Larry McNeil

Larry McNeil was born in 1955 into the Killer Whale House, Keet Hit, of the Northern Tlingit and was raised in both Juneau and Anchorage Alaska. He describes himself as a product of both the traditional Tlingit culture and mainstream North America, with an emphasis on the Tlingit aspect. His photographs are concerned with "what it means to be mired in the milieu of the intersection of two cultures and the absurdities that magically appear." To this end he utilizes a variety of graphic processes including digital photography, painting and printmaking techniques.

Through humor and satire McNeil visually and verbally deconstructs persistent stereotypes surrounding Native people. In one body of work he playfully explored the beautiful compositions and lighting of Edward S. Curtis photographs to reveal hidden prejudices and naïveté. According to McNeil, "Curtis, who set out to document the tribes of North America "before they vanished," made the same mistakes as many of his artistic contemporaries: 1.) To assume that all Native Americans are part of a single culture; and 2.) To sacrifice ethnographic accuracy for composition. Artists of his day frequently asked Indian models to wear objects foreign to their own culture, or posed them aesthetically instead of photographing them during their own ritual activities. Little did anyone know that such minute details would become indelibly imprinted on the public imagination."

In "Vanishing Race, 101," 2005, McNeil used a Ben-Day dot cartoon style to show Edward Curtis being belted by an angry Tonto who exclaims, 'Your "Vanishing Indian" paradigm just doesn't fit our Native Epistemology. Here is to deconstructionist theories. . .'

In McNeil's "Sacred Art Series" the text for "Page One" reads: "Over the years I've been cordially invited to participate in a number of exhibitions, many with titles such as Spirit Capture, Praising the Spirit, Spirit of Native America, and so on. I must be a spiritual expert, so I set out on a quest to gather spiritual power." Each print in the series is presented in a quasi-book form with a page number and text accompanying a straight-forward photograph of a telephone pole, a frontage road, a tourist sign and other utterly mundane subjects. McNeil's wry commentary presents each subject as being sacred because he (the spiritual expert) claims it to be.

Reflecting on what inspires his work McNeil has written: "These photographs have a potent emotional charge for me and were made with consideration of our family's saga going back over a hundred years. It is about family and the Elders sending me out into the world as one of their 'multifaceted messages' to the mainstream. Indigenous view of myths, history, and art are embedded in them which is why the overall title of my work is so fitting . . ." "My work is not so much about what happened to me and my family, but how we responded to it. It seems to me that this journey we call 'life' is more about how we take action to it than anything else."

Larry McNeil lives in Idaho where he works as an artist and is a Professor of Photography at Boise State University. He is currently on a one year leave of absence to work on an Arts and Humanities Fellowship about Global Climate Change. His numerous awards include the Eiteljorg Fellowship, All Roads Indigenous Photography Award, National Geographic; Juror's Choice Award, Santa Fe Center for Photography; En Foco New Works Photography Awards, and the Van Deren Coke Fellowship. He was a Finalist for the Hasselblad Master Award. Portions of his 'fly by night' project have been exhibited at venues including the International Center of Photography in New York City, the San Diego Museum of Art and The Barbican Gallery in London.

Liz Kay

View Larry McNeil's work