NMPBS ¡COLORES!: Navajo Photographer William Wilson

NMPBS ¡COLORES!: Navajo Photographer William Wilson


WILLIAM WILSON BRINGS NATIVE ORAL TRADITION
TO PORTRAITURE. Hakim Bellamy: You know as a poet what I really
adore in learning about your work and what you do is that it is story telling during
the process with your subject and so could you talk a little more about that?
William Wilson: It’s about an exchange; it’s the critical indigenous photographic exchange,
CIPX for short. So I invite people to come and have a conversation generally around photography.
I ask them how they’d like to be imaged. It’s at process that they’re kind of engaged in,
involved in and learning about and at the end of that process I actually give them the
original tintype. So the silver object that kind of holds their image.
WW: I grew up kind of cross culturally. My father was Irish and Welch and my mom is Navajo.
So I move between the Navajo reservation and San Francisco California. I’m not fluent in
Navajo. Certainly older generations in my family didn’t speak English and so it was
very difficult for me to communicate and oral tradition I think is a very important aspect
these too, like there’s a certain knowledge base and repertoire which you have to be able
to share and exchange in order to describe who you are in a way you know. I think it’s
enabled me to have this conversation about representation, about history about the power
of media in some ways. And maybe even the ceremony that happens when you sit down and
have that kind of exchange. HB: That’s beautiful I like that idea about
ceremony. WW: Yeah…
HB: I like that very much. What inspired you about using this particular method?
WW: There is something beautiful about the alchemy of photography I think. The silver,
light, chemistry, chance. HB: Could you talk a little more about the
tintype and the beginning of that conversation with the subject?
WW: So the tintype is a historic photographing process. It was invented in 1851. The tintypes
that I’m making are using the exact same formulas and the chemistry from the 19th century. It’s
called wet plate collodian because I’m actually making my own emulsion. And making it on a
metal plate and the process has to stay we throughout. After I pull it out of this bath
of silver nitrate it’s light sensitive and I have about a ten minute window to make my
exposure and then get back into my portable dark room that I brought with me. The project
is also about kind of relationships and about you know what it means to have your portrait
taken and what it means to be a photographer. Kind of engaging people in this. So I get
to run them through the whole process. They get to see like a photograph being developed.
At the end you know we get to walk away with this thing that happened between us and also
kind of a beautiful object. It’s like a relational aesthetic that brings like the ethics of making
images back into the process. That’s why I talk about it in terms of ceremony.
HB:Yeah. WW: It’s important.
HB: It’s interesting with ceremony and ethics can you talk a little more about that?
WW: Well what if an Indian had invented photography? Would there be another set of relations and
traditions associated with making imagery. HB: Could you tell us a little more about
some of your historical influences? WW: I thought a lot about the ways Native
Americans have been represented historically through photography. You know the first person
to come to mind when you think about that is Edward Curtis. You know his project as
the North American Indian, I think in a lot of ways those images are fixed at least in
America’s consciousness about what Indians look like.
I think in some sense ethics are about responding with that and maybe updating and saying ‘hey
you know we’re diverse there is 566 federally recognized indigenous nations within the United
States. Each one of those has a separate culture and language, economy and we’re all doing
kind of interesting things and we look all different. That in itself is enough to fuel
a project. HB: What are some of your favorite pictures
and portraits and why? WW: Well one image comes to mind in particular
Joe Horse Capture. He’s a curator he was looking around for a prop. Something to kind of help
him with his image and he saw my iPad sitting there and he asked me if it was connected.
He brought up this image on the iPad, this older Indian gentleman with his rifle and
it’s actually an image of his great great great grandfather Horse Capture who was photographed
by Edward Curtis And in the image Horse Capture is holding a Rifle and he’s doing that to
signify that he’s a warrior. Joe Horse Capture, he’s the curator at NMAI, held up the ipad
and he said that this is my version of the rifles. I deal with representation, I deal
with knowledge systems this is how I represent myself as a warrior. And kind of in one image
it encapsulated the whole project. I just finished 4 images that are kind of
the next stage of the project and I’m using media technology I call them talking tintypes
so you know a photograph is static by nature but you’re able to scan the image and it activates
this media and I have a violinist, a poet a musician and a dancer. And they’re beautiful
images in and of themselves but you kind of add another layer of information when you
have this technology. And you know maybe that’s it, my inability to be fluent in Navajo when
I was a kid and not be able to completely articulate this stuff to my family and friends
the way that I wanted to is driving this research. And now just with a photograph I can tell
that story. HB: If people leave with a Will Wilson piece
what would you want them to leave with? WW: I don’t know I hope they’re inspired,
I hope that there are some questions about photography about the history of representation
of Native American people and about you know what it means to have your photo taken and
what it’s like to be engaged in the ceremony that is making a portrait.

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