With humor and irony, a celebrated Native American photographer subverts his sacred genre.
When Zig Jackson got the call inviting him to be the first contemporary Native American photographer to be represented in the Library of Congress’ storied collection, he couldn’t help being slightly sardonic. “In a cocky manner, I asked them who else was included,” he recalls. “They said, ‘Ansel Adams, Edward S. Curtis, Edward Weston, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and you.’ I got choked up. To be included in such company — I think that’s good, isn’t it? They have more than 18,000 images of Native Americans in their collection and, before me, not one by a living Native photographer. That is quite an honor.”
An enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes, Jackson (Indian name Rising Buffalo) came to that honor by shooting photographs aimed at de-mythologizing American Indian history and dismantling romanticized stereotypes — a point of view he seeks to teach. While studying photography at the University of New Mexico with known artists including Tom Barrow, Betty Hahn, Rod Lazorick, and Patrick Nagatani, he taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe with nationally known photographer Meridel Rubenstein. He went on to become the first Native American to graduate from the photography program founded by Ansel Adams at the San Francisco Art Institute, where Jackson trained as a masters student with former Adams assistant and Lange collaborator Pirkle Jones. Now a professor of documentary photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, Jackson is exhibited widely in galleries and museums, including at the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago.
His interest in photography first took hold when he was 11 or 12 years old, growing up on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. “I remember seeing my first black-and-white 35 mm image and being blown away. My father could only afford an Instamatic camera, so that was all I had seen. The 35 mm print was amazing — the contrast, imagery, and clarity. It was beautiful.”
From the beginning, Jackson’s fascination went well beyond the camera itself to the power of the medium. “As a little kid, I would see photographers coming from all over the world to take photos of the Indians on the reservation,” he recalls. “Why would they come all that way to take photos in such a desolate place? They all had cameras. Even the Peace Corps guys had cameras and would take pictures of us.”
Now that he is the one with the camera, Jackson focuses on cultural identity, representation, and appropriation. Tourists traipsing through sacred sites, powwow dancers downing hot dogs, an elderly roadside “chief” charging to have his picture taken. Through Jackson’s lens, the Anglo world becomes a strange, exotic, and inexplicable subject, the reservation beautifully mundane and ordinary, the meeting of the two rife with irony and complexity.
Whatever his subject, Jackson takes his chosen medium seriously. “Photography is a sacred thing,” he says. “It may be the invention of an Anglo man, but to me it is sacred. Just because it is a camera, you can’t just shove it in everyone’s face. You have to be respectful. I use it to educate people about Native American life. The camera is a very powerful tool.”
For more information and to view Zig Jackson’s portfolio, go to www.risingbuffaloarts.com. Jackson is represented by Andrew Smith Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 505.984.1234, www.andrewsmithgallery.com.