Photography and the New Native American Aesthetic

by Heather-Ann Wickers

As I began to look at the prints, I realized each roll of film formed a complete photo narrative [Leslie Marmon Silko]


Throughout history different cultures have embraced different aesthetics, and expressed these aesthetics through artwork that is unique to a respective culture both in form and style. This phenomenon is now manifesting itself in a new way with regard to the use of photography among contemporary Native Americans. The culture of the various facets of Native America has its roots in the art of oral tradition; the passing of myths, stories, and history from generation to generation has been a mainstay of American Indian cultural heritage. As of late, some modern Native American artists have cited photography as the medium with which they hope to carry their culture into the twenty-first century. Additionally, in a world that is so dependent upon technology, it seems unlikely that a culture reliant on the passing of history orally would be able to survive extinction. Photography would enable the culture of Native Americans to be preserved on film.

The commentary and artwork of Lee Marmon and Leslie Marmon Silko, contemporary Native Americans, attests to the theory that photography is the modern alternative to the oral tradition. Through Marmon's photography and Silko's prose, the two create many sound arguments for suggesting that photography is analogous to oral tradition for contemporary indigenous peoples.

However, one must question the validity of such arguments, regardless of how strong they appear to be. Many questions arise when reflecting upon the idea of photography as a new medium for the oral tradition. Is it possible for a society that is so firmly rooted in one tradition to simply switch to something so drastically different? Although oral tradition is subject to interpretation, is it not a less subjective medium that photography, in which one photograph can mean something completely different to two people? Although Silko's suggestions seem valid, one cannot help but wonder how much, or how little, the oral tradition and photography could possibly have in common, and how a society that has held on to the same stories for millennia could forsake this tried-and-true medium for something as transient as photography.

The new Native American aesthetic and Leslie Marmon Silko

Silko argues that in order to understand her idea of photo narrative, we must attempt to understand how Native Americans view photography. Modern Native American aesthetics differ greatly from those in past years. Much of the older photography concerning the culture of the indigenous peoples of America reflects the 'otherness' that is traditionally attached to Native American identity. If one examines an older photograph of an American Indian, many of which were taken by white photographers, the emphasis is on exploiting the superficial aspects of Native American culture. Contemporary photographer Ben Marra's photographs, which depict the traditional garb associated with the Powwow, demonstrate the image of the archetypal American Indian prior to the American Indian movement of the 1960's. Photography after this movement, which resulted in the rise in popularity of artists, authors, and activists of Native American origin, reflects an appreciation of Indian culture that goes beyond the depiction of an 'Indian Chief', complete with tomahawk and feather headdress. Modern photography, such as that of Lee Marmon, projects an image of Native American culture that dispels the grandiose 'chief' imagery; snapshots (and I term them snapshots because the emphasis is on the spontaneity and reality associated with modern-day life) demonstrate how modern Native Americans actually live.

The New Aesthetic revels in the common. Modern American Indian photographers do not attempt to hide the atrocities of contemporary reservation life, nor do they attempt to exploit the stereotypical 'Indian' persona. Many images, such as the photographs of Lee Marmon in Leslie Marmon Silko's Storyteller, reflect the daily life of Native Americans. In this work, pictures often depict the Silko children in tattered clothes performing daily tasks; also, many of the pictures are completely devoid of the human figure and, instead, focus upon he process of destroying the environment. The New Aesthetic, which attempts to depict the true nature of daily life, is reflected in the photography of Marmon. It is the 'common image' which Silko looks to in an attempt to explain how the idea of photo narrative may come to replace the oral tradition in the lives of contemporary Native Americans.

The photo-narrative and the art of storytelling

In the realm of Native America, photography does not carry the same connotation that is normally attached to the art in 'white' culture. In 'white' culture, people often perceive a single photograph as a work of art, particularly if it depicts something sublime or pleasing to the eye. As discussed previously, the subject of much Native American photography is common, daily happenings. Additionally, in contrast to the preference among 'white' culture to view a single photograph as a work of art, Native Americans are partial to the 'stringing together' of images. The result of this is a pictographic story, or, what Leslie Marmon Silko refers to in her essay 'On Photography' as a 'photo narrative'. Silko writes,

As I began to look at the prints, I realized each roll of film formed a complete photo narrative (Silko 181)

In this regard, the photography and the oral tradition become closely intertwined. In the art of storytelling, the storyteller is the master of the tale; the words emitted from the storyteller's mouth form the stories that have allowed Native American culture to survive. The photographer becomes this representative storyteller. What he or she chooses to depict in a given photograph is likened to the words he or she would speak if a story were being told.

Silko discusses how a roll of film can be both memorable and horrifying. She speaks, perhaps hypothetically, of an instance in which she developed a roll of film and spotted a 'menacing black sedan' in the corner of several photographs. When she views the developed roll in its totality, she spins an intricate tale of how the seemingly insignificant car alludes to a story of the abduction of a woman, who was later murdered and buried in the desert. In this example, Silko describes how her idea of photo narrative operates. A roll of film is like a story without words. In looking at the roll of film she describes, a Native American viewer is inclined to create a story based upon the photographs. This act of creating stories is not something that can be easily understood by 'white America', as the culture of oral tradition is, in and of itself, a foreign idea. Photo narrative is also significantly similar to the oral tradition in its fragility. Most people are familiar with the layman's oral tradition associated with the game of 'telephone'. Stories, undoubtedly, morph from one generation to the next, and no two people interpret a story in the same manner. This is also the idea behind the Native American's perception of photography. A series of photographs, such as the Silko's black sedan series, might connote the abduction story in the mind of one viewer, while a second viewer might concoct an elaborate story about a cross-country drive in the very same sedan, and so on.

Is Silko's argument valid?

The Names, penned by N. Scott Momaday, a contemporary author, provides opposition to Silko's theories. This work, which happens to be the author's memoir, contains a combination of prose and photography that demonstrate the New Aesthetic discussed earlier. The reader of the work is encouraged to study the pictures of Momaday and his relatives while reading the passages about the actual occurrences of his life. The pictures prove to be integral to the power of Momaday's work, and surely each photograph reveals a story in its own right. However, if one were to assess the success of the work had it consisted merely of photographs, the end result would surely indicate a story with less depth and detail than Momaday's intricate combination of text and photography. Although the photographs are an integral component in The Names, they are not adequate replacements for the story as told through Momaday's words.

Silko's argument is interesting, but almost speculative in nature. She makes many interesting comparisons between the oral tradition and the art of photography, but fails to effectively communicate the overt connection between the New Aesthetic in Native American photography and the photo narrative to her audience.

A more plausible conclusion suggests that each idea might exist separately, and that the Native American photographs of common subjects might well be as powerful if they were viewed individually as opposed to the manner in which Silko suggests (an entire roll of film at one time). Additionally, it seems unlikely that photography would or could entirely replace the art of storytelling amongst people that have relied upon the practice for millennia.

Although, as Silko argues, each story is subject to change and interpretation, there is a definite 'base' that each story retains. If a story is told, for example, about a cat chasing a mouse, the details of the story may change, but the general concept of the story remains unchanged regardless of who happens to be telling the story and who happens to be listening. This is not so with photography. Silko's example of the roll of film could be said to disprove her own point. She cites this example to demonstrate how people interpret photographs in the same manner in which one would interpret a story. With oral storytelling, while there is no guarantee that a given tale will remain unchanged, there is a guarantee that the general theme of a story is retained. This is the entire basis for the art of storytelling: to pass important knowledge from generation to generation. Photography is constantly subject to personal interpretation, and two different analyses may appear completely different; in this regard, it is questionable whether any tradition is retained. Although photography is a fascinating means by which to conserve some facets of Native American culture, technological advancement does not always equate with progress. Modern Native Americans, if they are intent on preserving their cultural heritage, should not sever ties to oral tradition.

Marmon Silko, Leslie. Storyteller. Arcade Publishing Inc: New York, 1981.
Marmon Silko, Leslie. Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit. Touchstone: New York, 1997.
Momaday, N. Scott. The Names. U. of Arizona P: Tucson, 1976.

© Heather-Ann Wickers, State University of New York at Stony Brook, August 2005

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