Images along the Red Road is a photographic documentary project that began nearly twenty years ago when Ben and Linda Marra attended their first powwow.
Beginnings as a Corporate Assignment
In 1988, after Ben had returned from a month photographing the people of Nepal, a client asked for a concept promoting its color-printing techniques using the theme “Celebrate Washington.” Marra rejected the usual apple and salmon icons and sold his client on photographing local Indians, the descendants of the people who first called the Northwest home. That was a Thursday; the printer wanted to see transparencies on Monday.
Marra recalled seeing a powwow in Seattle’s Discovery Park several years earlier. He made a few phone calls, tracked down one of the men he had seen dance, and secured an invitation to a powwow that weekend at a Seattle alternative Indian school. The dancer, the late Bob Eaglestaff, was the school’s principal.
Documenting a Way of Life
The Marras’ journey along the Powwow Trail has included “dozens and dozens” of powwows where they’ve photographed hundreds of dancers; their experience ignited a passion that continues to this day. Early on, they realized that powwows are more than social events. The people have chosen a path of commitment, a way of life following the Red Road. The Marras believe in the power of positive imagery to help dispel outdated myths and stereotypes—specifically, the myth that American Indian cultures no longer exist.
Working together as photographer and producer/documentarian respectively, Ben and Linda produce two international calendars annually—Native American Dance and Powwow: Portraits of Native Americans—that are available at discount to Native youth groups for fund-raising projects. Their award-winning book, Powwow: Images along the Red Road (published by Abrams) is in its eighth printing. Their museum exhibition, Faces from the Land, is currently traveling the country. The Marras’ work has been featured in numerous museums, national magazines, and was included in the Handbook of North American Indians published by the Smithsonian Institution.
A Glimpse of History and Heritage
That weekend, Ben and Linda set up his makeshift studio—cameras, lighting equipment, and a simple mottled brown backdrop—in a hallway near the gymnasium, just around the corner from the drumming, singing, and dancing. Linda cautiously approached dancers and asked if they would be photographed. Many of the eleven subjects photographed that night had just finished dancing, and beads of sweat still glistened on their painted faces.
“When we looked at the results, we discovered that I had recorded more than just colorful images or fabulous outfits,” Ben says. “We felt I had recorded a sense of the people’s spirituality, dignity, and proud identity. The images had a regal quality; we sensed that we had been allowed a glimpse of history and heritage—and that we had been privileged to make art in response to it.”