Art is a portal to somewhere else—a time, place, state of mind. To look at a French Impressionist painting is to know, in a glance, something of life in Belle Époque Paris. The photographs of Jeremy Dennis bring a momentary connection to his and his community’s history, thoughts and dreams. That link extends to other indigenous people and to the viewer’s own past, if they bring effort to the process.
“I’m trying to fill gaps in cultural knowledge and representation specifically for the Shinnecock and also Northeastern Woodland tradition,” Dennis said. In “On This Site,” he presents color-drenched photographs of Long Island landscapes. But these aren’t the local woods we know. They’re magical, transcendent realms where nature practically exceeds her own beauty.
The artist acts as a guide, revealing what eyes alone cannot see. Dennis studies historical, archeological and anthropological texts to uncover and portray lost sites and associated narratives. “Some of them may have been forgotten or deemed insignificant because many people think that the Shinnecock and other indigenous people went extinct a long time ago. I’m trying to show that we’re still here and that we have a culturally rich story to tell.”
Storytellers have played a crucial role in society since time immemorial. “Once we fulfill basic needs—water, shelter and food—after that, you need a sense of self. Storytelling is a way to access that. Looking at your own past, or stories of your ancestors, or the place that you’re living, or places you’ve traveled, that’s a very easy way to find stories that enlighten you and tell you a little bit about who you are. In my mind, the more we know about ourselves the better we are.”
Legends, myths, beliefs and interior lives are the foundation of the stunning, evocative series, “Stories.” Sweeping and cinematic, they read like film stills, snippets of a larger narrative filled with mystery and drama, or introspection and symbolism. Just as Baroque masters like Caravaggio and Rembrandt brought Biblical tales to life by focusing on the most dramatic, decisive moment, Dennis creates images that tell us something extraordinary has just preceded or will follow.
He stages intricate scenarios, gathers costumes and models, floods his sets with dramatic light, takes a photograph, then brings it to his vision post-production. Through dreamy works that draw the eye, Dennis delivers metaphorical impact. “The Legend of O-Na-Wut-A-Qut-O” shows a woman, a guide for someone on a vision quest, hovering between the sky and the earth, enveloped in ethereal blue mist. “The purpose of this image is to represent that dreams and visions are just as legitimate in our culture as what we refer to as our textbooks or historical documents.”
These are not works that can be perceived cursorily, nor are they meant to be. They’re points of entry. “When I grew up, I thought that the moment the founding fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence was the starting point of American history. What this project is revealing is that almost anywhere you live on Long Island, within your neighborhood, there’s probably an old Indian settlement site, or place where an important historical moment happened between colonists and Indians, or a sacred burial site. I want people to always think that where they are, there’s a rich history of indigenous people.”