Jeremy Dennis: Illuminating Indigenous Mythology

“On This Site”
Jeremy Dennis outside Guild Hall, where his exhibition “East Hampton Indigenous” is on view. Mark Segal

Jeremy Dennis’s “On This Site,” a photography project that maps culturally significant Native American locations on Long Island, has brought the 27-year-old Shinnecock artist well-deserved attention during the past year. The exhbition has  been presented in various iterations at the Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center and Museum in Southampton, the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead, the Watermill Center, and, most recently, Guild Hall.

That project is only one in an ambitious body of work through which Mr. Dennis explores issues relating to indigenous identity, assimilation, tradition, and history. Others include “Behind the Dance,” a book consisting of photographs of and interviews with indigenous dancers, singers, vendors, and visitors at six powwows on Long Island and throughout New England, and “Nothing Happened Here,” a series of photographs of white people pierced by multiple arrows that were taken at the Vermont Studio Center.

The most fundamental theme of Mr. Dennis’s work is indigenous mythology, which is the basis for his “Stories,” an impressive work-in-progress that uses digital photography to create striking, elaborate, often dreamlike images to recreate Native American stories and legends.

Born and raised on the Shinnecock Reservation, Mr. Dennis earned a B.A. in studio art at Stony Brook University in 2013 and an M.F.A. from Penn State in 2016. His interest in narrative took root at Stony Brook. “I was really interested in more bizarre stories at that time,” he said during a conversation at Guild Hall. 

He first pursued the myth idea through animation, then turned to intaglio etching, exposing the prints to different powders and chemicals. “The image was a cave with animals, and I was basing it on the myth of the coyote as the trickster figure, but also as a kind of savior.” 

One source was the myth of Prometheus. “My story was similar. It had this anthropomorphic being that goes into the cave and sneaks past all these animals who are sleeping, and in the end he brings humans fire, so they can cook and take advantage of it. I’m really interested in these origin stories.”

He began to work with photography while still at Stony Brook in a series of works based on dreams or “inner psychological meditations [that] come in forms that are difficult to explain but continue to involuntarily invade my thoughts,” he wrote at the time. 

“Much of that was portrait work,” he said, “but in kind of a surreal style, which led up to more current work. Photography makes more sense, because I’ve always wanted to strive toward photorealism, and I wasn’t going to achieve that with hand work.” Much of the power of the “Stories” is the way the images use digital manipulation to weave the supernatural into the realistic. 

“Ghost of the White Dear” from 2016 is based on an indigenous oral story from the Chickasaw in Oklahoma. A shirtless brave lies in a clearing, wounded by an arrow, while an enormous ghostly white deer — a negative image — looms against a background of dramatic storm clouds. “This story was relevant to me in that it represents the sacredness and power of nature in relation to man,” he said.

Based on an indigenous oral story of the Serrano people of California, “Land of the Dead” shows what appears to be the same brave, wearing only buckskin pants, surrounded by blurry, half-transparent figures, one of whom reaches out to him from among the deceased. The scene is set in woods supernaturally illuminated from above. 

Digital manipulation enables him to create realistic special effects, including monsters and giants, and to populate some scenes with a multitude of figures, when in fact he had access to only one or two models.

The “Stories” are informed in part by “visiting a lot of libraries and either physically transcribing or digitizing physical books. I have a whole library of documents I can go through and screen check certain stories.” He noted that many of the tales are fragmented, with details missing or omitted over the years by storytellers.

He began working with Native American myths from all over North America. “I try to avoid that now because you don’t want to have a compendium identity, you want more of a regional representation. I may take from elsewhere, but then I make it more Northeastern woodland. You don’t have teepees on Long Island, or mountains.”

Mr. Dennis also mines art history for his images. When discussing Sky Woman, the well-known Iroquois creation myth, he first brought up an image from Hieronymus Bosch on his computer, then a painting by Edvard Munch. “I see similar themes and aesthetics in art history. I don’t mind quoting.”

In his discussion of “Nothing Happened Here,” the photographs of people studded with arrows, Mr. Dennis referred to a lecture in which Noam Chomsky discussed the American preoccupation with “the zombie apocalypse” and suggested that zombies are a substitute for Native Americans and African-Americans. 

“We can’t really talk about those two races,” said Mr. Dennis. “The images reflect the fear of arrows, which is really the fear of the uprising of American Indians, their taking back America — even though we’re only 3 percent of the population. There’s a fear that Native Americans always want to take revenge on white people.” 

The photographs in “East Hampton Indigenous,” the Guild Hall exhibition drawn from “On This Site,” are accompanied by texts that illuminate the history and importance of the locations to Native Americans. “A lot of people in my community have given me information and documents, but others are learning a lot, which I was hoping would be the case.” 

Mr. Dennis has photographed more than 100 locations. “No matter who you are on Long Island, a lot of these sites are monuments for honoring the history but are also a kind of revelation. The history of these sites has been wiped out for most people.”

A statement on Mr. Dennis’s website captures the essence of his many varied and far-reaching projects. “While science has resolved many of our curiosities about natural phenomena, the question of identity still remains unsolved. In an environment that seems so eager to move past conflicts of race and such faraway histories, myth grants a sense of community and place in the universe.”

Fiona, posed in Vermont for Mr. Dennis’s “Nothing Happened Here” series.
Ghost of the White Deer,” was inspired by an oral story from the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma
Erica Phillips, left, was photographed at the 2015 Shinnecock Powwow, one of many she attended on the East Coast. Anna Cuffee, right, also photographed at the Shinnecock Powwow in 2015, plans to teach at the reservation’s preschool. Jeremy Dennis Photos