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Visual Narratives: First American Photography

Artists Capture Moments in Time That Also Tells an Entire Story

To capture the night skies with elaborate detail takes patience as well as talent, but Chickasaw artist Jim Trosper doesn’t mind. In fact, he thrives on getting the perfect shot, no matter how long he’s outside in the elements.

“I shoot pictures of stars, and that process entails a long exposure technique. I do about 30-second-long exposures to get the stars to come through and then play with light in the foreground to liven up the scene in front,” Jim explains.

He then enlarges the photo and prints them on aluminum metal to make it feel as if the viewer was there when the photograph was taken.

The Chickasaw photographer’s works, along with that of four others, come to life in the exhibit Visual Narratives: First American Photography, on display now at Exhibit C Gallery in downtown Oklahoma City.

The current exhibition also features artists Philip Busey Jr. (Cherokee), Peggy Fontenot (Patawomeck Indian Tribe of Virginia), Lester Harragarra (Otoe-Missouria) and Kelly Langley (Chickasaw).

“It’s often been said that the camera doesn’t lie, and this exhibit certainly offers a powerful glimpse into each subject, whether it’s a rural landscape, tribal ceremony or a breathtaking destination,” said Paige Shepherd, director of tourism for the Chickasaw Nation. “These artists have done a remarkable job at capturing moments in time that also tell an entire story.” 

Each artist brings a different perspective to their artistry with varying backgrounds and First American influences.

For instance, Philip Busey first picked up a camera in 2002 during an internship, which led to becoming a professional photographer for a daily newspaper as well as in the Southwestern Oklahoma State University public relations office.

“Keeping with my photojournalist beliefs, I make little to no alterations. On occasion, I will make shadow or saturation adjustments; otherwise, the images are unaltered,” Philip states on his website.

In this exhibit, he focuses on family artifacts, including Caddo regalia taken up-close to bring out details from these vintage pieces.

Peggy Fontenot creates photography that creates awareness of social issues and injustices.

“It can cause us to look at things in an emotional way, a clinical way, scientifically, or in a way that might provoke change,” Peggy says.

Based in Los Angeles, Peggy first showcased her work in 1983. Her works are created on film and processed in her wet darkroom using a split-filter technique. Peggy’s photography, as well as beadwork and silver work, have garnered numerous awards around the country, including at the International Photography Awards, Southwestern Association for Indian Arts and Annual Black & White Spider Awards.

Lester Harragarra fell in love with photography on his 8th birthday when he received his first camera. Almost six decades later, he is an award-winning professional photographer and the official photographer of the Black Leggings Warrior Society. Lester utilizes vibrant colors to showcase First American cultural gatherings and traditions in his large-scale photographs. One of his pieces in the art exhibit, titled “Sanctified by Sacrifice,” beautifully captures a memorial of a family of First American veterans.

“It’s [the display in the photography] our family friends that honored their grandfather, father and their son,” Lester said, recalling a discussion he had with his mother while he was still young about the negative treatment given veterans, especially during the Vietnam War.

“My mother is 93. She remembers a time when America wasn’t as patriotic,” he says. “I wanted to illustrate that we have always honored our veterans for hundreds of years. That’s just how American Indians have always been.”

Kelly Langley, Ph.D., is a retired educator and member of the Chickasaw Nation. She has won several awards for her photography, including the top prize at the Artesian Arts Festival in 2022.

“Those of us who grew up on the Great Plains learned at a young age to keep our eye on the sky and our feet on the ground,” Kelly says. “We know the serenity that photographs come with seeing for miles in every direction, the marvel of how the sunset can set the sky on fire, the fascination of an afternoon thunderstorm, and the inherent grace in acts of goodwill. These are the simple themes that drive my landscape.”

Kelly has transitioned from film to digital photography, drawing on minimal techniques for processing her photo art. She currently resides in southeastern Oklahoma and continues to showcase her works in museums, galleries and juried art competitions across the southwest.

“We are fortunate to have so many talented First American artists to display in the gallery,” Paige said. “Each piece invokes an emotion that is felt throughout the gallery space—all while providing a perspective from their own cultural lens.”

 Visual Narratives: First American Photography runs through the end of February. A closing reception will take place from 4 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25, at 1 E. Sheridan Ave., at Exhibit C Gallery. For more information on the gallery and art exhibits, visit ExhibitCGallery.com.

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