A Dialogue with Cybelle
House of Wren’s Dialogue project spotlights conversations that serve not only as artist talks but a true sense of storytelling from conceptualizing to the build up and execution of the exhibition. In her life-time, Codish has worn a number of artistic badges from writer to musician. But one title has never left since her first brush with he medium. We’re not talking about paint, we’re talking, of course, about photography. Codish, a native Detroiter, has won numerous awards and grants for her raw photo-journalistic essays and images. Here we discuss empathy, ideals and revisit the experience of being one of the first outsiders invited into the Laguna Pueblo Reservation just south of Taos and west of Albuquerque off of Highway 40.
WM: You are constantly on the move for assignments, what is it about a place that grips you? I wonder where you find pause for inspiration to sink in and really permeate.
CC: Although it can be taxing, being on the move so frequently can still be exhilarating. I have found it is an exercise in ways of seeing things and often look for narratives in the mundane aspects of travel–– the slow shuffle of airport security lines, waiting endless hours to get anywhere. Often I create stories of the people I observe, and if the opportunity presents itself, I’ll try to capture the scene. I used to describe a photographer’s life as a series of lonely hotel rooms. It wasn’t until I began to photograph each cookie-cutter room that I stayed in, that I began to see the beauty in them, and realized that I too, am part of the narrative. There is something in every place that grips me. After years of honing the storytelling instinct, I try to pay attention to what would normally be overlooked. A dear friend of mine that I often travel with once said, “...But I was standing right next to you the whole time and I never saw that!” I find it’s my responsibility as a photojournalist is to tell the FULL story of an experience, knowing that there is something happening, something worthy, in every direction.
WM: Revisiting this work feels sacred in a number of ways. I’m most curious to know what moved you to show images that had never been seen before?
CC: The backstory of the initial project was pivotal for me in many ways. I always had a deep interest in Native American culture and traditions, yet gaining access as a non-native was an issue. It is an incredibly delicate scenario, as their culture has been exploited since the beginning of colonization. There is an inherent, justifiable mis-trust of someone from outside coming in to document in any capacity. When my friend Billy Luther, a renowned Native filmmaker, approached me to be part of his team for the making of the documentary, “Grab”, I was both honored and thrilled. It was the first time this tribe had let non-Natives in to document their daily lives, and it was through Luther as a liaison that this was even possible. It was everything I could have imagined and more. It was seeing their traditions cultivated in a contemporary manner, and moments with family and community that completely enchanted me. What’s more is that being inside the boundaries of the Reservation came with access to one of the most arresting parts of the country I have ever seen. The film and subsequent museum shows took on a life of their own. The difficulty was always to choose just a few select photos to convey the entire experience. When the opportunity arose to work with House of Wren, I immediately gravitated towards this subject matter, and I saw the chance to show previously unseen images that I’ve been longing to bring to the light of day. Still, in a dream world, this show would be at least 100 images deep! But allowing the land to tell a secondary story of the Laguna people from the perspective of nature and humanity was something I could not resist, especially as we look at the global implications of human activity.
WM: We no longer live in a world where traditional photography is the only topic of conversation and I know just how much you enjoy breaking the rules. Tell us a little bit about your work on the reservation, the mindset and methods that you became in touch with to adapt to the uniqueness of your time there.
CC: That is an intriguing question, as I have always fought with the confines of traditional photography even from my days in the darkroom. However, being allowed onto the Reservation –– and knowing that this was the gift of an opportunity –– the approach to subjects and space required a whole new set of rules. There was such a level of respect that is not only mandatory from the tribe (gaining permission to even photograph a person/place/thing beforehand was imperative), but also mandatory as a storyteller to know instinctively when a shot should be taken. There were many things I saw that only exist in memory, and as a result, not in images. That makes the images that were captured that much more precious. During that period, it was one of the most impactful lessons I have learned as a journalist: when not to tell the story and when to just experience it. It has carried over into much of my work to this day as a result. I know when to back off, show respect, and not capitalize on a moment just because it is there, and furthermore how this impacts the images that you do end up with.
WM: As both a writer and photographer, how do you balance your storytelling?
CC: From my start as a published photographer, I learned that you often have to convey an entire experience in one static image. This was something I honed mostly with my work in the music industry where you had to convey a sound or an entire album through a singular photograph. From there it was a seamless transition into the world of photojournalism. I’ve had the privilege of working with some absolutely brilliant writers and have always been a voracious reader, so when I began penning for publications, I would try to write in photographs. I tend to be a bit flowery in that regard and see my strength more in writing about music than anything. The process typically begins with coming up with a caption for the theoretic image I would take for the story I would compose and then expanding from there. Writing and photography seem symbiotic to me in that regard. I’m grateful to be able to do both, but photography is my preferred pen.
WM: It is difficult to ignore the topic of subjectivity. What sort of perspective did you leave the Reservation with? How do your photographs address the reality of a twenty-first century lifestyle on federally preserved land built in 1699?
CC: I was curious about how traditions were maintained and how they might become more contemporary. What struck me the most was the strong sense of community and how the joy that surrounds these events has withstood the test of time. In my line of work, I’m privileged to be allowed into people’s homes literally and figuratively behind closed doors of certain communities–– to capture moments that can lend themselves to a greater understanding. This was certainly something I anticipated with the Laguna Pueblo. What I didn’t anticipate was the visceral reaction I would have to the stories of colonization and forced cultural assimilation for a people that span the country beyond a specific mandated reservation border, and how they are, as a result of these actions, a largely forgotten populous. What I walked away with was an even larger curiosity of how a culture so silenced still maintains their voice.
WM: Your eye seems to gravitate to the horizon, where the dichotomy of something larger touches the infiniteness of something less. What do you see in this magic space?
CC: Ah. That is something that has taken me years to understand myself! The way earth meets sky is immensely powerful and magnetic. Conveying that vastness and the minuteness simultaneously is something I couldn’t quite fathom within the confines of a lens. Enter: New Mexico. This land, the vistas, that atmosphere… It’s one of those things where you don’t ever believe you can document it accurately. I worked exceptionally hard at it–– I had always been about the landscape of people. New Mexico taught me the ability to go grand, and for the first time, I could feel the temperature, altitude, and the infinite in a photograph I had taken. Now I tend to gravitate towards grand. It is a magic space that I will forever try my best to wrangle.
WM: We know from the Grab Dray ritual that creativity and celebration flourish at the Laguna Pueblo Reservation. Tell us a little more about what you set out to capture before finding yourself additionally surveying the land.
CC: Aside from the delicate nature and approach to the subject matter, this project was largely about working in conjunction with the filmmakers to document what they were seeing, in addition to pulling back a bit and showing behind the scenes in process, and life as it ran tangent to our presence. The focus was on the preparation for the celebrations and the individual stories of a select few. Because of the beauty of every direction and every moment, it eventually developed into a constant journaling, both professionally and personally. It was impossible not to capture a scene while driving from one location to the next, where wild horses were running next to semi-trucks barreling down the highway. The entirety of the experience became as important as the specific job I was there to do. Nature and the imprints surrounding the lives on the Reservation was as necessary an ingredient to the story as the actual traditions themselves.
WM: In terms of witnessing the heritage of the Laguna people I can’t help but think that as a child of two artists this may have resonated especially for you.
CC: I am actually the product of a village of artists! My biological parents were both artists (fine art/textiles and glass blowing/sculpture) and my adoptive parents are as well (Fine art/graphic design and Pops is also a songwriter). I was adopted into my biological Mother’s family, so both Maternal Grandparents & adoptive grandparents were artists– It’s definitely in the bloodline. Art and music were more than just staples in my upbringing. They were a rite of passage, just as they are on the Reservation. I knew I would be an artist in some capacity. Once I discovered photography, all bets were off. I was eager to delve into a medium that no one in my family had previously explored in earnest. There is something about the importance of passing on the tradition of storytelling regardless of the medium, not unlike the Tribes I was privy to, where preservation of culture relies on personal histories and capturing them in a multitude of methodologies.
WM: I see the reflection of your family in you, just like you have shown us the reflection of the universe beyond our personal grasp. Is there anything else you have to say about the exhibition or images you have chosen to share?
CC: It is always exciting to see a collection of images come to life. I try not to overdo it with clicking away every second, likely a result of beginning with film where cost of film and production of prints was a consideration. So I learned to wait for those moments of impact to appear before me. That being said, I have a love for so many images that sometimes never have the chance to be seen. Every one of them has a meaning for me, because I strive to be thoughtful about what I capture. I am very excited to see this group of images come together in particular. As a visual narrator, there is such a gorgeous dichotomy between the infinite vastness of landscape and heavens, coupled with the intimacy of the intricate lines on a well-weathered face.
ABOUT THE ARTIST: Although her resume may say otherwise, Cybelle Codish is first an artist, then photojournalist. Her documentary style photo essays have graced everything from Rolling Stone to Taschen to The Washington Post and assorted independent presses. Codish has shot for a myriad of record companies including Capitol, Motown, Universal, Atlantic and Warner Brothers, and has numerous Gold and Platinum awards for her album covers. Her rich colors and impermeable black point underscore her vivid accounts of real life activity making her a photographic force. She has traveled the world on editorial assignments and was deemed photographer to the celebrities for several years after studying at the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She was most recently named as a New School Fellow before the release of her cookbook collaboration, “Coconuts & Collards” by the University of Florida Press in spring of 2018.
View Cybelle Codish's online exclusive exhibition, As Above, So Below.