"I live in the Hamptons, which is known for its beautiful beaches and mansions and parties," photographer Jeremy Dennis (Shinnecock) tells SFR. "A quarter out of the year, there's business, there's economy, and the other three-quarters, you have a lot of vacant storefronts, boarded up spaces, for lease signs, wasted space, but…for us, it's our full-time home."
Dennis is describing a series he's working on, dubbed The Lazy. In the images, mainly of Dennis himself dressed in what he describes as "traditional Northeast regalia," he poses either inside or near vacant storefronts and otherwise abandoned buildings. He wants to shine a light on that wasted space, particularly as it applies to an area of the country that seemingly only fires up into life when well-to-do white folks deign it so. It's a concept he says is particularly difficult for Indigenous people who so famously have had their land stolen across North America (and elsewhere), and it's part of the reason Dennis has come to Santa Fe for the 2020 Labor Residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute, where he'll live and work for the next several months.
In his artist statement, Dennis ponders the potential impact and meaning of The Lazy, saying that it "reflects upon early stages of colonization, focusing on the paradox of new worlds and continents as being both occupied by its Indigenous people but also empty and ready for settlement."
Santa Fe, he says, faces similar concerns, though our housing crisis is arguably more about a lack of spaces. Still, the city has seen empty buildings sit for ages while locals toil in search of housing or workable space, and Dennis says the crux of the matter is similar: People in Santa Fe—and, like most everywhere, disproportionately people of color—often lack access to land and spaces. For Native people, Dennis says, it's particularly maddening.
"Coming from New York and a tribe east of the Mississippi, even our neighbors willfully ignore our presence," he says. "Even what the government has given us is a way to assimilate or erase us."
The Lazy is still a work in progress, and Dennis says even he isn't sure what will wind up in the completed series. Still, he's no stranger to tackling tough issues with camera in hand. In his 2018 series Rise, he examined misconceptions about Native America through the use of pop culture-esque zombie tropes. In the series, groups of Natives ominously sneak up on or threateningly surround white people. It's somehow alarmingly powerful and humorous all at once. Some shots even look like Renaissance paintings, and while Dennis' post-shoot editing work is fantastic, his compositional eye is refreshing and bold. Candids these are not, but with his model work, Dennis has captured what appear to be terrifying moments in motion; that fluidity is undeniably fascinating.
"I wanted to use the symbolism of the traditional Native figure in a way that links us to the present," he explains. "But it's also about bringing non-Indigenous people into my work, about scenes you might see in a scary movie—but it's allegorical."
Why would Natives be scary?
"People don't want to meet us," Dennis says. "They just want to have a tipi in their backyard."
As for the future, Dennis says he a number of projects in the works, but his ultimate goal might stretch back to the continuation of work he began in 2016. That year, he was awarded $10,000 from the nonprofit Running Strong for American Indian Youth for a project called On This Site. For a full year, Dennis traveled Long Island cataloguing and photographing important cultural sites. With the data, he created an interactive satellite map (jeremynative.com/onthissite). There are still numerous residencies to apply for and work within, Dennis says, but one day, perhaps, he could see On This Site transforming into a nonprofit.
"I love the idea of that potential," he says. "There are just so many options."
Platform: Engaging the Ethics of Production and Consumption:
5:30 pm Friday Feb. 21. Free.
Santa Fe Art Institute,
1600 St. Michael's Drive,