Detroit photographer Cybelle Codish considers the telephone call from documentary director Billy Luther a pivotal point in her career.
Until that connection two years ago, Codish, 33, had been best defined by her work in the music industry. Bob Seger's last album cover was her effort, and she's photographed Jack White, Kanye West, Rickie Lee Jones and John Legend. Her photos also have appeared in local and national publications, including Metro Times, where she's shot subjects ranging from bicycles to emergency rooms to military contractors. She's done the occasional wedding and fashion shoot.
But the connection with Luther, a member of the Navajo, Hopi and Laguna Pueblo Tribes, launched Codish into the world of documentary film. She and Luther had met in Chicago where Codish attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
She was one of three still photographers Luther hired to shoot on location and complement the video work on his latest documentary, Grab. With unprecedented access to the community, Luther's film tells the story of a Laguna Pueblo custom, the throwing of food and household items from rooftops to waiting crowds. It was a selection for the Sundance Film Festival, where it debuted in January.
"The film is a way of looking at traditions with a modern spin," Codish says.
Her photos — along with those of two New York-based photographers who also were on location — are featured in the film, but they've also branched into independent exhibits.
Featured at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian in New York this winter, they'll also go on to exhibits in Washington, D.C. Codish is working on a local showing.
"I knew working on a feature film would be a major opportunity, but had no idea it would culminate in a showing of my photos at the Smithsonian," Codish says.
She's planning future projects related to the Native American experience.
"I am inspired by their strength as a nation and am determined to document this story of a history at risk," Codish says.
How Cybelle Codish set out to document a part of our living American history
Metro Times: What inspired you to do this project?
Cybelle Codish: Director Billy Luther invited me. When he described the project, that he wanted me to shoot the stills for a documentary he was filming in New Mexico on the Laguna/Pueblo traditions, I knew instantly I would do it. Billy's phone call was pivotal for me, as this project would give me a body of work that could help me to gain access to other tribes as well, specifically here in Michigan. I am inspired by their strength as a nation, and am determined to document this story of a history at risk.
MT: How much of an issue was getting access to the pueblo?
CC: It really was a delicate process to get the permissions necessary to explore this culture. A lot of projects — films, writings, art — have resulted in exploitation of Native Americans, so their reluctance to open their world for the kind of documentation we did is well-founded. Luther, the director, being from there was the connection, but we all had to work to keep the trust too. I think we've produced a respectful yet artistic representation of not only the Grab but this community.
MT: Can you describe the setting for the film and the photographs?
CC: In this tribe there are two casinos, one gas station and that's it. We saw abandoned cars, wild horses, wild Chihuahuas. It's a lot of decay and it's in the middle of the desert. But it's also a place of supreme beauty, and we were really interested in showing the traditions that exist but the modern day context they're presented in. It's not all Grab Day. It's being in somebody's home. It's having conversations. It's showing someone's hair being braided. It's howling Chihuahuas chasing after somebody but it's basically showing daily life that has never been seen before. That's the whole interest for the Smithsonian and I think for other places too.
MT: You bore witness, really, to some of the age-old traditions they still hold dear. Did these "events" dictate the end of an era? Or the strength of their history and their incorporation into their contemporary existence?
CC: It was interesting to see how they [the Laguna/Pueblo] carried on these age-old traditions while still bringing in elements that made them more current. For example, where they used to throw items from their crops for the Grab Day celebration, they now throw everything from microwave popcorn packs and cans of soup to grocery baskets and school supplies.
MT: Where did you shoot from during the filming?
CC: You had to be out of sight, first of all, from the cameras. You wanted your own independent images and you also did not want to be in the line of fire, so you'd be on the roof, in the bushes, on the ground.
MT: What did you learn and how did it impact you?
CC: It really did change my perspective about how to shoot certain subjects to tell their story in the photo. Even when I am shooting in a studio with a model in a controlled situation; I am still looking for that truth that I can show through the photograph.
MT: What in your experience working in Detroit best prepared you for the Grab assignment?
CC: I think my work with publications like Metro Times was the best preparation I could have asked for. It was through these experiences that I learned to be observant and respectful of the subjects that invite me into their homes and lives. Working closely with writers taught me to listen and determine how and when the shot can be obtained. Film is strikingly similar in that respect. Your job is to home into your intuition, anticipate the next moment, and blend in to the background.
MT: Explain the significance of your work appearing at the Smithsonian.
CC: It is one of the highest honors. To go from my first official assignment on a reservation straight to NMAI — the country's largest Museum of the American Indian — is tremendous. Hopefully the images from this project illustrate my reverence for the Native American way of life. The ultimate goal is to take the time to get to know the culture as it currently exists right here in Michigan. It is a part of our living history, and I would be honored to be able to document it.
MT: Is this the start of a new phase of your career, documenting Native American populations and traditions?
CC: I absolutely hope so. I'm considering it an ongoing project — and I feel this is just the beginning. The experience in New Mexico and what's happened with the photos since then, the showing and exhibitions, has fueled the fire.
Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to [email protected].