Extending the frame: The art, vision and activism of photographer Will Wilson

Extending the frame: The art, vision and activism of photographer Will Wilson

At first, you don’t know what you’re looking at. A gray expanse of uneven geometry surrounded by undulating brown. Shift your perspective a bit and it might be a close-up of a distressed textile, with subtle hues and textures surfacing as your eyes adjust.

And then the horizon comes into focus. Now you know where you are. In the distance are the classic jutting buttes of Monument Valley, familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a John Ford Western.

The gray wasteland is the Mexican Hat Uranium Disposal Cell, a former uranium processing mill in southeastern Utah, on the Navajo Nation, which is pockmarked by hundreds of abandoned mines. Diné artist Will Wilson, 53, who spent part of his childhood on the Nation, shot the dizzying photograph by drone for his series “Connecting the Dots.” He was so focused on the remediation site that he didn’t realize everything he’d captured. “When I looked at the first photos, I saw the famous buttes, but they were cut off, and at an angle,” he says. “I had to go back so I could compose the shot.” 

Mexican Hat Disposal Cell, cylindrical projection, Halchita, Utah, Navajo Nation, 2020, Courtesy of Will Wilson

At its most basic,Connecting the Dots: For a Just Transition” is a geological survey of the radioactive remains of uranium mining, a lethal legacy that is linked to ongoing illnesses. But, as with much of Wilson’s work, the images are the result of an extended process that weaves personal thematic concerns with an artistic impulse — an impulse poised at the intersection of photography, history and contemporary Native life. He uses whatever photographic technique best serves his needs, from 19th-century darkroom processes, to stitching panoramas in Photoshop, to digital drone photography, to smartphone apps that bring still portraits to life.   

“From the beginning, when I first started with photography, this notion of extending the frame has always been central to my practice,” he says. “That’s how you experience the world — or, at least, that’s how I experience the world.”

His images are a vital contribution to the visual history of the Western landscape. He also launched a collaborative online speaker series through Diné College — “Reframing Indigenous Remediation: Uranium on Dinétah” — to bring together artists, activists, physicians, historians and scientists, who approach the legacy of uranium mining from multiple perspectives. And he’s developing a smartphone app that will provide information to people living in areas of dangerous radiation, slated to include photos and stories from miners and their descendants.

In the past 20 years, he’s launched three major ongoing projects. In 2005, in addition to “Connecting the Dots,” he created “Auto Immune Response (AIR),” featuring a Navajo man in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Another project, the Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange, begun in 2012, challenges the legacy of Edward S. Curtis, the 20th-century photographer known (and criticized) for his posed portraits of Native Americans.

One of the photos in the Auto Immune Response (AIR) series.

He’s pursued his creative projects while also serving as the head of the photography program at Santa Fe Community College, where he’s taught since 2014. And he’s been preparing for a big move: In the fall, he’ll start a tenured faculty position at the University of Texas at Austin.

His work brings viewers face to face with realities they might never otherwise encounter. Although it looks like a landing pad for a UFO, for example, the mysterious gray surface at the center of the Mexican Hat site is river rock. It covers layers of material intended to protect the world from what’s underneath: radioactive waste. The site is as big as a town, but it’s well-disguised. If you drove through the area, you wouldn’t even see it. Using a drone allows Wilson to find perspectives available only from the sky.

Mesmerized by the medium

During his boyhood in the 1970s, Wilson lived with his parents in San Francisco, in the same apartment building as his best friend, whose mother was an aspiring photojournalist. “She had a ton of contact sheets and negatives around. I was mesmerized by looking through the contact sheets,” Wilson recalls. “And then, when I was nine, my parents split up, and I moved back to the rez with my mom.”

He spent the next five years at the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school in Tuba City, Arizona, not far from the Rare Metals mine, an abandoned uranium processing mill. He was academically unchallenged, generally unhappy, and ready to leave by the time he graduated from eighth grade. A scholarship from A Better Chance Foundation, which sends high-performing students of color from impoverished communities to expensive prep schools, paved the way. He ended up at Northfield Mount Hermon School, in Massachusetts.

“I went from one kind of boarding school to another. I pretty much raised myself, interfaced by some institutions,” he says. 

At Northfield Mount Hermon, Wilson enrolled in his first photography class. His first subjects were the people of the Navajo Nation, where he spent summers and school vacations with his family. Although there were a few other Native American students at school, most classmates and teachers had never seen photos of a Native culture outside of portraits by Curtis, a white ethnologist who created thousands of images of Native Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Curtis’s work, published in a 20-volume set called “The North American Indian,” came to define “Indian” for much of the world.

Cameron Chapter Complex 1, Cameron, Arizona, Navajo Nation, 2019, Courtesy of Will Wilson

Back home on the rez, not everyone wanted their picture taken. “I didn’t know why, but it was something a lot of people were averse to,” Wilson says. He began to question why people at school were so interested in the images, as well as what it meant to photograph people with a historical distrust of the medium. “I thought about the mythic tales of Indigenous people being scared of the camera because it steals their souls.” This theory is mostly mythical, attributable to wariness of the photographers, he adds. But people’s hesitancy gave him pause.

He next attended Oberlin College in Ohio, where anthropology courses only deepened his concerns. On the Navajo Nation, people largely relied on an oral tradition to pass on culture, customs and history. Snapshots taken by strangers that reduced existence to a single moment in time — “That’s to be thought of with some trepidation,” he says. 

The trepidation was also rooted in trauma. White people first photographed Navajos under the most harrowing, dehumanizing circumstances, such as when they were held in captivity in Bosque Redondo, after the Long Walk in 1864, and when their children were taken away to boarding schools and subjected to widespread abuse. “It was a system of power,” Wilson says. Unable to reconcile these ethical and moral dilemmas, he stopped taking pictures of people. It wasn’t until 2012 that he found his way back. 

Wilson peeks out from the side of his large-format view camera as he reaches out to adjust the lens. Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

Getting the expanse 

Wilson’s studio is in an industrial neighborhood off Siler Road in Santa Fe, a corrugated metal warehouse with a sink, bathroom and a heater that takes a while to warm up. Most of the available space is stacked with storage shelves and bins, overflowing with books and photography equipment. There’s a computer desk and several worktables, some of which are covered in large-format prints from “Connecting the Dots” (his uranium project) as well as personal images. On a recent day, he shows off an enormous print of his 10-year-old son hiking at Diablo Canyon. The detail in the purpled rock is astounding.

“It’s actually three photographs stitched together — all in the same place, but I got the expanse,” he says.

He’s wearing his standard uniform of gray hiking pants and dark pullover. His long black hair is tucked into a ball cap. It’s the end of January during his final semester at Santa Fe Community College. Once in Austin, he’ll fly home on weekends so that his daughter doesn’t have to change schools for her senior year of high school. The kids will stay in New Mexico with his wife, Carla Kountoupes, a violinist who teaches at New Mexico School for the Arts.

Shiprock disposal cell, Shiprock, New Mexico, Navajo Nation, 2020, Courtesy of Will Wilson

Depending on his mood, Wilson sees his photography projects as entirely separate or intimately connected. In “Auto Immune Response,” for example, Wilson is the man in the photos, surrounded by a beautiful but ravaged desert. But they’re not self-portraits. He’s playing a character.

“He’s trying to figure out why the world’s become toxic to him. It’s a post-apocalyptic thing. Or is it?” Wilson laughs wryly. “It focuses on extraction and environmental degradation” — such as uranium mining —  “as one of the possible causes of the apocalypse.” 

The dangerous legacy of uranium mining is a topic that’s firmly rooted in Wilson’s personal experience. “Almost everyone on the Navajo Nation has a relative or a friend who’s gotten sick or died from uranium exposure,” he says. His great-uncle died “from a really weird cancer” that his family attributes to working in the mines. “There are over 100 mines along the stretch on Highway 89 that runs between Flagstaff and Tuba City,” he notes. 

When they were teenagers, Wilson and his friends sometimes explored the remains of the Rare Metals mine. Back then, it was a small, crumbling mill, surrounded by workers’ houses. “Now it’s a Superfund site.”

Abandoned Uranium Mine, Tuba Junction, Arizona, Navajo Nation, 2021, Courtesy of Will Wilson

Experts say there are between 500 and 1,000 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation, which was swept up in the mid-20th century uranium mining boom that came after the invention of the atomic bomb. Uranium-laced ore had been mined previously in Germany and Czechoslovakia, and an association between uranium mining and lung disease was first reported in 1879. Although the U.S. government was aware of this, when the mines opened in the United States, shafts weren’t well-ventilated, masks weren’t used and workers weren’t warned. They inhaled toxic dust and even drank water from the mines, and from streams and pools nearby, unaware of the radiation entering their bodies. They let their livestock drink there. Once the boom ended and the mines were abandoned, they used the mounds of rubble to build their homes.

The effects have been devastating: high rates of lung cancer and other forms of cancer, respiratory diseases, thyroid disease, renal failure, and an incurable, deadly birth defect known as Navajo neuropathy that’s linked to pregnant women drinking irradiated groundwater. A multitude of books, articles and studies over the decades have attempted to draw attention to the repercussions of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation, but federal efforts at groundwater remediation, and reparations for the deadly toll on the Navajo people, are slow and ongoing.

For his “Connecting the Dots” project, Wilson found abandoned mine locations in “site screen reports” at EPA.gov. The locations aren’t secret, although the coordinates provided aren’t always accurate, so he sometimes has to search for the correct spot.

“Some of the images in ‘Connecting the Dots’ are pretty mundane, but I want to give people something to look at, to understand how many of these there are,” he says. He hopes the images will be useful in multiple ways and for decades to come. “I want to create some images that can have a life after I move on to a new project — if I ever do — and create space for people to engage with similar ideas.”

Moving away from Curtis

Wilson’s drive to reframe how Native people have been portrayed took center stage in his most high-profile project, the Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange, which he first created as a response to Edward Curtis.

The controversy surrounding Curtis is ongoing in the Native world: Despite the beauty of his images, he created a false narrative, critics say. Curtis insisted that his subjects appear unsmiling and in costumes — the clothing he made them wear was often a century out of date — and he told the world that his visual record was the final evidence of a dying culture.

Use this app to look at the photos in the gallery below.

In 2012, Wilson began experimenting with the wet-collodion process, used to make photos known as tintypes. This early technique produced the first-known photography of Navajo people, at Bosque Redondo, circa 1868. The images are simultaneously crisp and soft, rife with small imperfections, the very archetype of “antique.” Wilson’s project captures the vintage tone of Curtis’s work but recasts it, subbing in contemporary Native people, some of them descendants of Curtis’s subjects. 

Unlike Curtis’s work, Wilson’s subjects are active participants in the creation of their images: They decide how they want to be seen — in street clothes or regalia, representing their tribes or other aspects of their lives. They also receive their tintype in exchange for allowing Wilson to make a digital negative. (In keeping with his habit of making smartphone apps, he developed Talking Tintypes, enabling users to point their phone at portraits and hear and watch the subjects tell a personal story.)

In the backdrop, an upcoming event helped fuel Wilson’s efforts: The 150th publication anniversary of “The North American Indian” was due to arrive in 2018. Wilson knew museums would be eager to show Curtis’s work and would want to include an Indigenous perspective. He wanted that perspective to be his, not because he’s an outspoken critic of Curtis, but because, he says, he knew it was a way to get his work into museums. 

“It worked. I was in, like, 10 shows,” he says. Venues have included the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe and the Denver Art Museum. More than a decade after he started the project, still more exhibitions are in the works. 

The project is sometimes about indigeneity, but it’s also about the process itself, Wilson says. “Wet-collodion takes time. The darkroom takes time. People don’t have this slowed-down experience of photography anymore because digital is instant. The fancy art term is a ‘relational aesthetic,’ where the engagement and the process are as important as the final product.” 

He’s conflicted, because he wants his work — and that of all Indigenous artists — to stand on its own, without any relationship to Curtis. Often, white people appreciate art made by white people about Native people, he says, but they don’t always see the value in art Native people make about themselves. He wants to remove the romantic lens used by non-Native photographers to capture Native culture for posterity. In Curtis’s era, the U.S. government planned to eradicate or subsume Native Americans in a couple of generations, he notes.

“So, Curtis was a little bit of a Trojan Horse — a way to get my foot in the door. And now I can’t shake him.” 

Church Rock Spill Evaporation Ponds, Church Rock, New Mexico, Dinétah, 2019, Courtesy of Will Wilson

The power of art

Tommy Rock, a Navajo who grew up in Monument Valley, is one of the many people Wilson has photographed. He was raised by his grandparents in a wooden shack, where he slept on sheepskin on the floor. He and his cousins often explored abandoned uranium mine sites, even throwing rocks down the seemingly bottomless vertical shaft of Moonlight Mine, where his grandfather worked after serving in World War II. His grandfather died of bone cancer when Rock was in graduate school. 

Rock is a post-doctoral research fellow at Princeton University, a geoscientist who studies uranium contamination. In 2019, he testified before a U.S. House committee in opposition to new uranium mining. The best path forward for cleanup involves traditional ecological knowledge, he told lawmakers.

Some of Rock’s research uncovered public water contamination near Church Rock on the Navajo Nation, where a uranium mill dam broke in 1979 — causing the largest radioactive waste spill in U.S. history. “I still get emails from former residents of the area that have cancer, saying ‘why me?’” he told the committee. “The poisoning of my people is rarely considered. 

“The Navajo people and all Indigenous people are being ignored,” he testified. The government has disregarded their expertise in remediation and ignored their efforts to protect the land from future uranium mining, he said. Although it’s been banned on the Navajo Nation since 2005, private companies still hold rights to operate, including in Church Rock. A grassroots Diné group has been fighting proposed mining projects in the area for decades, a battle that continues to this day.

How can Wilson’s photographs affect this dire situation? “Art is a great way to get people aware — and to stop it from happening again,” Rock says. “Because it can easily happen again, and the consequences are generational.”

Wilson is reflected upside-down in the ground-glass focusing plate of his old-style view camera and in a mirror in his studio. Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico