Fall 1998, Volume 16.1
Drex Brooks is Professor of Art at Weber State University. He holds an M.F.A. in Photography from the Rhode Island School of Design and a B.F.A. in Photography from Oregon State University. More of his work can be seen in Sweet Medicine: Photographs by Drex Brooks, published by the National Museum of American Art and the University of New Mexico Press.
I guess we all have something that concerns us we may not be sure exactly what it is or why it makes us do things. With me, it’s the injustice and the kind of Indian genocide that I didn’t learn about in high school. Maybe we studied it in passing, but unless we did some research on our own, we didn’t learn the terrible effects westward expansion had on the Native Americans who came in contact with it.
When I was a little kid in Washington, I used to read all of the Indian books about Geronimo and Cochise – that was just something I did. We lived right next to the Yakima Reservation, and later when we moved to Oregon, I was close to the Burns Reservation. And it struck me how differently the Indians lived. I wasn’t old enough to really understand how unfair it all was or even how poverty-stricken the people were. But I knew they were treated like second-class citizens. Where I grew up, people always called them "those Indians" or "those drunken Indians"—that’s the way they talked.
Well like I said, I had read all the books about Indians, and I was enamored of the Indian life I’d read about. The community where I lived in Oregon was very small, a two room school, kind of remote. The Catholic Priest only came to the community once a week—he’d usually show up on Saturday night, say Sunday Mass and leave, because he had a huge area to cover, part of which was the Indian reservation. One day the Priest asked us what we wanted to be or who we wanted to be like, and I said, "I want to be an Indian." He looked at me for a long time, and then he said, "no you wouldn’t." I don’t think he was looking down on Indians or their culture, but he knew that no one would voluntarily choose to live in that kind of poverty.
Most pictures in this series were taken as part of trips to somewhere else. Amy and I might go on a trip to Arizona, and of course I’d know where all the Indian reservations were, so a simple trip to Tucson could end up covering the state.
I tend to look for images that speak about white influence on native lives or about the land and what goes on there. They’re about things that I find interesting. I’m not a portrait photographer. I worry that the camera has been too exploitive of Native Americans. To me, at least, taking pictures of people often becomes exploitive, but I don’t feel that way when I take pictures of the land.
Most of my pictures make comments—for example the picture of the basketball court on the Navajo Reservation. In White America, that would be a gym, but in Navajo land it’s a hoop and a cement slab. Maybe they have a nice gym somewhere else, sometimes gambling money can buy one, but there’s no question this is what it was like. And while my pictures are about the present, they also document the past.
Take the bird nest for example. I always notice bird nests, especially in bare trees. I love the way they look. This picture was taken just off the side of the road, and the paper cup was there naturally. I didn’t bring it into the picture, but it is part of what makes the picture interesting. There is always something on the reservations, even though the land is set aside for Indians, there is always something that is very "White culture" that intrudes – like the cup, or the place the road ends, or the cattle, or the peace sign on the hill – there is always some kind of intrusion into the native landscape. That’s what these pictures are about.
I am using a Polaroid positive/negative process where you have to pull the two prints apart (one side is negative , the other is positive). The negative has a lot of "goo" that you must immediately wash off with a special solution. Well, with the ceremonial grounds picture, I forgot to separate the prints, and it was 15 minutes before I stuck it in the solution. When you don’t wash the negative soon enough, you end up with a lot of marks and discolorations called Polaroid burns. That’s exactly what happened with the ceremonial grounds picture. But then I looked more closely, and in the middle of the picture the goo had formed a sort of mythic figure with a feather, a beak, and a kind of phallus hanging down. It looked like an Indian spirit hovering over the ceremonial grounds.
I loved the serendipity of that ceremonial figure made of Polaroid burns. To me it was an omen to let the same kind of thing happen in other pictures, and so I did. Sometimes the marks would totally ruin an image, but then I would find something really interesting.
Having to carry a jug of solution in my car was kind of messy—I’d take a picture, hike back to the car, put it into the liquid. And that made me think about some of the differences between contemporary photography (where you go out and take pictures and then come back and develop the film) and how the old-time photographers had to do everything in the field. In the early days of photographing the West they had wet plate negatives that they had to process as soon as they took the picture—similar to the way I was working. And I thought of the story of William Henry Jackson and his mule falling off a trail and cracking all his newly-made glass plate negatives. You can see his pictures today, if you’re looking for historical photographs, but you’ll see pictures with messed-up emulsions and cracked glass negatives, but they lived with that as a necessary part of taking pictures of a largely "undiscovered" land.
I wanted to try for some of that same sense of expedition or exploration, because I was also taking pictures of places which are largely unexplored by white people.
The paper used is a resurrection of a discontinued Kodak paper. Do you remember when you were a kid and you would get those studio proof prints from the photographer who came to school—the brown ones that you would take home on approval and that would eventually go completely dark? Well, it’s that same kind of paper, except processed in a different way to make the image permanent.
And these are contact prints, where you put the negative right against the paper and then expose it to light. I could have used the sun, but chose an alternative light-source because I wanted better control—some of them are exposed for 23 hours. Finally, I tone them with an old platinum formula that is also from the turn of the century. So I like to think that in the end, all the parts—picture and process—came together.
That’s some of the stuff that has influenced my thinking about Indians and reservations, and history. But I am now at the end of this aspect of the project. I think I’ve taken these particular landscape pictures about as far as I can.
The next thing I want to do is follow the Lewis and Clark trail and document it—the way it looks today. Their bicentennial is coming in 2005.