The weekend was full of amazing writers and poets and workshops, and yet eight years later it isn’t the poetry or the stories I remember, but the large black and white portraits of legends like Mick Jagger, Muddy Waters, and Elvis Presley that lined the walls of one of the many beautiful wineries we visited. Caught unaware on tour or posed in their home amongst their most personal items, each iconic portrait was a window into a private world ordinarily shuttered to civilians like me.
I have loved and been married to the written word my entire life, playing with letters instead of dolls as a child and harnessing language like a rodeo queen in school. Photography became my mistress when writing became something rationed upon my plate – the meager bread and butter of adulthood, the staple of my existence, the old go-to. When writing became a job, albeit a job I love, photography stepped in to fill the hungry spaces of my imagination where stories shape shift from letters into images.
My work in the editorial world, as a writer, photographer, and occasional model, has allowed me many incredible opportunities to spend intimate moments with some of the most incredible Native American artists alive today. Over the years I have interviewed and photographed many celebrated artists for blogs and publications, including for the Santa Fe New Mexican and Native Peoples Magazine Indian Market issues. Blurbs about these people’s lives, promotional images of their work and sterile headshots by myself and others can be found scattered across the internet and yellowing in newsprint clippings the world over. But, where exists the body of work dedicated to documenting who they are as people and their contributions to our world heritage?
Where is the museum, the gallery, the bourgeois winery where their photos hang, icons for future generations? Where is the coffee table book where their stories are immortalized? Why are they not included in conversations and collections alongside names like Warhol, Duchamp, and Obey? Why has no one documented the leather and wood smoke of Virgil Ortiz’s Cochiti studio where Indigenous post-apocalyptic worlds are birthed; or how the way Jody Naranjo’s beautiful, clay-dusted hands suddenly still as she sgraffitos her way into a Governor’s Award? Where are the photos portraying the matriarchs of Pueblo pottery and the images of our elders teaching their granddaughters to card wool and spin yarn with tools worn smooth and greasy from years of touch? Why, when I search for portraits of Native American artists online Edward Curtis is the first listing? Why do our daVincis and Picassos disappear at the end of August?
My proposal is simple and yet it is a project that I feel is crucial, now more than ever. I will use my skills as a writer and fine art portrait photographer to document as many Indigenous artists as will allow me. I will delve into the pain and joy, the triumphs and heartaches that have rendered them artists. We will speak of ancestry and tradition, of art as culture and livelihood, of breakthroughs and dreams, and how they are, each and every one, ensuring our people’s survival through their hands and mouths and bodies.
I envision a collection of iconic fine art portraits, in color and black and white, that transcend the medium by allowing the viewer to experience an intimate connection with the subject. Using large format digital photography I will put emphasis on each subject’s hands, eyes, and the unique details of their surroundings so that the viewer feels they have become privy to a world ordinarily off limits to them, and in doing so create an appropriate, larger-than-life aura about the subject. The power of these portraits will be in their ability to capture each subject’s unique spirit and immortalize it for the appreciation and education of future generations. The theme and style of each subject’s photo-shoot will be unique to the artist and be conceived of upon conversations with the artists on how they wish to be remembered. These will not be studio headshots, but photographs taken on location and inspired by the subject and the environment in which they live and work.
In addition to general interviews and conversations, I have found that due to the intimacy that is created between photographer and subject, much interesting information is shared during photo shoots. With the consent of the artist, I will record our conversations to create narratives about the artists to accompany their photos. These narratives will go beyond boilerplate information about their work and life to include, like the images, snapshots into the more personal and profound moments of the artists’ lives.
My single objective with this project is to produce a museum-quality collection of portraits and essays that accurately and respectfully preserve the legacy of Native American artists alive today.