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August 1, 1999
Press Articles :: "THE" Magazine Interview


reprinted with permission from THE magazine August 1999







THE magazine: How did you start making photographs of sacred dances of the American Indians?

David Michael Kennedy: I've always been drawn to Indian spiritualism. It made sense to me their respect for family, their respect for the elders, and their respect for Mother Earth. My photographic involvement with them started from a photo session I did of Leonard Peltier. He was involved in a shoot-out at the Pine Ridge Reservation in which two FBI agents and one American Indian were killed. Through many maneuvers, most of them illegal, Leonard ended up being the only person who was tried, convicted, and imprisoned. The conversations I had with Leonard in the penitentiary drew me to the Pine Ridge Reservation. I went there a couple of times and started to meet with the elders, the medicine people, and other leaders. At the same time my circle of friends in Santa Fe grew to include people from the Eight Northern Pueblos.

TM: Why did you want to photograph the Indians' sacred dances?

DMK: Because the dances were and are important-both spiritually and educationally. I felt that they needed to be recorded on film, because if they weren't recorded, they could become lost.

TM: What does the word "sacred" mean to you?

DMK: Sacred is different for each person. For me, sacred is a private place in my heart and soul that I go to for energy, focus, and spiritual well-being.

TM: I've always heard that Indians do not like to have their picture taken because they say it steals their soul. What do you think?

DMK: I've heard that, but I don't find it to be true in present-day society. I've never met anyone who believes that. Additionally, it seems to me that my objective is to "capture" the motion and the spirit of the dance, rather than anyone's soul. I think the people I am working with understand that as well.

TM: Isn't it somewhat of a paradox that the American Indian will allow you-a White Man- to come into their world and photograph their sacred dances?

DMK: I don't think that it's a paradox at all because of the way the project was approached and how it evolved. The first portfolio of dancers of the Eight Northern Pueblos took over four years to complete. The majority of that time was spent gaining the trust and respect of the people. I spent many months explaining the work and my reasons for wanting to do it, as well as dealing with which dances and dancers would be photographed. Although I had complete artistic control, I gave each tribe a great deal of control as to what the content of each photograph would be.

TM: How did you convince them to allow you to photograph them?

DMK: It was very difficult because they are so used to Whites coming to them, talking a lot of shit, and then ripping them off. I started out by talking to a woman named Mary Brewer who became my liaison with the Eight Northern Pueblos. She thought photographing the dances was a wonderful idea, particularly because I offered to give a percentage of the profits from the sale of the photographs back to each tribe. Then it became a question of producing something tangibles photograph-so we could show the governors of the pueblos what I wanted to do. I photographed one dancer, with the understanding that if the governor of that pueblo saw the results of the shoot and did not give approval, I would destroy the negatives and scrap the project. I made the photograph and brought it to the governor, along with a proposal for the project and rough layouts of the portfolio. He was initially upset because I had taken the photographs without his permission. But after I explained the reasons why I had done it that way, and the fact that I had brought all of the negatives with me, put them on his desk, and said, "if this is not acceptable, burn the negatives right now," he began to understand the project and my motives. He took the presentation to the governing body of the Eight Northern Pueblos and after a period of about six months of negotiations, I got permission from the council to do the project. Words can be hollow, and until your actions give weight to them, they are worth very little.

TM: How much involvement did each pueblo have in the photographic process?

DMK: Each pueblo had control over choosing the dance that was most representative of their pueblo and who would dance it-and to a certain extent where we would make the photographs. All of the dances were photographed outside of a ceremonial situation, far removed from any public areas where people could see us making the photographs.

TM: Did the dancers expect compensation?

DMK: I don't know if they expected it but I told them up front that I wanted to pay them to work with me, and they all accepted the fee I paid to photograph them dancing. Each dancer also got a signed palladium print.


TM: In photographing the dances did you use the same approach as you did in your commercial work in New York?


DMK: Very similar. The headspace then-being extremely excited and open to experiencing the moment that I brought to a shoot with someone like Springsteen-was no different than the headspace that I brought to the shoots of the dances. A large part of photographing people is not the lens, the film, or the F-stop you use. It's being able to open your heart to them so they will be comfortable and openly share a part of themselves with you.

TM: How did you select the locations where you photographed the dances?

DMK: Picking the location was based on several things. First, I looked for a place that felt right. just before I photographed the Heyoka Lakota Dance the dancer got out of the truck, looked around, and said, "This is a good place to dance." The minute he said that I knew that I had the photograph. Next, I always wanted to ensure that there would be privacy, because if people saw the dance being photographed and didn't understand what was going on, they could become upset. Finally, I looked for places that would give me lots of open sky.

TM: What camera did you use? Did you shoot on a tripod? And how many pictures did you have to shoot to get your shot?

DMK: Since I use a Hasselblad with a heavy zoom lens, I used a tripod. A tripod was also necessary because I was shooting at very slow shutter speeds to help create the motion in the images. And I did shoot a lot of pictures of each dance-anywhere from 15-40 rolls, or 250-600 shots.

TM: The biggest problems that you ran into during the actual shoots?

DMK: Preproduction presented the biggest problem. Once I got past that and arrived at the location, there were no problems. Never. Once all the permissions had been given and we were actually shooting, everything was blessed-the light, the weather, the wind.

TM: I've seen some of the original 8 x 1O" silver prints that you make to "proof' the shoots. There is quite a difference between the silver prints and your finished palladium prints. How much doctoring or work do you do on each photograph to create the undeniable sense of presence that exists in your finished prints?

DMK: The differences that you're seeing are the differences between silver printing and platinum palladium printing. Silver tends to be cold, crisp, sharp, and stark. Palladium creates a warmer, somewhat softer image. With the palladium prints I do a little burning and dodging, as well as some pencil work on the final negative, but beyond that there is no doctoring of the print.

TM: What about the toning of the print?

DMK: That comes from the process itself which I work with to pull as many brown tones out of the print as I can. You can make a platinum palladium print that has a lot of platinum in it, and you will get a cold, purplish black color. But I work with pure palladium, which creates a warmer brown color. I also use hot developer and paper to increase the warmth and bring out the browns.

TM: What is the challenge and what is the beauty of palladium prints?

DMK: The challenge is that palladium is extremely uncontrollable-all kinds of things happen. With silver there are certain things you can expect. If you take a piece of paper out of the box, you know that it's going to work. With palladium prints you expect the unexpected. The weather, the humidity, even the mood you're in are some of the many things that effect a process that is really out of one's control.

TM: Describe the process.

DMK: It's a contact-printing process, so you have to use a negative that is the same size as the final print. This is accomplished either by shooting with large-format cameras or by making an enlarged negative from a smaller original negative. You then mix the light- sensitive emulsions and coat the paper using any number of fine-art papers or other surfaces to support the emulsion. The negative is put into direct contact with the coated paper, exposed to ultraviolet light, and then developed and dried.

TM: Your final prints are slightly softer and seem to be a bit out of focus compared to the 8 x IO" silver prints. Am I seeing what is there or am I mistaken?

DMK: [laughter] You're seeing something. The photograph is in focus, but everything is shot at 1/15 of a second with the lens wide open. And the dancer is dancing-really moving. So, what you're seeing as out of focus is just movement.

TM: How many prints does it take you to get to the final portfolio print?

DMK: I guess I'm too much of a perfectionist: My trash pile is much, much bigger than my finished pile of work. On a really good day, if I make ten prints of the same image, I'll get eight good prints. On an average day I'll get five or six prints, and on a bad day nothing worthwhile.

TM: When will the Lakota portfolio be printed?

DMK: Probably not until the winter of 1999. Part of the reason is that when I finish photographing a project I need to distance myself from it. I find that it is important to put the work aside and let it rest for a month or two and allow it to gain a life of its own. When I come back I'm able to look at the photographs with fresh eyes and make my final decisions.

TM: Are there any other areas of American Indian life that you are interested in documenting or recording?

DMK: Funny that you ask. I've been thinking lately that it's wonderful that I'm showing everybody the "pretty feathers." A person might look at the portfolios and think that everything is "great on the rez." Well, everything isn't great on the rez. There's a lot of poverty, drugs, and alcoholism, which create an incredible loss of respect by the American Indians for themselves. Thankfully, this is beginning to change. Many people seem to be looking back to their roots and finding a new belief in their culture and themselves. Almost a revival, if you will. This is a wonderful thing to see.


TM: So what do you want to do now?

DMK: I plan to continue with the dance work. And, as I just said, I've been considering doing some documentary work that explores the current day-to-day life of the American Indians on the reservations. If and when I do this series, I may do not do it in palladium; I'm thinking about working with silver prints because the images would be darker and grittier.

TM: Are there any other photographers out there doing images of the sacred dances?

DMK: Not that I'm aware of. There are some people doing powwow work, but I haven't come across anyone using the approach that I'm working with.

TM: What do you think of most of the photographs done by non-Natives of Indians?

DMK: It's a difficult question because I don't want to criticize other people's work or motives. Powwow pictures are wonderful because they capture that tradition. But they're not photographing ceremonial dancing; instead, they're photographing public exhibition dancing, and that's completely different from my direction.

TM: Have you heard any criticism, similar to the kind of negative criticism that Edward Curtis has received, that your photographs romanticize and stereotype the American Indian?

DMK: Yes. And my response is that if that's what people feel, then that's the way they feel. I'm doing something that's in my heart, and that's in the hearts of the people who I work with. Curtis did "prop" his photographs and created scenes that may or may not have existed. I try to allow the subject to be true to himself or herself and not to add my own romantic views. Other than requesting that the regalia be authentic, I have very little to do with the clothing or choreographing of the dance.

TM: When you do the photographs, make your final prints, and you know that you've done it right, how does that make your heart feel?

DMK: It sings. 

Guy Cross is co-publisher of THE magazine.

David Michael Kennedy's work can be seen at the Andrew Smith Gallery, 203 West San Francisco St., Santa Fe.