February 2006

"Visions" shows Diné in their native lands

By Connie Gotsch

“Visions of the People in Their Native Land,” the 40-piece photography exhibit currently at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Ariz., is the show that almost wasn’t. “(It) came about in an odd fashion,” says David H. Davis, who with photographer Carmen Hunter put together the exhibit of portraits expressing the beauty of Navajo culture. The show also grew in a slow fashion. Last year Hunter and Davis worked together on a DVD entitled, “Native Faces, Desert Light.” The collections and exhibits curator at the Navajo Nation Museum, Clarenda Begay, saw it and asked Hunter to exhibit at the museum.

Hunter agreed. But when Begay asked for 40 prints, Hunter didn’t think she had that many. She asked Davis for advice.

They had met in the late 1990s. He was shooting portraits on the Navajo Nation. She was a Chinle native, a guide at Canyon de Chelly, and a teacher of Navajo, who picked up photography watching photographers in the canyon. She wanted to learn portraiture.

“She saw the elders in her family starting to age, and unfortunately, some of them were passing away,” says Davis. “She wanted to preserve their legacy in a photographic form.” She and Davis struck a deal: She would provide subjects. He would teach her to make portraits.

So, when she called about “Visions of the People in Their Native Land,” he suggested a “side-by-side” exhibit. She approached the idea by photographing family and friends. He photographed people in the landscape. The result is a set of images that complement each other, 20 of hers, 20 of his.

“It worked out well,” says Davis on the phone from his Grand Junction, Colo., studio.

The shots come from many locations. Some are posed; some not. They focus on a variety of subjects. Davis’ “Sunrise Offering,” taken in Monument Valley, shows two sisters watching the early-morning light. Their juxtaposition to natural formations is a gentle reminder that Native Americans have been in the area a long time.

Hunter’s “The Sheep Herder” presents a close-up of a woman on horseback, with rocks behind her. The rider has a look of gentle concentration on her face. Her mouth almost smiles, as if she enjoys the task of guarding her animals.

Besides doing separate photos, Davis and Hunter worked on projects together for “Visions of the People in Their Native Land.” She helped him identify subjects. He aided her with the technicalities of shooting.

Sometimes, they worked in the same locations. Hunter’s “Two Young Ones” shows her granddaughter sitting in a hogan doorway holding a lamb. Davis caught the child and the lamb by a corner of the hogan, as if “playing hide and seek.” He called the piece “Grandma Found Us.”

Davis and Hunter took all the pictures in “Visions of the People in Their Native Land” with available light. “That creates some interesting light, and soft light,” says Davis.

They shot both color and black-andwhite, putting some images through a sepia-toning process to give them a timeless quality, something disappearing from Navajo life. Others they converted digitally from color to blackand- white.

Davis believes some shots just work better in black-and-white, citing the example of a great-grandmother spinning yarn while chatting with her great-granddaughter. Looking directly at each other, unaware of his camera, they chatter about their lives.

“Color adds a dimension, but take away the color and you get the full impact of what’s really going on (in the picture),” says Davis.

The picture becomes about all great-grandmothers and greatgranddaughters, as they talk across generations, one passing on traditions, the other adapting them to her needs.

That universality, and the strong principles of portraiture in each picture, recall the work of many photographers who have made pictures of Native Americans, particularly Edward Curtis, who worked in the 19th Century.

Davis chuckles. “He was a great portrait photographer. To have my work mentioned in the same breath with his — I’m flattered.”

But Davis then explains an important difference between his and Hunter’s work, and Curtis’s. Curtis believed he was photographing a dying race. Davis does not.

“Native America is gaining in strength and making its voice heard,” he says.

To that end, he believes Native America must nurture photographers to document their own visions of family, tradition, and culture. He has gathered a group of master photographers willing to donate time, money, equipment, and supplies to make that happen.

With the aid of grants, he hopes to create a two-year program so students can learn the art and craft of photography “not in school, but in a real-life setting.” He hopes many shows will come out of the project for his students, and for the people working with them.

Meanwhile, “Visions of the People in Their Native Land” hangs at the Navajo Nation Museum through May 20.

The Davis-Hunter collaboration worked so well that instead of placing their photos for the show on separate walls as planned, they intermingled them. Some just belonged together.

“The notion of unselfishness personifies itself in the show because it’s not an ego trip of photographers showing their work, but of sharing it with the public,” says Davis.

The Navajo Nation Museum is in Window Rock on Highway 64 and Loop Road, a quartermile west of the Arizona/ New Mexico border, 26 miles from Gallup.