It’s hard to keep a straight face learning that 89-year-old photographer Lee Marmon wished he’d done more to capture the old people and the old ways at Laguna and Acoma Pueblos. This is, after all, the man who recently sold his collection of up to 100,000 negatives to the University of New Mexico. And now with his new book, Laguna Pueblo: A Photographic History (University of New Mexico Press, 2015), co-authored with longtime friend Tom Corbett, Marmon offers further evidence of his prolific career documenting Pueblo life.
Marmon’s first photograph, snapped when he was 11, was of a truck accident on old Route 66. The truck’s insurance company paid him for it, and he had a new hobby. But it wasn’t until he got back from service in the Aleutian Islands in 1947 that the hobby turned into something altogether different. His father bought him a fancy camera and pointed out that it would be nice to have something to remember the old folks by. And so, as Lee motored around in his Model A truck delivering groceries from the family trading post, he started asking those old folks to pose for a picture.
What had been a personal passion caught the public attention in 1955 with White Man’s Moccasins, a photograph of Laguna elder Jeff Sousea wearing a pair of Converse Chuck Taylors. Marmon says he’s sold thousands of copies on T-shirts, posters, and prints. Since then, the quarter-Laguna “blue-eyed Indian” has been very much in the public view. He spent some time in southern California shooting golf tournaments and celebs, took pictures for the Nixons, and saw his work celebrated by the Smithsonian, London’s Barbican, and the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, which presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. He also published a steady stream of work in Time magazine and the New York Times.
But it’s the Laguna photos Marmon took in the three decades after his return from Alaska that populate this book. They capture a disappearing world, one busily adjusting to modern influences—as Sousea’s choice of footwear suggests. Not, as Corbett notes, that change was anything new to Laguna. The Pueblo embraced the railroad in the 1880s, setting up a hotel and organizing shopping trips; the highways in the fifties, with gas stations and trading posts; and then the nuclear age, with the Jackpile mine, which brought money, jobs, and plenty of outsiders.
With change, particularly rapid change, the past can fall by the wayside. “It is our hope,” Corbett said, “that these images and the stories around them will help the young people remember their ancestors, give them direction and a way to perpetuate the Laguna culture in the future. This is the story I first wanted to tell years ago, and it’s the culmination of Lee’s work, and further evidence, I think, that he is the Edward S. Curtis or William Henry Jackson of our age.”
The five photographs reproduced here, from among the hundred or so in the book, each tell a story of Laguna that, unlike the work of early Anglo photographers, is from the singular perspective of an insider.