Tom Pich National Heritage Portraits Audio - Text
Tom Pich: Philip Simmons was one of the first portraits I ever did in the series of Heritage photographs. I traveled down to his hometown of Charleston on a very hot summer day. We sat and talked for a while and then he took us out to a barn beside his house where he does a lot of his iron works.
He’s an ornamental iron worker. And we went there. It's just this old worn out barn, beautiful light. And he had a heating system for heating up his coals from an old oil burner, blower and started a fire and started bending metal and hammering on it and we just took some photographs. Fortunately everything came together. The glow of the fire was so hot in the original photograph you can see his hand is glowing. And I asked him I says, " doesn't that hurt you?" And he said, "I don't even feel it." And with that, you know, we pointed out he's got burn marks up and down his arm and almost like in the form of cigarette burns but they weren't. They're from embers over the years just floating in the air, landing on his skin and burning holes in his skin. But he didn't feel that either it's just from his many years of doing it. It was just a moment, it's one of the greatest photographs I feel I ever did. Just everything came together. A terrific gentleman and I was fortunate here about 15 years later at an event in Washington honoring Heritage Fellows that I got to meet Mr. Simmons again and have my picture taken with him this time. And that's truly a highlight of my life in regards to Heritage Fellows and our relationships together.
He was 95 when he passed away this past year. So we're very fortunate and his legacy has really grown larger over the past five or six years. You could find him in Charleston in his shop after church on a Sunday just a year ago working away and there's been young people to recognize his work and form this little group and, things that he made they would sell them or they'd be on exhibit. And fortunately I was able to donate my photographs of him so they could have them in their shop or any publications that they want. So it was a great way for me to give them back to Mr. Simmons as a fellow and I'm just so grateful for the time that we did get to spend together.
Tom Pich: Ray Hicks was an Appalachian storyteller. He’s from Banner Elk, North Carolina and not the most accessible places. And coming from New York City, this was very far country for us.
This is a great photo of him 'cause this is his front porch and you can see the cord wood and he's just so relaxed. And just when he was telling stories and I think it comes across here in this photograph that he just looks out into the mountain range and he just daydreams. He just gets lost there as he tells the stories. And believes them as much as he's telling them. So it was a great visit, a great time and one that's always going to be close to my heart. He did also tell us his traditional stories about the people in the mountains. And, fortunately at that time besides doing his portrait I did some audio and video recordings 'cause his accent. It was very difficult to understand what he was saying. You have to listen to the recordings over and over or people that have known of him and his brother, Stanley who both received the National Heritage Fellowship Award can interpret and understand these stories. So I was really, really blessed to have spent the time in a part of the United States where I'd never been before and to learn about a whole different culture.
Tom Pich: He's a Piedmont blues guitarist, John lived in Fairfax Virginia and so we arrived in his town and to his home one morning and he greeted us with his beautiful smile and we sat in his living room and he played and I took some photographs but it was one of those days where I don't know what it was and I was just really excited about listening to him. But we didn't have the right location and nothing was really coming together. So after a couple of hours I just said to John, "Why don't we try tomorrow, why don’t we think about another location, why don't we try tomorrow” the space in the house wasn't working and so we packed up the car, put the cameras away and I walked up the front steps and John came to the window, this big picture window, and he looked at me just before he went to open the door. And I'll never forget this, I looked at him and I yelled to my friend Michael, "Michael grab me my camera." And he came back handed me the camera and I asked John just to stand by the door and the light was so gorgeous and I took six exposures of John looking at me. And I knew right there and then I didn't need to take another picture. And this picture is one of those special ones once again that I'm glad I made it of John. He’s not with us now, but he will be with me forever. It was the light. It was just what I seen and that was John's look when he looked through the window at me and I just knew it. And then I had to tell him that, "John we have it. I'm not coming back tomorrow." He goes, "Well what about the pictures?" I says, "I'm telling you John, we got it," in six exposures and I think his personality really shows in there.
Tom Pich: She received the award as a potter. She's from the Cochiti Pueblo and she's a Pueblo potter. What was really special about Helen is that she wasn't this overwhelming woman. She was just so kind and so welcoming, quiet, but very informative and wanting to tell you about not only her life, her as a child and the history of her people, the people on the reservation. Now when I photographed Helen I think she was 89 years old or 88, a couple of things happened during my visit here. Not only did she educate me on to how she does, how she fires up her kiln, [how she] where she gets her clay from. But what's special is that she created the storyteller doll. She created it out of a vision, out of a dream that she had back in the early '60s. And this style, this storyteller doll that's in the photograph is a vision that she had as a young girl and in Native American tradition a lot of times it's about sitting around the elders and listening to their stories and watching what they do and you learn by mimicking or remembering. This is what she did as a young child. She sat around her grandfather with other children and listened to his stories. And like anyone else, if you had young children or whatever, when you tell them a story they're on your lap, they're over your shoulder, they're hanging on top of you, they're sitting on the same couch or the chair and this was her vision. So she created this storyteller doll, which she is most famous for that particular style. And you can see the style over the past 30, 40 years. There’s many other potters doing it, but this is hers. I also decided that this was a piece she had just finished. It wasn't even painted yet. I really liked the rawness of it after learning how it was made and watching it being fired in the back of the house in a kiln. That’s just out in the middle of the desert in New Mexico and on the Cochiti Pueblo, which is between Albuquerque and Santa Fe just right about in the middle, so here we are on a very hot day with a very hot fire and the great thing about my visit with her was not only learning a lot that day but then the next day visiting with her. And it really all came together this second evening I was sitting out front of the house with her. And her husband went off and you could hear the chanting surrounding the house, just out on the Pueblo and she's just telling me stories about how the water was so plentiful 'cause they had a great big reservoir on the reservation when she was growing up and just talking about her childhood and as the sun was setting these light beams just came across the desert floor, they were piercing. And they were coming right at us. And as Helen was talking to me I got into it's the only surreal moment I've ever had in my life and it was a great time. I was almost looking at myself, thinking to myself what a great experience. So it was like a out of body experience watching the two of us talking and watching these light beams come across and come right through us. Something I've never seen or experienced and I didn't have a camera. And I wasn't going to go get my camera out of the bed because I didn't want to disturb the moment. And with that, you know, with this golden light just filling the air I didn't even realize there were a couple of dogs lying in this-- the sand right in front of us. And since they were the same color I didn't even notice them. But at that moment one got up and the other but then they shook as dog would if he was wet but the same thing. And all this dust just went up into the air and these particles just filled the air and it was like being in a ballroom of just little stars floating all around us. I remember just looking at Helen. I couldn't even tell you what she was talking about 'cause I was so mesmerized by the moment. I've never experienced something like that and you just realized you're in the presence of somebody very special.
Tom Pich: This Irvin Trujillo and he is a weaver. And he lives about a hour north of Santé Fe, New Mexico. And, Irvin is a weaver from great traditions. His father was a weaver and you don't, get to understand or realize what it takes to create the works that they do until you spend time and realize that genius that's inside of them to have this vision and produce these you can't call it rugs, you can't call them anything more than pieces of art. We started with photographing him at a loom that his father had taught him on. And it was a good photograph, very traditional in the way maybe not too imaginative. After we took a break his wife did come to me and she suggested to him that he takes me to the Badlands. So we did. He took me to this place that he knew as when he was a child and they would go hiking in these hills and these mountains. And it's nothing but desert scrub and some dry river beds and so on. And we walked for about a half of mile and we walked up little hills, down into little ravines, along dry riverbeds, through barbwire and by the time I got to the destination not only was I covered in a red dust but my camera bags were. Anyway we started to take some photographs and Irvin being a shy person just sort of stood there. And then I realized it was enough for him to feel comfortable to take me to his special place that I could feel comfortable about giving some direction. And with that we took him from a sitting position with this blanket wrapped around him to standing and holding it over his shoulders and spreading it out like if he was an eagle just soaring. And just at that time the wind really did start to pick up 'cause this blanket is quite heavy. It would just pick it up toss it around. And I had him just look over his shoulder at me and magically the whole thing between the colors of the mountains or the Badlands and the distant blues in the skies and then the magical colors that just appeared-- and the movement within this blanket just take on a whole different vision it's like the whole moment-- it's like if the wind didn't pick up you wouldn't realize the life in that blanket and the energy that comes from it. I've been fortunate to be with the right people, right time, right place. I never know and I don't question it. I'm in a particular place for particular reasons and I don't have control over that.
Tom Pich: Julia Parker I had met a year ago. She one of those really special people that you'll meet once and she'll be in your vision forever. She works in Yosemite Park. She works at the museum there. I arrived on a morning where I was right at the edge of the fall turning into winter. Julia and I took a walk outside. It was pouring rain. But the canopy was quite heavy so we were able to walk around. But one of the things I did recall is that as we walked along this path that the rain didn't bother her. And we were watching this waterfall that was a trickle the day before, she was telling me, to just gushing over the mountainside. And she said, you know, "In our culture that, we're part of all this." She was just as comfortable as if it was a sunny day. And I do remember that we were walking back and she touched a tree with her hand and she says, "You know, and we're part of the earth as well as the animals." I said, "Julia we got some photographs but I knew I didn't get what I wanted.” And I says, "What would you like to do?" She says, "I want to be photographed in my favorite meadow." Here's this beautiful golden meadow and it's surrounded by this incredible mountain range and the rain off in the distance between the fog and it was sleeting there were all these things going on at the same time. I left Julia in the car. Went over set up the camera, tripod everything, umbrellas over the cameras. And went back to the car got another umbrella took Julia out and we walked across the road and into the meadow. And I didn't know why I chose this particular place but it seemed the perfect place where Julia would be. And I wouldn't realize until later until after I seen the picture why I chose this particular place. What it is, all this tall golden grass was all stomped down so it made a perfect path through for me to walk and where to place the camera and where Julia could stand. So unknowingly it was- it was made to order. This particular field why she brought me here she would point out later as we reviewed the photograph, there were bushes, there were plants, there were trees where she gets her medicine from, where she gets her twigs her branches for making her basket and so on. So this is a very, very special location. But the greatest thing that happened in this photograph was that as we started to photograph and you could see it if you look at a large version. You can see that her cape is being blown back by the wind. And when you blow it up you could see the bits of sleet and hail going past her. But as we started photographing and talking all of a sudden deer, a handful of deer just rose out of the tall grasses. And they stood up behind her and some of them looked right into the camera and they never ran away. And we photographed for, a short while and I knew I had the photograph. And when you go back and you look at this photograph as Julia and I did later that afternoon, you realize every element that she spoke to me about earlier in the morning that she was part of has all came together in this one photograph. And coincidence, time, fortune whatever it is I really believe that part of Julia's spirit and her love of the earth and for her people that's what made this all come together. And for the animals to be there, stand there and never leave as we photographed, I think that's probably my greatest moment as part of photographing these Heritage Fellows.