- Tending the Fire: Native Voices and Portraits by Christopher Felver
In our hypertexted and overhyped digital age, in our era of short attention spans and instant online gratifications, photographer Christopher Felver's new coffee-table book is old school in the best possible ways. With Tending the Fire, Felver and the good folks at the University of New Mexico Press have made us an unexpected gift: large-scale, up-close, highly textured, beautiful black-and-white photographs of no less than ninety-six contemporary Native American writers, artists, intellectuals, and storytellers. These evocative portraits of elders and luminaries, including N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Linda Hogan (who provides a moving introduction), Louise Erdrich (whose striking image adorns the front cover), and younger rising stars, including poet Cedar Sigo and essayist Elissa Washuta, are accompanied by brief examples of the subjects' works written or drawn (mostly) by hand. Presented together on facing pages, each set of portrait and handmade production encourages viewers to pause and linger; each set rewards focused attention and return. [End Page 330]
Some of Felver's images were made as early as 1995 and 1996 (those of activists Dennis Banks and Russell Means, respectively), but most were made between 2007 and 2015, taken at locations in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Colorado, New York, Massachusetts, and North Carolina. In his epilogue, Felver locates his inspiration both in the seminal but controversial photographic work of Edward Curtis at the turn of the twentieth century and in Felver's chance meetings with Native Americans at the turn of the twenty-first, writers and artists who generously invited Felver into their networks of colleagues and friends. The results of these personal connections are evident in the intimacies of the photographs. Viewers encounter neither the stilted ethnographic stagings of the Curtis era, nor the glamor shots of official publicity photos. Rather, here are open, expressive faces and penetrating gazes directly into the camera; pursed lips, subtle grins, and broad smiles; the confidence that comes with the smooth skin and dark hair of youth; the greater confidence that comes with hard-earned subtle lines and creases, with hair graying, silvering, or turning to luminous white. Notably, the names of those featured are not prominent; one has to search to locate the names, which are small and printed in a faint gray-tone, offset at the bottom of the facing page. Moreover, dominating this other page are the fascinating idiosyncrasies of handwriting: decorous cursives chronicling different decades of schooling and use—some tall and spidery thin, some loopy as a child's unpracticed hand, some indecipherable as a doctor's prescription, some slanted into elegant calligraphy—and modest block prints that march across the page in bulky formations or meander with a rise and fall like breathing. And there are the authors' signatures: quiet or bold, tight or expansive, always suggestive of the mind and spirit behind the mark. One of my personal favorite sets is the image of artist, performer, and playwright Arigon Starr, posed with her shiny guitar, facing an example of her graphic work on the popular comic Super Indian.
Felver dedicates Tending the Fire to actor, musician, and activist Floyd "Red Crow" Westerman (whose image adorns the back cover) and to comedian Charlie Hill, who passed away between the time their portraits were made and the book was published. Others included in the volume are also no longer with us, such as poets and intellectuals Paula Gunn Allen and Maurice Kenny. And already in the short time since publication, the highly regarded artist James Luna has passed on as well. This will be one of the lasting contributions of Felver's book of photographs: loving tributes to some of our Native best. [End Page 331]
University of Washington