Vision Quest

by Published on

To make the pictures in Indian Nations, Danny Lyon traveled to 19 Indian reservations in the western United States over a period of four years. The Indians that he photographed are fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, veterans, cowboys, and ex-cons. In his pictures, old women sit in parking lots and kids sit in cars. Wearing cowboy hats and braids, traditional clothes and Nikes, people play horseshoes and football, go to rodeos and powwows, work at convenience stores, and eat at cafes. Lyon also made abstract pictures of graffiti- tagged street signs, achingly beautiful landscapes, and bleak architectural studies of dilapidated casinos. There are straightforward, crisply focused photos alongside blurry, dreamy ones.

Most photographers approach a project from a single point of view. If a portrait includes a glimpse of the subject’s habitat, it’s only to show the direct relationship between the place and the person in the picture. Landscapes often treat the land as a sort of detached, platonic ideal, as something that can only be spoiled by human intervention, something that we aren’t really a part of. Life isn’t nearly so neat. History is part of today and tomorrow, empty land is full of ghosts and broken promises, and personal, spiritual, political, and sociological forces push and pull against each other everywhere, all the time.

Besides the pictures, Lyon includes historical and ecological anecdotes and snippets of personal information about his subjects. There are bitter nuggets of oral histories from survivors of forced marches and massacres, newspaper accounts of funerals and car crashes and quotes from the people he photographed and their friends. He talks about Sioux resistance to the expansion of the United States as if everyone knew and believed that the Sioux tribes had sovereign rights of their own, and were right to defend their land. He treats the Indian nations as if they were nations.

Lyon has said that he doesn’t want these pictures to look like reportage. Usually documentary photographers say this because they think the pictures should stand alone, without context, without reference to the complications of the real world. It often seems like a cop-out.

These pictures really aren’t journalism, in the sense that there’s nothing all that new here; there aren’t any important current events being depicted, and none of the people are famous or representative of topics that most people care about. Lyon still very carefully gives people’s full names and tribal affiliations, provides details about the history of the places he shows, and gives a few pertinent or intriguing details about the people whose portraits he makes. It’s messier, more complicated, more true than most journalism gets a chance to be.

Lyon got his start as a photographer during the civil rights movement as a photographer for SNCC. He later did books on outlaw bikers, the destruction of the buildings of downtown Manhattan to make way for the World Trade Center, and the people of Haiti and Central America. His last book, Knave of Hearts, was a memoir told partly by turning his old pictures into montages. He’s also a filmmaker.

The words and pictures in Indian Nations work like pieces of a montage, or shots edited together in a film. On one page, a tattooed young man in a hairnet throws gang signs in front of a corrugated metal wall. The white paint on the wall is peeling off from the bottom up, and jagged shards of dark metal rise up from below. On the facing page, an older man identified as a Jicarilla Apache medicine man stands serenely in front of another corrugated wall. This time there are vines and leaves hanging down from the top of the frame. On another spread, a shot of a pawn shop faces a sign that says “To feel good, exercise daily.†The sign looks like it’s been stabbed. The book opens and closes with monuments to murdered Indians. Even within a single picture, contradictory visual and symbolic elements play against each other: Grids compete with organic forms, people in traditional dress stand in front of pick-up trucks and baby strollers.

In his introduction to the book, Larry McMurtry writes that “photography has flourished for a century and a half with only two real subjects: beauty and bad news.†He puts Lyon together with Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and W. Eugene Smith, who managed to make beautiful pictures of bad news. That’s a great starting place, but McMurtry left out photography’s third great subject—the imperial project of documenting discoveries, conquests, and glorious construction projects. Lyon is working in—and against—the tradition of photographers such as Timothy O’Sullivan, who photographed the west for the U.S. Geologic Survey, or the ethnographers who tried to record primitive cultures before they faded away into civilization. Lyon’s pictures aren’t trying to freeze a single moment, or to document a single truth. They’re about the collision of truths, about the process of untangling the thorny complicated contradictions that we have to live with.

Lyon made the photographs in the book using a Polaroid camera and black-and-white film that makes an instant positive and a negative that develops in plain water. The process leaves weird frame lines and ghostly smears where the chemicals that develop the pictures don’t get spread out evenly. The edges of the images look distressed. Sometimes there are flakes or bubbles of emulsion missing. It’s a reminder of the physical nature of a photograph, evidence of the imperfection of the process. It also looks cool. Chaotic swirls and spirals of light and shadow invade the rectangular frame, like a supernatural force made visible.

In a piece in Double Take magazine (where a few of the photos were printed in the winter of 2002) Lyon wrote that photographing with the Polaroid material “is like doing it with a patch over one eye.†The film melts in hot, summer weather, and freezes in the winter. “Because the history of whites and Indians has almost always been a history of Indians getting ripped off while whites profit, this half-assed way of working seemed to be making things more equal,†he wrote. It also let him give pictures to the people he was photographing. A lot of the photos in the book show people looking at their pictures. (Which leads us to photography’s fourth great subject: photography itself. But that’s only if you ask photographers and critics.)

Many of the pictures in the book are photographs of absences. They show people and things that aren’t there: canyons that used to be Navajo strongholds, battlefields and massacre sites with no monuments to the victors or the dead, homesteads abandoned by failed white settlers. In one picture, two boys reach up to catch a football, but the football is a barely visible smudge, blurred by speed, washed out by backlight from the sky. The boys are standing in a square depression in the middle of a dusty field, with soft-focus mountains rising, barely visible, in the distance. In other pictures, the subjects peer though a ripped and battered screen window, or they stand crowded into one corner of the frame with wisps of hair flying up to mix with the fiery whorls of Polaroid chemicals on the outside edges of the image. These pictures somehow feel claustrophobic and agoraphobic at the same time.

Life can be complicated like that. The little town where I grew up near Albany, New York is called Castleton. It got its name from the Mohican long houses that Henry Hudson saw on the hills when he first sailed up the river for the Dutch. It’s hard to keep that image in my head at the same time as I picture the town the way it is today.

If you happen not to be an Indian, it can be hard not to think of them as people from another time or another place, to put them in a separate category. Whether they’re cast as members of an exotic, endangered culture or victims of white supremacy and imperialism, they’re easiest to picture as somehow different and apart from us. We can romanticize their relationship with the land, we can feel bad about the way they got ripped off and brutalized, and we can pretend they don’t have anything to do with us, here and now. (We can also use words like us and them, even if they—the words—make us feel nervous and guilty.)

But their story is our story and their land is our land. For better and for worse, the world isn’t made up of discrete pieces that exist without touching each other. Mountains rise and fall, rivers rage and run dry, peoples migrate and invade, and cultures change.

About 150,000 years ago, a volcano erupted near what’s now Albuquerque, New Mexico. The sand underneath the lava eroded away and the rocks collapsed to form Rinconada Canyon. Eventually, humans arrived on the scene. Over the last seven hundred years or so, local people took to carving signs and symbols in the rocks that line the escarpment on either side of the canyon. When the city’s sprawling development threatened to overrun the site, the federal government created Petroglyph National Monument to protect the canyon and a few other sites in the area.

This summer I passed through Albuquerque and went for a hike in the canyon. Driving there, I took a right turn at a discount tire dealer and went past a Chili’s and a TGI-Fridays. Most of the symbols were carved between 400 and 700 years ago by the ancestors of today’s Pueblo tribes, often referred to as the Anasazi. The rock art was painstakingly pecked into the desert patina of the rocks with stone hammers and chisels. (There are also carvings by Spanish land grant shepherds and early Anglo settlers.) Archaeologists and contemporary Indians believe that the ancestral Puebloan symbols tell the story of that ancient group, with important spiritual and historical messages and all-too-relevant warnings about climate change and the perils of ecological disasters. Like the pictures in this book, they’re messages that might be worth deciphering for the folks who live in the developments across the street from the canyon, and for any of us who look around ourselves at the world we’ve made and wonder how we got here and where we could possibly be headed.

Jake Miller just ran his first marathon in New York City on November 2. And, yes, he beat P. Diddy.