BOOK REVIEW: Laguna Pueblo: A Photographic History

Laguna Pueblo: A Photographic History. By Lee Marmon and Tom Corbett. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2015. Preface, acknowledgments, illustrations, notes, index. Pp. xx, 200. $39.95 cloth.)

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

Origin stories among the Keresan speakers of New Mexico recount the beginning of Laguna Pueblo when two men—Prayer-Stick Boy and White Hands—were entrusted with leading the first people to a lake at the foot of a sacred mountain, destined to be their home on earth. White Hands ultimately guides the people to their home, but only after Prayer-Stick Boy attempts to settle the people elsewhere, which visits a life now burdened by troubles and hardship upon the pueblo. Part of the story—not shared with anthropologists—documents a second group of travelers that followed Earth Mother’s instructions explicitly and also reside at Laguna, but live as supernaturals in parallel to the original denizens of the pueblo. The interaction between the mortal and immortal residents is central to Laguna culture.

Photographer Lee Marmon’s trajectory as an artist shares a similar arc to those first people of Laguna. He is a product of the interesting melding of Native and non-Native people, and, as is mentioned more than once in Laguna Pueblo: A Photographic History, is like many artists: rebellious, free-spirited, with a zest for independence. In some ways he sounds a bit more like Prayer-Stick Boy—the original Laguna rebel than his righteous counterpart White Hands. Perhaps, however, the intercession of the Laguna supernaturals have helped shape his keen eye for subject and composition as a photographer. The book includes over 105 duotone photographs, most taken by Marmon between 1949 and 1990. The text deftly tells the stories of the landscapes and people photographed.

Lee Marmon's photo White Man's Moccasins.
White Man’s Moccasins. Photo by Lee Marmon (1954). Marmon relates that Old Man Jeff–the subject–was reluctant, but eventually agreed to pose for the cigar that he’s holding.

The book begins with an introduction that tells the story of the unlikely friendship between Marmon and physician Tom Corbett (Phillips Academy Class of 1956). The idea of producing a book was in the air for a long time and we learn that Corbett played a critical role in introducing the world to Marmon’s photographs, including a publishing company that produced posters of some of the most iconic images, like White Man’s Moccasins. Tom Corbett—in honor of his 50th reunion—donated a marvelous collection of Marmon’s photos to the Peabody Museum and arranged for a visit by the artist, as well as an exhibition at the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library on campus.

The trials and tribulations of Laguna’s people—from the consequences of uranium mining to government attempts to suppress language, religion, and native foodways—is etched on the faces in Marmon’s photography. Intriguing is Marmon’s medium—the photograph—most associated in Indian Country with Edward S. Curtis, who photographed Native America in the first decades of the 20th century for a massive book project financed by J.P. Morgan. But unlike Curtis, who we now know staged photos to enshrine the myth of a fading race, Marmon’s images are full of honesty, portraits of persistence and hard work, the punishment visited on the Laguna people for Prayer-Stick Boy’s treachery.

It’s not surprising that Laguna Pueblo has garnered significant praise since its publication in February 2015, including winner of the 2016 Western Heritage Award for Photography Book, the 2015 Southwest Book Award from the Border Regional Library Association, the 2015 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards for Arts Book and Best Book, and the 2015 Southwest Books of the Year Selection.

Visit the University of New Mexico Press for more information and to order your copy today.

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