NEA Arts Magazine

Picture Perfect

PORTRAITS OF NEA NATIONAL HERITAGE FELLOWS by Tom Pich

For nearly 20 years, Tom Pich has crisscrossed the U.S. photographing NEA National Heritage Fellows in their homes, in their studios, in sites sacred to their communities and to their crafts. As Pich tells it, "In 1991 I was reading a story about the National Heritage Fellows in the January issue of National Geographic. It was at that moment that I knew what I wanted to do with my photography career." Gazing at one of Pich's portraits, you might be tempted to believe the old superstition that cameras steal a person's soul. Whether set against the backdrop of a field or a family room, tools in hand or handwork hung on the wall, in traditional regalia or "at-home clothes," these portraits quietly but powerfully reveal the artists' mastery of and reverence for their art. Here are just a few of the more than 125 portraits Pich has taken over the years, with his commentary.

Native American woman in profile in her workshop      

1989
Vanessa Paukeigope Jennings
Kiowa Regalia Maker

"I photographed this portrait of Vanessa in an earthen lodge located steps away from her home out on the prairies of Oklahoma. To celebrate her heritage, Vanessa and her husband Carl Jennings selected historic feather war bonnets and lances [for the background]. The fan Vanessa is holding belonged to her grandmother, and the blanket she is wearing is a wool broadcloth decorated with Osage ribbon work."

 

Wally McRae sitting, legs crossed, wearing striped shirt, black vest with white kerchief, blue jeans, red cowboy boots looking up to his right      

1990
Wally McRae
Cowboy Poet and Rancher

"Wearing his signature red cowboy boots, pant legs always tucked in. During one of Wally's poetry readings [that I attended] he paused, told the audience that he was up all night with a toothache. He then proceeded to end the ordeal by pulling out the tooth. He placed it into the cellophane of his cigarette pack and, without missing a word, proceeded to finish his poem."

 

 

Jimmy SLyde, dressed in brown suit, sitting looking out windows into the sun      

1999
Jimmy "Slyde" Godbolt
Tap Dancer

"During the photo session, Jimmy's protégé, Rocky Mendez, was dancing in the background. Jimmy instinctively would yell out corrections to Rocky without ever turning his head away from the camera. His ears never missed a step."

 

Julia Parker in a grassy field in Yosemite Park, with deer behind      

2007
Julia Parker
Kashia Pomo Basketmaker

"I took this photo in a wind-driven, rainsoaked, golden meadow, located in the valley of Yosemite National Park. Earlier in the day, Julia said an important part of her heritage is that Native-American people are intertwined with the earth and sky, the mountains and trees, and the animals that roam their land. Under a heavy sky, in this quiet meadow where only the sound of the rain could be heard, as if on cue, as I started photographing Julia, five deer rose from the meadow, stood tall, and remained in frame as if to complete Julia's world."

 

Dudley Laufman standing out door holding his fiddle      

2009
Dudley Laufman
Dance Caller and Musician

"In the spring of 1958, a man in his early twenties, Bob McQuillen (2002 NEA National Heritage Fellow), was playing accordion with the festival orchestra at the New England Folk Festival. During the event, Bob noticed a young man in his mid-teens wearing a grayish sweater who would watch the group intently when he wasn't joining in on the dancing. That young man was Dudley Laufman. Dudley recalled being so awestruck by McQuillen's playing that, after the show, he and his father, mother, brothers, and sister followed Bob like a pied piper down the stairs, out the door, and down the street."