Ken Blackbird; Capturing life through the lens
CODY, Wyo. -- Ken Blackbird has captured "life as it should be" for the
past 20 years; and when he points a camera, the composition shows the world
that American Indians are actively living their culture. His focus is to
show the vitality of American Indian life, with "the people still holding
pow wows and ceremonies, and knowing they always will."
Blackbird, Assiniboine from Fort Peck, said his moccasins walk in two
worlds. As a photojournalist he worked for small newspapers, including the
predecessor to Indian Country Today, and the Billings Gazette and the
Lincoln Journal Star, both Lee Enterprise newspapers. He has traveled
Indian country from Alaska to Washington, D.C. and to Texas and most points
in between, always with his eyes alert for an image that will tell a story.
Most of his images were taken on reservations.
Viewers of Blackbird's work can detect a special style -- a fusion of the
historic and the contemporary -- that is deliberately communicated through
the photos' composition.
Blackbird opened the Plains Indian Museum Seminar at the Buffalo Bill
Historical Center with images that brought emotional reactions from the
audience -- oohs and ahhs, and a few tears. Some images were taken nearly
20 years ago, others just two weeks before the seminar at Crow Fair.
The theme of the seminar, "Native Land and the People of the Plains,"
brought the contemporary and the past together and Blackbird's images set
that tone for the conference.
Blackbird is recording the history of Indian country through images that
include people, animals and landscapes; and for future generations and
non-Indians, his work will become a valuable tool in the interpretation of
the contemporary. "It is a symbiotic relationship between animals and the
land," he explained.
Blackbird created images of this year's Crow Fair. Despite the scorching
heat and the pervasive dust, he waited for the right moments to photograph.
The resulting images showed silhouettes of plumes and dancers with the
August sun in the background.
One image brought the fair to the present with a timed photo of vehicles
moving in and out of the fairgrounds.
While at the Billings Gazette, he attended prom events on the Crow Agency.
He photographed young women as they prepared for the big dance. Images of
the dance itself reflect contemporary life and the culture.
"I heard the prom on the Crow Reservation was quite a spectacular sight,
and it was. It is another way of looking at Indian people. We were always
typecast by Charles Curtis, the 19th-century photographer; I wanted another
way to look at Native Americans, something that had never been done
before," he said. "I try to make photographs that say something."
A Blackbird image at the entrance to the Plains Indian Museum at the BBHC
is of a young woman in a buckskin dress wearing a graduation mortarboard.
What is communicated was intentional, he said.
It also sets the stage for what the entire museum display describes.
As one seminar participant said, "Blackbird is creating memories for
American Indians." His images juxtapose babies and elders, the past and
present, and people and animals connected to the land.
He dedicated his presentation to one person: Darlene Windy Boy. She became
the subject of his first portrait work two decades ago. Windy Boy died 11
years ago in a car accident. He was reminded of her again when he searched
through his retired photos to create his presentation.
A tipi village may look like a historic site to some people, and it may be;
but Blackbird manages to capture a young person with contemporary clothing
in front of a row of tipis, thereby instantly intertwining the past,
present and future.
His images are not always tranquil and serene. He photographed the remains
of a buffalo kill when Yellowstone buffalo wandered out of the park to
graze on new pastures, only to be killed by Montana cattlemen with
permission from the state.
Buffalo heads, laid side by side in several rows and covered with snow,
elicit a sense of violence: "Our history is very violent."