I took my first trip to New York City this summer. The city was overwhelming, its unending energy mesmerizing, even intimidating. Buffeted by the fervor of the city and the friend I was with, I struggled to remain in the moment, absorb everything I could, and remember it all.
This is worth mentioning only because, although I enjoyed my long-awaited week in NYC, my trip there as a 20-something pales in comparison to the one taken by a group of high school photography students from Pablo, Montana.
With the help of mentor David Spear, the group of 14 students from Two Eagle River School traveled to New York City last year. Between tours of The New York Times, New York University's photography program, art museums and photojournalism classes, they found time for the true reason behind the trip: capturing what they could of the city through photography. Rez Made: New York, currently on display at the Missoula Art Museum, is a collection of photographs from the trip.
The artists have a portrait of themselves, bashful and proud, and an artist statement beside each of their photographs. Along with each student's name and age, they state whom, of a diverse range of peoples, they represent. This includes Salish, Kootenai, Cree, different tribes within Blackfeet nation, Navajo and many more.
While all the photos were shot on the same trip, in the same city, they vary in quiet ways. Mars Sandoval, age 16, took photos that show introspection as well as external observation; his journal, pen and headphones in the first image, and a snapshot of buildings in the other. Xavier Smith, 15, chose to shoot in black and white, highlighting architectural elements in his photography: repetition, line and the nice curve of an archway. The students' fascination with the architecture and sheer size of the buildings surrounding them is clear when looking at these photos. It seems their cameras were often tilted either up to capture the rooflines of tall buildings, or down to reveal the places where nature met the city.
As a white girl from a small Montana town, close to but not on the Fort Peck Reservation, I'm far from qualified to define what it might mean to be "rez made." I can only see these images and try to parse out how it may have felt to be a teenager from Pablo with the opportunity to study and work in the cultural capital of our country.
When visiting New York City, it's impossible to ignore the huge amounts of people. We Montanans are spoiled; our state has a population density of 6.5 people per square mile, where New York City's is 27,000. In the subway, on the sidewalk or in a restaurant, I was surprised to find that I, so intrinsically linked to the spaciousness of rural Montana, still felt kinship with city folk. In the images of Rez Life, you can see the students grappling with the same thought. If Montana made, who am I outside of this place? If "rez made," can affinity be found in the city?
Taelyn Lafley's work, shot in color, is particularly striking. Clearly taken on a subway, the image is framed on either side by the bellies of what appear to be parents. A small girl and her younger brother hold a chrome pole that splits the image down the center. They are tired, even bored. The girl, her face in shadows, looks at the camera while her brother, his face in focus and yellow-lit, gazes upward.
Looking at this photo, I try to imagine lives more different: a childhood in the largest American city and the lives that created Rez Made. But it's the empathy with which the photo is shot, the earnest fascination obvious in all of the images, that shows the universal humanity shared between these Montana kids and the city across the country.
Rez Made continues at MAM through Dec. 31.