Washougal Art & Music Festival

The Cherokee lens, up close

Joe Cantrell and his camera pierce time and geology to discover secrets of the shape of things.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Many of ArtsWatch’s contributing writers and photographers are themselves artists. Joe Cantrell, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation who spent 16 years as a photojournalist in Asia, has photographed subjects and celebrations for ArtsWatch ranging from the Waterfront Blues Festival to backstage stories about the opera to classical-music performances ranging from concert halls to musicians’ front porches, as well as chalk art festivals and the immigrant-culture celebrations of Beaverton Market. For several years he’s been working on two special projects of his own, photographing the interior structures of pictographs and exploring the microstructures of geological time in rocks and fossils. For both projects he calls on his Cherokee tradition of viewing the universe.


Cherokee tradition embraces outside technology and methods when we think they will be useful. One of the best examples of that was Sequoyah’s remarkable feat of single-handedly developing his syllabary. Sequoyah was one of only a handful of geniuses in human history who have single-handedly invented a written language for their people. It was so effective and easy to learn that illiterate Cherokees could become literate in one week! Compare that to the amount of time and energy we spend to learn English, folks, and the sad state of the language in spite of it.

Growing up in Tahlequah, Cherokee County, Oklahoma, the name Sequoyah surrounded us from the Sequoyah Theater to the “Indian Training School,” as it was known then, to the grade school. He became a part of who we were and would be. Even in my mid 70s, he still is. So as my photography has evolved since they sent me to the Tahlequah High School darkroom, September of 1960, it was natural that Sequoyah’s influence would follow.

I am perplexed by the fact that to meet a popular concept of “real Indians,” the Cherokees back in the Smoky Mountains apparently must emulate Plains Indians, the ones who John Wayne and other show-biz white guys could kill with one pistol shot from a running horse. Last time I was at the Cherokee Holiday Parade down Main Street, Tahlequah, our Principal Chief and Tribal Council wore big eagle feather headdresses. I don’t recall ever seeing a Cherokee man wear a turban, our real traditional head covering, as Sequoyah did.

This image, photographed from a fossil at the Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks & Minerals, in Hillsboro, is from a piece of “the oldest precursors of life, 3.4 billion year old stromatolites,” Cantrell says. “These were prokaryotic, meaning single cells with no nucleus, and were the state of life for about 1.7 billion years in the Precambrian era. They gained nuclei, and with that the ability to adapt and mutate, about 1.7 billion years ago.”

IN MY PERSONAL BLEND of art/ science/cultural expression, there is no separation between them. Of life, time, space, none of those things exist separate from everything else. I live in 2020, not 1880 or a John Wayne flick, so all is eligible, it all relates. I’m writing this on an iPad, not parchment. My computers are Cherokee, too.

This has manifested in two recent bodies of work: microscopic images mostly of rocks and fossils, and the pictographs left on rocks by our ancient ancestors in what is now called North America.
The depth of focus at high magnification is extremely small. For instance a single grain of salt under a microscope might be sharp on the near edge but fuzzy on the far side. I want to convey the perception that the viewer and the subject are One in overall existence, the relationship so ubiquitous and universal we don’t normally see or feel it. The vast majority of us have no inkling that this universality exists, possibly like the popular concept of air before people figured out what that was.


Seattle Opera Pagliacci

To shoot micro photos of tiny things but show each feature in context, I focus far into them where I can see the last sharp detail. Then I change the focus ever so slightly and shoot another and repeat until the point of focus has come all the way to the nearest detail. That may be three images for some things. It has gone over 400 separate images on a few. It is tedious but quite entertaining.

Then, the separate images go into a computer program that analyzes each image for its sharp and fuzzy parts, and assembles the sharp bits into one total focus image. Examples attached.

With the pictographs, some of which are thousands of years old, often their pigments are severely faded, frequently invisible. For them, I can scout with my phone or iPad camera since both have very basic versions of the software I use to make invisible or badly faded images visible again. Once I know there is an image on the rock, I photograph it with a ‘real’ camera. I make a high quality shot of the place where I think there is a pictograph.

Later I process the image in DStretch, a Java plugin derived from old aerial reconnaissance software originally designed to find camouflaged items on the ground. It is very powerful, but highly persnickety, there are over a dozen color gamuts to try and in each of them, multiple adjustments. That process can eat up many hours and I still never know if I’ve found the best settings. Tweak one adjustment 2 percent and everything can change … or not.

Sequoyah’s syllabary was far easier, a true American genius.


This series is from Tsagaglalal, a.k.a. “She Who Watches,” on the Washington side of the Columbia River at Horsethief Lake, not far from The Dalles, Oregon. On the left is the pictograph as it appears to the naked eye. On the right is the same view enhanced by Cantrell’s photographic method.
Another view from Horesthief Lake, as the pictograph appears faintly to the eye.
The same view through Cantrell’s meticulous lens. “I use a plug-in called DStretch, which I understand was derived from old aerial reconnaissance software designed to find camouflaged installations from U2s or satellites back in the day,” he says.
Before on the left, after on the right. “I approach these with great deference and respect, hoping that they ‘know’ I’m in no way exploiting them but reaching back to make their messages available to people today,” Cantrell says.



Washougal Art & Music Festival

This photograph and the one below are of a piece of wood from what is now Eastern Oregon that was well on the way to decaying when it was cut off from oxygen.
When the oxygen was cut off it preserved the remaining cell structure, and the wood petrified into opal.
Like the top photo, this one is from the Rice Museum and looks within a stromatolite, a single-cell structure that gained a nucleus 1.7 billion years ago. “For perspective,” Cantrell says, “if one year equals 1 inch, 1.7 billion inches stretches over 26 thousand miles. There’s some perspective that our Western philosophical reductionism hides from us: The dinosaurs died out about 65 million years ago. In inches = miles, that just gets you from Portland to the other side of L.A.”
This image and the one below are of fossil ostrocods, “seed shrimp.” They are “only” 42 million years old – not so long in geological time.
When the long fossilization process began, Cantrell says, the ostrocods “were apparently scavenging the snails from an ancient freshwater lake.”


This essay was originally published in the May 2020 edition of Talking Leaves, the newsletter of the Mt. Hood Cherokees, and is republished here with permission.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

I spent my first 21 years in Tahlequah, Cherokee County, Oklahoma, assuming that except for a few unfortunate spots, ‘everybody’ was part Cherokee, and son of the soil. Volunteered for Vietnam because that’s what we did. After two stints, hoping to gain insight, perhaps do something constructive, I spent the next 16 years as a photojournalist in Asia, living much like the lower income urban peasants and learning a lot. Moved back to the USA in 1986, tried photojournalism and found that the most important subjects were football and basketball, never mind humankind. In 1992, age 46, I became single dad of my 3-year-old daughter and spent the next two decades working regular jobs, at which I was not very good, to keep a roof over our heads, but we made it. She’s retail sales supervisor for Sony, Los Angeles. Wowee! The VA finally acknowledged that the war had affected me badly and gave me a disability pension. I regard that as a stipend for continuing to serve humanity as I can, to use my abilities to facilitate insight and awareness, so I shoot a lot of volunteer stuff for worthy institutions and do artistic/scientific work from our Cherokee perspective well into many nights. Come along!


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