UC Davis exhibit of photographer Lee Marmons 60-year career,
from reservation life to Palm Springs golfing glitterati
spring afternoon in 1943, photographer Lee Marmon stood at the bow
of a passenger ship sailing into the harbor of Cordova, a tiny fishing
village along southern Alaskas rocky coast. As he surveyed
the panorama, the straight-out-of boot-camp 19-year-old, traveling
with 200 fellow Army troops, had an epiphany of sorts.
was just a magnificent day. The ocean was like glass. The high peaks
had snow on them, said Marmon, who recently spoke with SN&R.
He spent the next few years working in a World War II military hospital
on a remote Aleutian island. I really wished Id had
a camera so I could send a picture home to my mom and dad.
He vowed to buy a good camera as soon as he left the
years later, Marmon was back home at Laguna Pueblo, a reservation
45 miles west of Albuquerque, N.M., where he was born and raised,
learning how to use his first camera. It was a complicated Speed
Graphic model, sans instruction manual, designed for professional
shutterbugs. Then his father made an auspicious suggestion: You
ought to document some of the old ones so we wont forget them.
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 Dinés 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 Marmons lifework.
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 States trustee responsibilities to the tribe.)
And theres Marmons signature image, White Mans
Moccasins (1954), which almost never happened.
a packed talk in a UCD lecture hall a few weeks ago, a sprightly
Marmon recounted this near-miss to a rapt audience. The portraits
subject, Jeff Sousea, was camera-shy, though he routinely spun tall
tales for tourists who gathered at the Pueblos dusty plaza.
Marmon had pursued Sousea for a while, but was always rebuffed.
One day, while delivering groceries for his fathers trading
post, he tried again. It just happened that I had my camera
in the pickup. Marmon said. He also had a cigar.
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 Countrys peoples.
Native American subjects, unlike so many in the century or so following
the invention of photography, chose when and how they represented
themselves. As photographer, UCD professor and Gorman director Hulleah
Tsinhnahjinnie (Seminole/Muskogee/ Diné) puts it, the
history of Native American portraiture has always been the outside
looking in at us, but Lee is from the community, looking at the
is not looking for the American Indian. Hes looking at friends
and family, she adds.
Native American photogs were rare when Marmon began his pioneering
career, and their work was not mass-circulated. But Edward Curtis
turn-of-the-century sepia-toned photographs of indigenous peoples
were everywhere. Marmon took a few tips on framing and composition
from Curtis work, and then turned Native imagery upside down.
While unsmiling, nervous faces haunt Curtis work, Marmons
relaxed subjects let their personalities shine.
much-admired portraits of prominent Native artists are represented
here by well-known color images from the 70s and 80s.
Grace Medicine Flower (Santa Clara Pueblo), a potter noted for her
delicate sgraffito technique, is stunning in a white pantsuit. If
you look closely, youll notice a tiny, upside-down photographer
in the gleaming surface of her hip-hugging silver-and-turquoise
concho beltits Marmons reflection. R.C. Gorman
(Diné), who specialized in paintings of native women in traditional
dress, leans on his easel, brush in hand, wearing a Sgt. Peppers-era
psychedelic shirt. (His father was painter C.N. Gorman, after whom
the UC Davis museum is named.)
the late 1960s, Marmon moved to Palm Springs and became the official
photographer for the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, a pro-golf tournament
and glitterati photo op. Marmons job was to shoot photos for
distribution on the news wiresand to stroke egos. I
took pictures of the golfers, of course, and lots of pictures of
people coming to the annual Bob Hope Ball, he says. Half
the time we never used that stuff; the wealthy people just wanted
their picture taken to make them feel important.
photo that never made the newswire is Bob Hope With Presidents
(1971); a group portrait of Hope; a widowed Mamie Eisenhower; Pat
and Richard Nixon; Spirow and Margaret Agnew; and Ronald and Nancy
Reagan, then California governor and first lady, all assembled at
the opening of the Eisenhower Medical Center in Palm Desert. Nixon
looks like a little boy standing up straight and tall for his picture.
Hope rolls his eyes at the ceiling. The only pair of eyes that engages
the viewer is President Dwight Eisenhowers, staring down from
an oil portrait hanging on a wall. Everyone else gazes in different
these eight years, Marmon also met and photographed Wonder Woman,
Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. But the most exciting moment of
know Charo? the veteran jokester asks, referring to the flamboyant
entertainer. She came down to talk to me about getting her
pictures, and just as she got up, the crowd pushed her against me
for about two minutes.