Waiting for the light with Navajo photographer and adventurer Mylo Fowler
To find beauty in life is a goal sought by many, but found by few. Beauty is more than just a surface quality; it’s about our experiences, our connections, our respect for others and for our surroundings. That beauty—both aesthetic and experiential—is embodied in the work of Navajo photographer Mylo Fowler . Born and raised in the Navajo Nation in Arizona, Fowler belongs to four clans, two maternal and two paternal: Tábaahá (Edgewater); Kinłichii’nii (Red House People); Honágháahnii (Ones Who Walk Around); and Naakai Dine’é (of the Mexican People).
Finding his vision
Fowler’s journey as a photographer began while he was an Antelope Slot Canyon tour guide in Page, Arizona. Leading people through the place he called home, he noticed that many tourists were frustrated that they couldn't capture the landscape's splendor with their cameras. “That's when I started learning more about how light and lenses all worked together. “I started studying the math behind photography, and how it works in relation to exposure values and camera settings,” Fowler explains. “I began to have a lot of fun. If people had problems, I was there to somewhat help solve them, on the spot.” Later, after traveling to France, Germany, Hong Kong, and other places, he concluded that his photography required more than majestic vistas and dramatic light values. It needed substance, which he found in his homelands. “I felt there was something lacking in seeing gorgeous places when I really wanted to focus on home, on Navajoland, and on what I call Native America.”
“It’s easy to create pictures but always a wonderful challenge to create meaning.”
While Fowler’s photos are typically landscapes, they read more as portraits of particular places at specific points in time. His images of the land—including the plants on its surface, the water weaving through it, the humans and animals depending on and nourishing it—are visual records of animate, storied places. More often than not, those places can be found within the Navajo Nation. “Our land is beautiful. Our land is sacred. It's gorgeous. It's a part of who we are,” Fowler explains. Not only are there long-held cultural and historical connections between his people and the land that sustains them, but there are physical connections, as well. “As Navajo, when we're born, a piece of our umbilical cord is put back in the earth somewhere. My great-grandmother always said that is to remind you that you are a part of Mother Earth, and you belong to her, that she can only grow if you're there to help her as well. Just like a family.”
Making his art personal – and transcending boundaries
Those personal connections with the ancestral lands of the Navajo people have become an integral part of Fowler’s visual lexicon. “For the first part of my career, when I picked up a camera to just photograph pretty places, that's all the images really were. These stunning photographs showed how beautiful places are around the world but had no substance.” Since then, the substance comes from Fowler's own experiences and his culture’s history.
“In my work, I try to find my images in wonderful light and conditions, but there's always a story of some kind that I draw back to, that I’d heard, or had experience of as a kid, or recently, within my family, within my culture, within my people, within our language.”
Fowler’s imagery is infused with language, both verbal and visual. For many Native peoples, our languages and stories guide our understanding of the land and our relationships to it. Language is one of the ways we orient ourselves in the world. Fowler sees a connection between the Navajo language and the stories he grew up with, directly linked to his relationship with Navajoland. As his artistic process and outlook have developed over time, he has found the most potent means of expression in Navajo identity. “If someone really wanted to understand my work, and what I do, and where I go, and what the exposures mean, I know of no better language to express my work in, than in Navajo.”
Articulating himself in his ancestral language includes cultural narratives and figures that are tied to the land, as well. He recalls the stories that have been passed down through generations. “There are a few prominent stories about women that derive from Canyon de Chelly. When I go to the coast, there’s some prominent stories about White Shell Woman,” Fowler says, referring to figures in Navajo oral stories. “My great-grandmother saw the Northern Lights in northern Arizona in the early 1900s, and she talked about an offering she had made for the people of the north, for their distant travel to visit her.” The figures connected to these stories inhabit his portraits of the land.
Whether or not his audience is familiar with the cultural and historical specificities of his community, Fowler knows his images transcend those cultural boundaries. “It's not that hard to create beautiful photographs, it really isn't. I think the biggest thing is what can I say or write about this, that will allow someone to both resonate with it and find value and meaning in it.”
Sharing it forward – and giving back
Fowler’s passion for representing the beauty of his home has led him to share his talent not only with viewers, but with other photographers, as well. He regularly holds workshops throughout the Southwest, training photographers of all skill levels in understanding and controlling light in their work. He also helps workshop attendees cope with the unpredictable conditions of working in the field, such as rapidly changing weather. Sharing his knowledge of photography and the land enables others to bring light into their own lives. “I hope that people use their work, their images, to create joy for themselves, to create happiness for themselves, and if they can, to try to share that joy.”
Light is not only a defining characteristic of his photographs; it's also a way for Fowler to give back to the community that raised him. Through making connections with Indigenous peoples on and off the Navajo reservation, partnering with various companies, and using proceeds from the sale of his photographs, Fowler has worked to provide clean drinking water after a mining spill in Navajoland, install solar panels on homes on his reservation, and, in the near future, bring internet access to rural areas in the Pacific Northwest.
He strives to provide people with standards of living he didn't have while growing up. “Every summer we always heard, next summer we're going to get electricity or we're going to get running water,” Fowler explains. “I actually graduated high school doing all my homework under a kerosene lamp, under a candlestick, or in front of the stove in our hogan.” With the opportunities and funding his photography provides, he envisions a different future for others. “That's the exciting part, knowing there's a grandma and a grandpa, or there's a family out there who no longer sits in darkness or goes to bed early just because the sun went down at about 5:00. So, turn on the lights and keep talking; we talk a lot in our family and share stories and share memories, and those don't have to stop just because the sun went down.” Fowler’s fusion of artistry and humanitarian work underscores how seemingly simple things, like light, can make a difference on a broad scale. “It's amazing what light can do to a photograph, as much as light to a home,” he says.
Discovering the perfect image
For most of his career, Fowler has used large format view cameras to capture his unique combination of sweeping vistas and minute details. Because he shoots film, there are only so many possible frames he can capture when he's in the field. “I typically don't take a lot of photographs whenever I go out. Even with the digital camera, I'll take maybe 50 images,” he explains. “The only reason why is because I'm so used to only taking one or two and then that's it, from the film camera.” Far from being a negative, he feels this need to be selective forces him to appreciate his surroundings and be in the moment while he works. “It's knowing what to do when the opportunity presents itself,” Fowler says. “With what I do, nature's really kind of in charge of that, but when the stars align, oh man, it's exciting.”
Often, he doesn't revisit locations he's photographed, at least not with camera in hand. “There are photographs that I took many years ago, where now I go back there without a camera. The experience that I had is just so awesome, and I don't want to try to see if I can find a better experience from a spiritual standpoint, from an emotional standpoint,” he says. “There's that level of being content so that I'm just not trying to run after the next shiny object within the same environment.”
Fowler’s work expresses the importance of advocating for and honoring the subject of the photograph, rather than making it appear to be something it is not. Although he doesn't abstain from digital editing, he instead favors analog filters and making the most of the environmental conditions to ensure quality images.
Once he returns from the field, he primarily works in Adobe Lightroom, which allows him to quickly and efficiently optimize images in batches. “My approach has always been to spend maybe about 10 minutes on a photograph within Lightroom, and within those 10 minutes do about 90 to 95 percent of the edits,” Fowler says. When working on larger commercial projects, he may also do more precise editing in Adobe Photoshop.
Fowler hopes that sharing his gift as a photographer will encourage others to share their gifts, as well. “My grandma and my grandpa, they always said that we’re all born with special abilities,” says Fowler, noting that those gifts are best used in service of other people. “We are each other’s medicine.” Not only do his photographs vividly illustrate his own process of finding beauty in life, but they also prompt his audience to find beauty for themselves. Fowler’s striking landscapes implore the viewer to search for deeper meanings, for the stories that imbue a place with history, and for the substance that lies below the surface.