Native American heritage influences photographer’s work

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A photographic composition by Jeremy Dennis was made at the corner of Goldsboro and Spruce streets in Wilson.  Dennis is the Eyes on Main Street photo festival's artist in residence for the month of March.
A photographic composition by Jeremy Dennis was made at the corner of Goldsboro and Spruce streets in Wilson. Dennis is the Eyes on Main Street photo festival's artist in residence for the month of March.
Contributed Photo | Jeremy Dennis

Jeremy Dennis is not a mirage.

The photographer has, though, been worth a double take for some residents of Wilson in the last month dressed as in traditional Algonquin regalia, which is leather buckskin with bead work and loincloth.

A native of the Shinnecock Indian Nation in New York state, Dennis is the artist in residence for the Eyes on Main Street program for the month of March.

Dennis, 27, graduated from Stony Brook University in 2013 with a bachelor of arts degree and earned a master of fine art degree from Penn State University in 2016.

His interest in photography stems from his work as an artist.

“I always found that I was gravitated toward flattering people with realistic drawings, and it took so long for me to complete those I thought maybe I will take a photo class and skip all of that while also achieving a nice, flattering image that I can give to people,” Dennis said. “I had a professor who showed me how powerful photography could be and its potential.”

In Wilson, Dennis has been using storefronts and other downtown settings as backdrops where he poses himself as part of the scene.

“I try to do that so both have a traditional look but also to try to disguise myself because I am never wearing long hair,” Dennis said.

For the Shinnecock people, a big issue is that lands have been taken from the tribe.

“Basically what I am trying to do is present a vacant storefront as the same identity as a Native American, which is pretty relevant to both first contact and contemporary time,” Dennis said.

Dennis said there have been a couple of shocking instances in downtown Wilson while he was doing a shoot.

In one, he was posing near the Arts Council of Wilson.

“When it’s 10 or 11 p.m. in downtown Wilson, it’s like two cars in the whole night,” Dennis said. “So this one couple saw me, slowed down and I thought that was it, but then they went around the corner and came back and did the same thing. I think it was pretty funny.”

Dennis said his work is diverse.

“Basically, my goal is to both make an activism about art history and how it is still relevant but also looking at cultural norms and kind of questioning them,” Dennis said.

In one of the pictures, Dennis kneels in the Algonquin garb by a stream running through the city with a bridge over his shoulder.

“I was planning on going in the water, and I saw the water upstream and I thought maybe I should just stay out,” Dennis said.

In another, Dennis runs through the grass underneath a large advertisement on a billboard.

“This is related to the current politics of removing monuments, but just extending that because you don’t really hear the Native American perspective on that issue, which would probably be expanded to advertisements, capitalism, commerce and materialism,” Dennis said.

Dennis said there are many reasons he is doing this project.

“I think it is primarily because I am inspired by mythical stories and the whole epic renaissance art history of scenes being interpreted,” Dennis said. “Sometimes it’s like the whole Bible trying to be compressed into one image. You see the same character on a path going down. Sometimes it’s just like a sentence or a verse that a painter is inspired by. And I think I am doing the same thing, only with indigenous oral stories. Essentially, what I want to do is kind of use imagery and visual culture to kind of embody an immediate purpose. I know that this regalia is kind of, a lot of people see it as a past, or a very distant historical regalia or clothing, but for me, if you are Native American, you recognize it and then you are part of the image. Then you are invited to take part in its meaning and significance.”

Dennis likes the idea of Eyes on Main Street, the festival started by photographer Jerome De Perlinghi.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Dennis said. “I keep telling Jerome that other towns need to do a similar project. All of the conversations I overhear, it’s all about entrepreneurs coming in and proposing ideas and the best thing you can do actually is to bring in cultural events and things that people can enjoy for free and he has had a lot of efforts in both fundraising and making it accessible to all communities.”

Dennis’s photos can be viewed at www.jeremydennis.com/.