Less than twenty miles away from the surfers in Montauk, living on the other side of affluence in the Hamptons is an American coastal tribe: the Shinnecock Indian Nation. I have been a regular visitor to the reservation, photographing Native American girls who have participated in the Miss Shinnecock Teen Pageant. This entry point and introduction into the formal traditions of the Shinnecock people has given me a glimpse into teenage life on the reservation. What sounds like a typical beauty pageant is actually a celebration of cultural heritage. The girls are given an opportunity to showcase their talents onstage and perform tribal dances, songs and poems in front of a broad audience. In the pageant they talk about their college aspirations, knowledge of Native American history and other outside interests.
Edward Curtis’s approach to photographing Native Americans, as exemplified in his book The North American Indian: The Complete Portfolios, was to preserve what he considered to be a dying culture. One hundred years later, I cannot help but be influenced by this work. However, my goal is not the same. My intent is to address the relevance of tradition in a culture still thriving, even though it has been marginalized. The Shinnecock people have recently received recognition from the Federal government, which will bring about a significant series of change. I consider this to be an important time of transformation for the Shinnecocks’ as the path to a new way of life emerges.
The wet plate collodion process I use is deliberate, antiquated, out of date, and perfect for my purposes. I do not compete with the speed of the digital world; I work at a different, slower pace that affords me time to engage and connect with my subjects. Making tintypes has created opportunities to meet people in their environments and that has been a cornerstone of my photographic practice for the last five years. My subjects watch me process each picture on location, akin to pulling a rabbit out of the magician’s hat. The result is a provocative juxtaposition of the past in the present moment.