Native exposure: Lee Marmon’s photography

A UC Davis exhibit of photographer Lee Marmon’s 60-year career, from reservation life to Palm Springs’ golfing glitterati

“White Man’s Moccasins” by Lee Marmon, 1954.

“White Man’s Moccasins” by Lee Marmon, 1954.

One 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 Alaska’s 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.

“It 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 I’d 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 Army.

Three 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 won’t forget them.”

Today, 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 Diné’s 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 Marmon’s lifework.

Marmon 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 there’s Marmon’s signature image, “White Man’s Moccasins” (1954), which almost never happened.

Lee Marmon, photographer.

Photo by Susanne Krug

During a packed talk in a UCD lecture hall a few weeks ago, a sprightly Marmon recounted this near-miss to a rapt audience. The portrait’s subject, Jeff Sousea, was camera-shy, though he routinely spun tall tales for tourists who gathered at the Pueblo’s dusty plaza. Marmon had pursued Sousea for a while, but was always rebuffed. One day, while delivering groceries for his father’s trading post, he tried again. “It just happened that I had my camera in the pickup.” Marmon said. He also had a cigar.

The 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 Country’s peoples.

Marmon’s 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 community.

“Lee is not looking for the American Indian. He’s looking at friends and family,” she adds.

Professional 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, Marmon’s relaxed subjects let their personalities shine.

His 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, you’ll notice a tiny, upside-down photographer in the gleaming surface of her hip-hugging silver-and-turquoise concho belt—it’s Marmon’s 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. Pepper’s-era psychedelic shirt. (His father was painter C.N. Gorman, after whom the UC Davis museum is named.)

“Bob Hope With Presidents” by Lee Marmon, 1971.

In 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. Marmon’s job was to shoot photos for distribution on the news wires—and 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.”

One 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 Eisenhower’s, staring down from an oil portrait hanging on a wall. Everyone else gazes in different directions.

During these eight years, Marmon also met and photographed Wonder Woman, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. But the most exciting moment of his career?

“You 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.”