Family Affair

Lee Marmon's photographs take center stage in 'The Pueblo Imagination.'

As a young girl growing up in Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, Leslie Marmon Silko loved to tag along with her dad.

Lee Marmon ran a trading post, and he'd bring along his camera whenever he made deliveries in his pickup truck, hoping to make photographs of Pueblo elders. His daughter would hop aboard as often as she could.

"I loved to go along and see all the activity in the village--the woman baking bread in the big outdoor ovens, people butchering a sheep, a man chopping wood, and the old ones sunning themselves outside," Silko writes in a new book showcasing her father's work, The Pueblo Imagination: Landscape and Memory in the Photography of Lee Marmon.

Some of the people Silko saw as a girl on these outings in the '50s and '60s turn up in black and white in the handsome new book, which, along with Marmon's photos, features writings by his daughter, as well as pieces by Native American writers Joy Harjo and Simon Ortiz.

José Téofilo, pictured in a 1961 photo, is one of the wrinkled elders squinting into the sun; in another 1961 shot, Acoma potter Lucy Lewis bends intently over her pots, paintbrush in hand. The sweeping New Mexico mesas, which play such a large part in Silko's highly regarded books, also take center stage in her father's pictures. The baked bare land is a backdrop for buffalo dancers (1962), and billowing white clouds silhouette laundry on a clothesline on a breezy day in 1954.

To promote the new book, father and daughter will make a rare appearance in Tucson next week. The photographer and the reclusive author, who lives outside Tucson, will present a joint slide show, reading and book signing Thursday, Oct. 16, at the Center for Creative Photography. Marmon will bring along some of his photos to display on easels, just for the duration of the event. The next day, Marmon will make a solo presentation at Reader's Oasis bookstore.

"People have been telling me to put a book together for years," Marmon, 78, said cheerfully by phone one afternoon last week, as he bounced down the highway from Boulder to Denver, where he was to make an appearance at a booksellers' trade show.

He's collaborated with his daughter before, he said, but in previous publications, his photographs had the supporting role to her text. Storyteller, Silko's acclaimed 1981 mixture of ancient Indian lore and family tales, retold in short stories and poems, includes numerous family photographs by Marmon. The pair also teamed up for Rain, a limited-edition artist book published by the Whitney Museum several years ago, he said.

But if Marmon is not as well-known as his daughter, who won the MacArthur genius award in 1983, he's had a successful career.

"I've been a fulltime freelance photographer since 1966," he said. "I worked at the trading post from 1946 to 1966."

Marmon had returned to Laguna after a stint in World War II (Silko's novel Ceremony tells in part of a vet returning to the reservation after seeing the wide world), but didn't own a camera until 1948. He was largely self-taught. Once he turned full time to photography, Marmon lived mostly in Palm Springs, where as a celebrity photog he photographed "Eisenhower on down to Reagan and Ford," but he returned in the summers to Laguna Pueblo.

The Marmons are of mixed racial heritage--Marmon's grandfather was a white Ohioan who came West and married a Laguna woman--but his New Mexico pictures nevertheless offer an insider's perspective rare in photographs of Indian life. Most of the best-known photographs of Native Americans have been taken by white outsiders. As a neighbor, Marmon was able to take shots of religious ceremonies, like the dance of costumed men on a ridge in the beautiful picture "Dancers on the Dune," 1962, or of women joking over their work, as in "Laguna Ladies Grinding Plaster," 1955. And in his intimate portraits, the elders more often than not beam right back at him. Though the pictures date from the late 1940s, Marmon is sorry he didn't begin photographing earlier.

"My biggest regret is that I didn't start sooner and take lots more photos of the old people and of the fiestas as they were then, with all the covered wagons and colorful scenes," he wrote in the book's introduction. "The old timers, as I called them, had a very special quality."