Q&A: Joel Grimes on Navajo Portraits (and Bob Dylan)

Katherine Smith, Big Mountain | Joel Grimes

Katherine Smith, Big Mountain | Joel Grimes

We recently spoke with photographer Scott Baxter about his contribution to Cowboys & Indians, our September portfolio. Shortly after Baxter stopped by, Joel Grimes, who contributed the Indians half of the portfolio, paid us a visit. We asked Grimes about the experience of photographing the Navajo people. To see more of Grimes’ work, pick up Navajo: Portrait of a Nation, the result of two years spent on the Navajo Nation.

How did you become a part of the Cowboys & Indians project?
Back in the late 1980s, I was living in Washington, D.C. Having grown up in the West, I was really looking for a project that would put me back in the West. My wife and I were thinking about some ideas, and it really just fell into my lap that I should do a book about the Navajo. I spent 200 days a year, for two years, in a Volkswagen van, tromping around the Navajo Nation and taking portraits. It was the hardest project I’ve ever worked on in my life, and it took a lot out of me. But it became a national-interest coffee-table book [Navajo: Portrait of a Nation], and some great things came out of that project.

Back when the book came out, in 1991, I thought, “I have to go to Arizona Highways and show them this book.” They ran a portfolio back then, and I started doing projects for the magazine. About three years ago, [Photo Editor] Jeff Kida did a portfolio of my cactus stuff. Then I got a phone call from Jeff, saying, “We need some of your Navajo stuff.” To have it run again is a lot of fun. I had my photos exhibited at the Smithsonian, but I always tell people that this magazine is the biggest feather in my cap, because I grew up with Arizona Highways.

All of the photos were shot on film and with medium-format cameras. Why do you like that format, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of it?
The more film surface you have to play with, the more resolution and tonal range. Most of my commercial work was shot with medium-format. After the Navajo project, I did a whole series of portraits with a 4×5 camera. In this portfolio, the shot of Rose [in front of Shiprock, New Mexico] was done with a 4×5. I’ve always wanted the biggest format possible when I shoot portraits.

What challenges or surprises did you encounter while making these photos?
The hardest thing was coming onto the Navajo Nation as an outsider. A lot of people told me that what I was doing, as an “Anglo,” was almost an impossible task. To get a permit from the Navajo Nation took three months. I literally camped at the tribal headquarters, in Window Rock, trying to get that permit. They passed me from department to department, but nobody wanted to commit.

At the time, Leonard Haskie was the interim tribal president, and I made contact with his chief of staff. At one point, she told me, “Leonard wants to be photographed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in D.C.” I bought a plane ticket, flew out there and photographed him. I pulled the Polaroid and said to him, “Leonard, I’m not peeling this Polaroid until you give me a permit to shoot on the Navajo Nation.” He said, “Uh … OK!” It was a beautiful portrait, and that was how I got my permit.

Then I had to win over the people. I’d go up and ask people whether I could photograph them, and they’d say no. It doesn’t matter what culture you come from; if you come up to someone and ask to photograph them, they’re going to be hesitant. Eventually, once I had won someone over, they’d start introducing me to family members, and from there, it kind of snowballed. But there were weeks where I’d be driving around for a week and not photograph anyone. As a photographer, it’s brutal, because you want to be doing it every day. So you have to be very patient.

You’ve spent a lot of time making photographs on the Navajo Nation. What makes its people so interesting to you?
My goal with this project was to photograph the Navajo from an artistic perspective, rather than an activist perspective. I did get sucked into some of the challenges faced by the Navajo, and I learned a lot over those two years. But I tried to approach them as an artist. I said, “Here’s a group of people who could make some unbelievable imagery.” I think, in a way, there was a need for someone to photograph them in an artistic way. I got some criticism for not showing certain aspects of Navajo life, but I wanted to do it in an artistic way.

Was there an image from the September issue that really stuck out for you?
The photo of Rose, which was shot 10 years after the book project, always sticks out for me. But the other one that sticks out is the one of the medicine man, Andilthdoney Begay, where he’s silhouetted on the bed. I used a strobe at first, and the shots turned out OK. But right before I tore down, I turned off the strobe and shot without it, and the shot turned out so much better. That’s a fun image. I have it hanging on my wall at home.

It’s well known that you’re colorblind. How do you think that affects your photography style?
For years, I wouldn’t disclose that, but now I do. I believe that each one of us is unique in the way we approach the world. We are individuals, and we have a certain way of looking at the world. The fact that I’m colorblind means I see the world differently than the person next to me does. I’m drawn to the way light strikes a face, so I use a lot of strobes and artificial light. What color the person’s clothes are doesn’t really matter to me. I think it’s a benefit: It separates me from other photographers. Your weakness can actually be your greatest asset, so I say, embrace it! Look at Bob Dylan: He couldn’t really sing very well, but he was a poet. And when he comes on the radio, you know it’s a Bob Dylan song. When someone sees one of my photos, I hope they say, “Hey, that’s a Joel Grimes photo.”

What advice would you give novice photographers who are interested in your style of photography?
When we look at someone’s work, we often say, “Wow, that person’s talented.” But really, that person has worked very hard at developing a certain look. It really comes down to how many hours you invest into learning a certain skill. It’s how much time you put into it. Take any photographer who’s considered a “rock star” in the industry, and follow them for a day. They’ll wear you out. They work really hard, and that’s the key. Practice, practice, practice, and you’ll see your skills grow.

Where can people see more of your work?
I have a website, www.joelgrimes.com, and a blog, www.joelgrimesworkshops.com. It’s a lot of fun to be able to share the love that I have for a craft with others. I’ve grown by leaps and bounds in the process of doing that. I also do a lot of photography workshops. I’m living in the Phoenix area again, and I’m excited to be a part of this community. Being back here and having my photos in Arizona Highways again has been really fun!

— Noah Austin, Associate Editor

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