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Laguna Pueblo photographer, 95, was renowned worldwide for his ‘great eye’

Internationally acclaimed photographer Lee Marmon of Laguna Pueblo in 2010 holds the original contact print of his iconic image, “White Man’s Moccasins.” He died March 31 in Albuquerque at age 95. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Lee Howard Marmon was a self-taught photographer from Laguna Pueblo whose photographs grace books, magazines, galleries, private collections and museums around the world – including the Smithsonian.

His images of Native Americans, many taken on the Laguna reservation, helped to chronicle life in the community where he grew up, the blue-eyed, independent and spirited child of a mixed Native and non-Native American marriage, according to those who knew him well.

Marmon, 95, died March 31 of natural causes at a veterans home in Albuquerque.

He got his first camera, an inexpensive Kodak, from his parents’ trading post on Laguna Pueblo. He began snapping pictures along Route 66 near Laguna, including images of vehicle crashes that he sold to insurance companies and local newspapers, according to his daughter Gigi Pilcher, who lives in Alaska.

“My dad would go out to deliver groceries for the store and he’d have his camera with him, and he’d ask people if he could take their picture. No matter where he went, he always had a camera with him.”

After attending high school in Grants, Marmon enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. He was among the American forces who repelled Japanese invasions on the islands of Attu and Kiska, Pilcher said.

At the end of his military service, he returned to New Mexico, and continued photographing at Laguna and nearby Acoma Pueblo. He also became adept at telling the stories behind each image, becoming something of a raconteur in the process, Pilcher said.

As a child, Chris Marmon spent many hours with his father in his darkroom. “He was a perfectionist,” he said. At the end of those long hours, “there might be only two or three images to show because he threw out so much and only wanted the perfect print.”

Chris Marmon also frequently accompanied his father to Palm Springs, California, where he was principal photographer for the annual Bob Hope Desert Classic golf tournament. There, he photographed Hope, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and other participating celebrities. Many of those images appeared in the glossy “Palm Springs Life” magazine.

While Marmon preferred working in black and white, he was not so dogmatic that he refused to shoot in color, said his son. Neither was his father afraid of technology and “he jumped right in to the digital age in the early 2000s, although he never lost his love for the film medium.”

Chris Marmon, who now lives in California, called his father “very humanistic and kind,” personal qualities that are reflected in his photographs, he said.

Arguably, Marmon’s most iconic image, the 1954 “White Man’s Moccasins,” pictures tribal elder Jeff Sousea, caretaker of the Laguna mission, sitting outside the church wearing a traditional headband and beads, and a pair of well-worn high-top basketball sneakers.

Retired physician Tom Corbett, a close friend of Marmon’s for more than 50 years, was working at Laguna Pueblo in the mid 1960s and Marmon was his next door neighbor.

“Lee was quite a character. He reminded me of one of the last remnants of the Old West – a rough-and-tough, free-spirited and very unconventional guy,” said Corbett, who described himself as “pretty much the opposite.”

Marmon early on shared his photos with Corbett, who proposed the idea of compiling them into a book, for which Corbett would produce the text.

After a few years, Corbett moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he still lives, but he continued to visit Marmon annually and they spoke regularly on the telephone. The book, “Laguna Pueblo – A Photographic History,” was finally published in 2015.

A number of Marmon’s photos are part of the collection at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, including photos he took at the center and the center’s predecessor museum, of Native American dancing, weaving, and drum and jewelry making.

Amy Johnson, the center’s curator of collections, called Marmon an important figure as one of the few Native American photographers to garner international recognition, “and for capturing intimate and detailed portraits of Native American life.”

Likewise, said Andrew Connors, director of the Albuquerque Museum, “so often, photographers of Native America come from outside those communities and bring an outsider’s perspective on what is important and worth documenting.”

Marmon, having grown up in that community, he said, brought “a great sensitivity and a great eye” to capturing and elevating mundane daily pueblo life “at the moment of transition from the old ways.”

The museum currently has very few Marmon images in its collection, but is planning to add more, as well as to put together a Marmon tribute exhibition within the next year, Connors said.

The Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico has acquired and archived nearly all of Marmon’s photo negatives, which are now being digitized.

Marmon is a recipient of numerous honors, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southwest Association of Indian Arts and the Kantuta Humanitarian Award from the Czech Republic.

A private funeral was held, followed by burial at the Santa Fe National Cemetery.

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