Perspective: Lee Marmon’s Contribution to American Cultureby Thomas H.J. Corbett
Like the gusts of wind that blow endlessly across the mesas, life in the desert southwest has stubbornly perpetuated itself. Cultures, however, have come and gone across the centuries. Many left only the barest vestiges of their ways as hints that their civilizations ever existed: A broken clay pot, a hunting tool, the eroded walls of a small community. However, Lee Marmon’s photographic genius has given the Laguna culture in New Mexico something different. It has given its members a lasting legacy of enduring value, not just as a people, but as individuals. From colorful Jeff Sousea’s unforgettable expression of pride in “White Man’s Moccasins” to demure Juanita Quicero’s graceful dignity in the photo that bears her name, Marmon has given the Laguna culture of yesteryear something that their forebears did not have: A legacy of faces and names that are truly human. That human face is Lee Marmon’s gift to his culture, and to us.
It's a human face that is honest, modest, and unassuming. It carries pride without pretension, humility without shame, and dignity without arrogance. The scars, the wrinkles, and the graying heads all remind us that there was once a time and place when Botox, dental implants, hairpieces, and extreme makeovers were not ingrained in our cultural consciousness. Look carefully at the faces in Marmon’s photos. Then look at your own. Notice a difference? They say as much about us as they do about themselves. Volumes, in fact, and they never knew that we even existed.
It was 1947 when 22 year old Lee Marmon returned home to his birthplace in New Mexico’s Laguna pueblo from his wartime tour of duty in Alaska. Young, creative, and full of energy, he discovered his budding interest in photography when he bought a new, professional quality Speed Graphic camera. It was the Cadillac of cameras in those days, but its design reflected the depth of his devotion to his craft. He snapped a few pictures. They weren't perfect, but it was enough to convince the young Marmon that he had found his life's calling.
Photography lessons were scarce on the high desert in the 1940’s, but the genie was already out of the bottle. Young Lee Marmon was determined to learn photography, even if he had to teach himself by sheer trial and error. At times it felt more like error than trial. More than once, Lee recalls the cutting room floor being strewn with sheets of negatives whose photos would never see the light of day. Bad framing, out of focus, overexposed, and underexposed, he made every conceivable mistake. He learned eagerly and earnestly from each one.
Then, one day, his father, Henry Marmon, called his young adult son over. Seeing Lee’s affinity for his new talent, he had a suggestion. “Why don’t you go around the Pueblo and take pictures of some of the old-timers? It’d be nice to have a record of them to remember them by.” From that point forward, Lee Marmon made it a regular practice to photograph the pueblo’s senior members at every opportunity. While delivering groceries in his 1930 Model A, he’d happen upon Laguna’s old-timers sitting out in the sun on the plaza. Would they let him take their picture? Despite their lack of familiarity with a camera, most were flattered, and happy to oblige.
It took Lee Marmon’s presence of mind, his cultural identity, his creative talent, and his appreciation for his tribal elders to make this priceless collection a reality. His ethnic lineage, his talent, and the circumstances into which he was born, made him uniquely positioned among Americans to be the final chronicler of a vanished way of life. His images reflect the creativity of an artist, the perspective of a historian, and the discernment of a cultural anthropologist.
It was more than just creative energy that drove young Lee Marmon. By the mid- twentieth century, times were changing. The great sweep of European-driven cultural homogenization was evident, and its power penetrated even the windswept remoteness of New Mexico’s vast high desert. The pueblo’s senior members had all come of age prior to 1900, and by the 1950’s it was clear from their diminishing numbers that they would be the last generation to live by their time-honored ways and values. Lee Marmon’s wartime experience in Alaska had conditioned his senses to notice these changes, and he knew that his window of opportunity was limited. “My biggest regret,” he says, “is that I didn’t start sooner.”
But once he started, he never stopped. He’s been taking pictures ever since. Now, at age 79, the product of Lee Marmon’s lifelong mission has become our national treasure. His image collection, consisting of tens of thousands of photographs, collectively provides us with an unparalleled window on a forgotten corner of America’s past – a silent tribute to a noble culture whose day in the sun has come and gone. The priceless singularity of his photographs stems not only from their rarity, but also from their quality. No other Native American photographer has gone to such great lengths for so long to capture and preserve the spirit, the essence, and the humanity of his native people.
Ever since the incipient days of the daguerreotype in the 19th century, the evolution of photography has given rise to an elite fraternity of practitioners whose works have left an indelible mark on both their craft, and their culture. During the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) it was Matt Brady whose early images gave the realities of battle a new and realistic dimension. In the 20th century, Ansel Adams gave the nation a new appreciation for the natural wonders of the untamed west. Edward Weston showed us a new way to look at ordinary things through his abstracts and still-lifes. I consider Lee Marmon to be the fourth member of this group. The magic and majesty of his images are truly ground breaking in their scope, compelling in their quality, and visionary in their concept. Collectively they comprise a unique and lasting testament. This nation owes Lee Marmon a debt of gratitude, and his images will continue to win the blessing of history with the passing of time.