Navajo photographer Eugene Tapahe blends new technology with old sensibilities and the resulting images are stunning. You can see them for yourself tonight at Alpine Gallery, 430 E. South Temple, next to Mrs. Backer’s Bakery, during Gallery Stroll. The artist will be there from 6-9 p.m.
He gave a talk there Thursday night on his show, Unity of Light, (until Feb. 17) to a surprisingly large crowd of 40-50 people, an interesting mixture of heritages, the best-attended artist’s talk to date, says curator Susan Bonosconi. “One woman came all the way from Centerville who had never before attended a gallery talk. She bought a [photograph of a] bison. It was her first art piece ever.”
Tapahe uses both film and digital cameras to tell his stories. “I use a Canon EOS R, and a Minolta film camera, and an old Rollei. For my smaller images I still do a darkroom process — the 12 x 12 and 5 x 5. The larger color prints are developed on Fuji film. Everything I do is wet process.” The photos are crisp but creamy in texture; the imagery haunting regardless of subject matter: landscape, nature, people — he does it all brilliantly.
Having also worked as a journalist, managing editor, art director, animator, and web developer – everywhere from BYU to ESPN in New York City – Tapahe took a leap six years ago and quit his day job to pursue photography full time following the near death of the 102-year-old grandmother who reared him in traditional ways on the Navajo Reservation in Window Rock, Ariz. (They raised sheep and lived in a tiny home with an outhouse 30 yards away and no running water.) He felt he had “a calling for telling stories through my images.” Once a truly destitute artist, he now shows his work as far away as Australia. He is still happy to sell just enough in an evening to make the house payment. “That’s how we Navajos are,” he says with a soft smile.
He believes that his profession as a designer (he got a BFA in graphic design at BYU), “has helped me pursue different print processes and also different framing and presentation.” And composition is one of this artist’s truest strengths. Whether it’s a canyon passage glowing with reflected light, a rundown oceanside dock at sunset, a majestic Navajo elder, a mangy but so appealing wild horse shot from the side, all are perfectly framed for the viewer. Tapahe has such an eye.
As well as a way with his subject matter. He told a haunting story of an encounter with a bull bison in the fog and the interaction between them. The photographer was a Navajo first, respectful and quiet; the bison looked up at him, right into the lens and, more importantly, didn’t injure or kill him but, instead, made Tapahe’s career by allowing that one shot, that one iconic image. Go see it.
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.