Lee Marmon challenges portrayal of Indigenous people

Photographer challenged the way people view Indigenous people through his portraits of everyday pueblo life

“White Man’s Moccasins,” Lee Marmon, 1954, gelatin silver print, Albuquerque Museum, gift of Cate Stetson. (Courtesy of the Albuquerque Museum)

Anglo photographers and ethnographers have long preyed upon Native American people, stereotyping and capitalizing on their images.

At age 11, Leland Howard Marmon picked up a camera to photograph a truck accident on Route 66 near Laguna Pueblo.

With the click of a shutter, Marmon navigated his way to being one of the first American Indian photographers. Through his lens he shed light on his community and sacred land.

Thanks to a collection donated by New Mexico tribal law attorney Cate Stetson, the Albuquerque Museum is showing “Between Two Worlds: The Photography of Lee Marmon” through Jan. 15, 2023. Curators paired the Stetson collection with prints loaned by the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico.

Of both Native and Anglo descent, Marmon challenged the way people view Indigenous people through his portraits of elders and everyday pueblo life.

Marmon’s famous photograph “White Man’s Moccasins” captures Laguna resident Jeff Sousea, cigar in hand, relaxing at the pueblo in his high-tops.

“Lee Marmon used to call this photograph ‘Old Man Jeff,’ ” Albuquerque Museum history curator Leslie Kim said.

When Marmon asked Jeff if he could shoot his portrait, Jeff resisted. He conceded after Marmon returned with the cigar.

“(Jeff) sat in the village weaving tall tales all day long,” Kim said. “A friend said (Marmon) should call it ‘White Man’s Moccasins’ and it stuck. It’s the modern adaptation of the moccasin.”

The photograph’s humor lies in its mockery of a stereotype.

It became Marmon’s signature image across the globe.

“His father was the one who encouraged him to start taking photographs of the elders,” Kim continued. “His father told him, ‘You should capture this history.’

“It sounds like photographers were always kind of around,” Kim continued. “Edward S. Curtis had stayed with (Marmon’s) grandfather.”

Growing up in the pueblo gave Marmon access to people and places denied outsiders. His parents owned the general store; he photographed people performing everyday chores, like hanging clothing, as well as sacred dances.

“They were all knit together in this community,” Kim said.

He always asked his subjects’ permission and gave them a print of their portrait. He preferred natural light.

“He was such an affable character; he had so many friends,” Kim said. “Everybody has stories about this really lovely man.”

Marmon’s portrait of “Walter Sarracino” (1963) is a dignified composition of the onetime Laguna Pueblo governor holding a Lincoln cane. The late president gave the silver-tipped canes to tribal leaders in 1863 to acknowledge their sovereignty.

Sarracino was also a professional baseball player and a rodeo bronco buster.

“Marmon worked for him as the treasurer for the tribal council,” Kim said.

Circled in ropes of necklaces, the potter “Rosita Johnson” (1958) had been hand-plastering her home (traditionally a woman’s job) when Marmon asked for her portrait.

“She didn’t want her photograph taken,” Kim said. “She went back to her house and put on her traditional clothing and jewelry.”

His 1962 image of a buffalo dancer exemplifies another shot forbidden to outsiders. “Bruce Riley” (1965) shows a hunter cradling his bow and arrow.

“He was the war chief at Laguna,” Kim said. “He was also a shepherd; he worked for the federal government. He worked for the uranium mine. He had this rich sort of history.”

His 1959 portrait of Juana Marie Pino captures a woman draped in jewelry.

“She was famous for baking bread,” Kim said. “Marmon recalled her singing corn grinding songs with the other women.”

From 1967 to 1973, Marmon was the official photographer for the Bob Hope Desert Classic Golf Tournament in Palm Springs, California. He also took on other high-profile assignments for Time magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. In 1982, he returned to Laguna and took up residence in the old train depot on Route 66, given to him by his grandfather and remodeled as a home.

The Bob Hope connection gave him access to celebrities, including former President Ronald Reagan and Dean Martin.

“He hung out with Frank Sinatra and would go to his parties,” Kim added.

“He produced more than 100,000 images in six decades,” she continued. “Each photograph is like a little time capsule.”

Marmon died in 2021 at the age of 95.

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