Sunday, August 15, 2010
Photographer Lee Marmon Sold His Archives to UNM To Preserve His Legacy, But He Kept His Most Iconic Image
By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
LAGUNA PUEBLO — One of the most iconic images of the transition between traditional Pueblo life and the drumbeat of modern times was snapped by a young fellow delivering groceries here in 1954.
Lee Marmon was helping his father, Hank, run the Laguna Trading Post in the 1940s and '50s while he taught himself photography with a boxy Graflex Speed Graphic and a book on film developing.
Roberto E. Rosales / Journal Lee Marmon holds a poster of his 1954 photograph "White Man's Moccasins" in his home, the old Laguna Trading Post. Marmon is still working on new photos as he organizes his photographic archive, which spans more than 60 years.
He shot a lot of weddings on the weekends and grabbed his camera and ran whenever news happened — a car wreck on Route 66, Hollywood producer Mike Todd's plane crash in the Zuni Mountains.
And at the urging of his dad, who anticipated that the railroad, the paved highway and the worldly veterans returning from World War II would alter Pueblo life, Marmon took his camera along as he made his grocery deliveries to Laguna's elders.
Get their pictures, his dad told him, before they're gone.
So he asked his customers and the elders he spotted sunning on adobe walls whether he could make a portrait.
"I'd ask them if I could take the picture — no preparation and the light probably wasn't right, but I took them anyway, and I'm glad I did," Marmon told me as we toured the pueblo. "That was a time when it changed drastically. The old ways were going. That was the ending of a great period. They were the last of the real old-timers."
Marmon didn't like to carry a tripod or set things up. He wanted to capture people as they were.
So, on the day in August 1954 that Marmon rushed through the Plaza in front of the Laguna Mission Church with a box of groceries and spied Jeff Sousea, a local character, sitting in the sun, he didn't think much about Old Jeff's stained khaki pants or black high-top tennis shoes.
He asked if he could take a picture, and Old Jeff said no way. Marmon made his delivery and doubled back through the Plaza to make another try at a picture. He handed Jeff a cigar, and Jeff said, sure, a picture would be OK.
Marmon pointed the other day to the spot where Jeff was seated and where he knelt down and took the snap that became "White Man's Moccasins."
It shows Old Jeff, cool as a cucumber in the August sun, his long hair pulled back in a headband, his neck covered in jewelry and those beat-up Keds on his feet.
The image is arresting and amusing and captures perfectly the collision of the old and the new. Tens of thousands of copies have been sold, and it became Marmon's signature image.
Few people know that another popular Marmon photo of two little girls perched on an adobe wall hanging laundry, was taken in the same Plaza a few minutes later.
Those photos, along with other elder portraits and images of eagle dancers, deer dancers and drummers from ceremonial dances in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, made Marmon's career. And they stand today as a unique body of work — Pueblo people and culture documented without adornment or interpretation by one of the few Pueblo photographers.
"That's why my stuff is kind of valuable," Marmon says. "It was as they were. I never changed anything."
Marmon's portraiture portfolio has a split personality.
In his Pueblo life, he made portraits of Lucy Lewis; Pablita Velarde; Grace Medicine Flower; R.C. Gorman; his aunt, Susie Rayos Marmon; and hundreds of Pueblo elders like Old Jeff, whose names aren't known outside their communities.
In his California commercial career, which lasted from 1962 to 1982 and was spent mostly in Palm Springs, Marmon photographed Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Lynda Carter, Charo, Liberace, Jack Benny, Ronald Reagan and a bevy of bikinied beauties.
Marmon, who is one-quarter Laguna (nickname: "the blue-eyed Indian"), worked comfortably in both worlds.
A tour of his darkroom, which occupies the renovated shower house of the old Route 66 motor court his family owned, reveals his taste for young women.
Marmon points to a wall of portraits and says, "A lot of these pictures are just a lot of my ex-wives."
I observe that it's a pretty big wall. How many ex-wives are there?
"Four. I like to spoil women, and then they get real spoiled, and I let them go," Marmon says.
Marmon, 84, seems to have settled that issue. He has been married to journalist Kathryn Marmon for more than 20 years.
One side of Marmon's work space (the old men's shower) is filled with file cabinets holding prints and negatives. The other side (the women's shower) is his darkroom, where he still personally prints every photo he sells. He often listens to Frank Sinatra or Barbra Streisand as he prints.
Marmon has reluctantly joined the Digital Age. He got his first digital camera only six years ago and shoots today with a Nikon D700. ("I'll never learn all the stuff it'll do," he says.)
But most of Marmon's tens of thousands of images are black-and-white on film, and it remains his favorite medium.
"I think black-and-white is more beautiful," he tells me. "And now that digital has gotten so many things that you can do to it, it's not a real photograph. It's put-together. The stuff that I took years ago, that's just the way it was."
Marmon is still working. He's shooting portraits and landscapes at Acoma Pueblo to be featured in the tribe's renovated casino and hotel. And he's working with a filmmaker on a documentary about his life and work.
Last year, an oversize van from the University of New Mexico pulled up at Marmon's darkroom building, and it left filled with boxes containing 60,000 to 100,000 negatives. He sold his collection of negatives, prints, personal papers and home movies for $300,000, according to UNM. They will be digitized and made available for free to the public through the Center for Southwest Research.
Marmon will be 85 in September, and he thought it was time to ensure his collection is preserved and protected.
In the next year, he'll spend a considerable amount of time sorting through all those negatives — some dating to his first Laguna images in 1947 — and getting the names, dates and places straight.
One negative did not make it into the UNM truck and won't be available through the center's archive.
At my request, Marmon pawed through several file cabinets looking for the image — "I spend half my time putting my stuff away and the other half looking for it," he said. "And that's no joke, either." Finally, he pulled out a small, brownish rectangle in a clear sleeve.
It was "White Man's Moccasins." Marmon is hanging on to that one.
UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Leslie Linthicum can be reached at 823-3914 or firstname.lastname@example.org.