Stolen lands and living stories: a photographer reimagines reality
Jeremy Dennis confronts historical narratives by composing digital illustrations.
Photographer Jeremy Dennis’ work explores Indigenous identity, culture, oral tradition and land dispossession. Using digital photography and editing techniques, he creates eclectic images that combine tropes from mainstream consciousness — everything from Henry Fuseli, whose early 19th-century paintings were infused with the supernatural, to contemporary zombie movies — with images from Indigenous culture and landscape.
Dennis, a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, was raised on the reservation in Southampton, New York, and has worked closely with the land he grew up on. His 2016 project On This Site spotlights sacred or otherwise culturally significant Native American landscapes on Long Island using photography and an interactive online map. An ongoing project, The Sacredness of Hills, seeks to preserve burial sites that developers routinely desecrate. As an artist-in-residence at the Santa Fe Art Institute, Dennis is working on a series that challenges The Lazy, the colonial perception that the land in what is now the United States was uncultivated, uninhabited and therefore at settlers’ disposal.
Dennis is also inspired by oral tradition. In his 2013 series Stories — Indigenous Oral Stories, Dreams and Myths, Dennis staged images derived from myths and legends to create evocative photographs that provoke visceral emotion, bringing a sense of reality to stories that might feel distant from contemporary life.
Dennis spoke with High Country News at the Santa Fe Art Institute. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
High Country News: How do you see digital photography interacting with oral expressions of art? Is it a way of maintaining the vitality of oral narratives?
Jeremy Dennis: Painting is what I look to more often than photography for inspiration and reference material. I always say that if I were better at painting, I would be a painter. Between oil paint’s turpentine and darkroom emulsion, I found that digital photography allowed me to pursue the same subject of portraiture and use the skills of painting for burning and dodging for my later digital collages.
The conscious choice of combining mythology and creation stories with photography is a means to transform spiritual narratives from a secular perspective into something concrete and tangible. Although my work uses heavy digital manipulation and post-production, the layers and source materials always come from reality. All of my series and individual images are influenced by a text reference — I find something that resonates with me and attempt to represent the sentiment or message behind the text in an image. The texts come from an array of historical narratives from my Indigenous ancestry, Indigenous creation stories, personal accounts of interactions with Native peoples, and newspaper articles.
In my own view of the creation stories, there is a skepticism I feel until the images are there in front of me. The stories go from text on-page to experiencing something and trying to put together the different elements, rather than trying to believe what one is seeing to be real. I also believe in the idea of stories changing over time to reflect the current reader, whether that’s turning ancient stories into movies or changing the elements based on what is relevant to the audience. In my photography, there’s no certainty to capture even a specific scene. The ambiguity is a strength that allows the viewer to find their own way into what might seem to be a specific story.
Jeremy Dennis’ work is part of the show Surreal Histories at Hellgate Arts from March 13-April 12, 2020, and the show Telling Stories: Changing the Narrative at the Parrish Art Museum from May 3-July 26, 2020. You can learn more about Dennis’ work at www.jeremynative.com and follow him on Instagram @jeremynative.
Disclosure: Annabella Farmer posed for Dennis’ project Rise.
Annabella Farmer is a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.