Chip Thomas

The question I’m asked most frequently is how a black doctor in his 50s working on the Navajo reservation started doing street art on said reservation. In retrospect, it was only natural for this evolution to occur.

I started working in a small community between the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley called Inscription House in 1987. I’d always been drawn to photography and built a darkroom shortly after my arrival on the Navajo Nation. My passion photographically is shooting black and white in a documentary style inspired by people like Eugene Smith, Eugene Richards, Joseph Koudelka and others. By going out and spending time with people in their homes and family camps, I have come to know them as friends. Interestingly, these home visits enhance my doctor/patient relationship by helping me be a more empathetic health care practitioner.

I’ve always been drawn to street art, graffiti and old school hip-hop. I was attracted to the energy of the culture in the 80s and though I was miles away from the epicenter, I thought of myself as a charter member of the Zulu Nation. I would travel to New York City to see graffiti on trains, on buildings and in galleries. I did some tagging in the 80s before coming to the Navajo Nation and participated with a major billboard “correction” on the reservation shortly after my arrival. My early interventions on the street were largely text based saying things like “Thank you Dr. King. I too am a dreamer” or “Smash Apartheid” and so on.

In 2009 I took a 3-month sabbatical to Brasil which coincided with a difficult period in my life. Though I wasn’t looking for an epiphany, I was fortunate to stumble upon a passionate group of artists working on the street who befriended me. It was during this time that I appreciated how photography could be a street art form.  Inspired by Diego Rivera and Keith Haring, I’d become disinterested in showing my photographs in galleries isolated from the people I was photographing and wanted to pursue a more immediate relationship with my community reflecting back to them some of the beauty they’ve shared with me.  And in truth, I was infatuated with the feeling I got being with the artists in Salvador do Bahia and wanting to find a way to keep that vibe going I started pasting images along the roadside in June 2009.

My early photographic influences include the work of Joseph Koudelka, Garry Winogrand, Charles Moore, Robert Frank, Eugene Smith, Gordon Parks, Larry Towell, Mary Ellen Mark, Susan Meisalis, Roy DeCarava, Sebastio Salgado and Eugene Richards.  I was blown away by Richards’ work in the late 80s and early 90s for Life Magazine and had an opportunity to spend 5 days picking his brain at Santa Fe Photographic Workshops in 1991.  It’s this one person with one camera, frequently with only one lens shooting black + white film in ambient light aesthetic that informs my eye as well as 25 years spent in my home darkroom pursing the zone system.  It’s been an interesting challenge attempting to bring that look to black and white prints on regular bond paper coming off a toner based plotter. I’d like to think that my vision is a part of the storytelling, first person, humanist tradition of the people I look up to mixed with a healthy dose of Diego Rivera + Keith Haring.

Regardless, I give thanks that the journey continues.

In beauty it is finished.


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