’s work successfully negotiates a tricky transformation of photography from a tool used against Native people to a vehicle for self-representation, preservation, pride, beauty, respect, and the embodiment of cultural values.



            If you are interested in other early Native photographers, see the work of Horace Poolaw (1906-1984), a Kiowa photographer from Mountain Home, Oklahoma. There is a chapter on Poolaw in the book Spirit Capture, published by the Smithsonian.

Recently, scholarship by Mique’l Askren has brought the work of Tsimshian portrait photographer Benjamin A. Haldane (1874-1941) to light. The exhibition catalogue Our People, Our Land, Our Images, edited by Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie and Veronica Passalacqua includes a section on Haldane, as well as Cherokee photographer Jennie Ross Cobb (1881-1959).

[1] Lee Marmon, in an artist’s lecture and the Center for Southwest Research, Albuquerque, NM, February 2000.

[2] Theresa Harlan, “A Curator’s Perspective: Native Photographers Creating a Visual Native American History,” from Exposure, Vol. 29, No. 1, Fall 1993, p. 12-13.

[3] Theresa Harlan, “Indigenous Photographies: A Space for Indigenous Realities,” from Native Nations: Journeys in American Photography, (New York: Barbican Art Gallery, nd.) p. 233-234.

[4] Rick Hill, In Our Own Image: Stereotyped Images of Indians Lead to New native Art Form,” from Exposure, Vol. 29, No. 1, Fall 1993, p. 11.

[5] Lee Marmon, artist’s lecture.

[6] Jolene Rickard, “Guest Essay, from Native Peoples, May/June 1996, p.5.

[7] Rickard, p. 5.

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