From her darkroom in Los Angeles, photographer, silversmith, and beadworker Peggy Fontenot tones and prints gelatin silver photographs that strike a balance between photojournalism and fine art. But these days, Fontenot, a member of the Patawomeck Indian Tribe of Virginia, is focused more on the photojournalism side, documenting social issues, especially those that affect Native Americans across the United States.
In recent years, she has documented the grassroots movement to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. Fontenot, who says she is also a certified Potawatomi artist, has also done photo essays about the plight of the homeless and about U.S. veterans traumatized by war and conflict. Fontenot brings examples of her photography, old and new, to the We Are the Seeds Native art market and culture festival, taking place in the Santa Fe Railyard on Thursday and Friday, Aug. 15 and 16. She will also be bringing examples of her beadwork.
“For the past two years, I’ve done beaded samplers that are leaning on political,” said the artist, who uses the medium to explore Native identity, colonial views of Native peoples, racism, and more. “My beadwork basically supports my photography,” she said.
Early in her career, in the 1990s, Fontenot focused on photographing sites on Indian reservations and tribal lands, but the images were often devoid of people. She started out shooting things like teepees because, she said, they had a serene quality and spoke of an older, traditional way of life. “I thought, at the time, that people distracted from my images,” she said. “Then I got to a point where I realized the people are the images. They tell a story, and I can tell a story for them through my photography.”
Fontenot said that people often think her photographs are much older than they are. In part, that’s because she still shoots on film and uses traditional developing processes. She prefers shooting on film for two reasons. One is practical and has to do with the original information retained in a negative. The other is aesthetic. She’s drawn more to black-and-white than to color photography, and the gelatin silver process gives her photographs a classic look, which is hard to capture digitally.
“When I shoot something, even though I make a digital file, I can always reference back to my negative and see that what’s in the image is what was really there,” she said. “It’s important to do the black-and-white film because color is a distraction from the subject, as far as I’m concerned.”
Fontenot has been showing at the We Are the Seeds festival since its inception, before the event morphed into its present incarnation in 2016, as an offshoot of the Indigenous Fine Art Market, which was itself a Native market started as an alternative to Indian Market in 2014. Fontenot also applied to Indian Market, where she has shown her work in years past, but was rejected by the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) because she wasn’t a member of a federally recognized tribe (as reported in The New Mexican on July 1). The Patawomeck is recognized as an Indian tribe by the state of Virginia, but has no federal recognition. However, the Potawatomi are federally recognized; Fontenot said she has not received a satisfactory answer as to why she was rejected.
Once We Are the Seeds wraps up late Friday afternoon, she heads to the Scottish Rite Temple (463 Paseo de Peralta) to participate in the Free Indian Market, which runs Aug. 17 and 18 and was started last year as an alternative market for Native artists excluded from the SWAIA event. ◀