Born in France in 1926, Michelle Vignes is a documentary photographer and photojournalist who lives in San Francisco.
Vignes, whose archives were acquired by UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library three years ago (her Black Panther pictures went to Stanford) has documented the cultural and political changes that swept the country in the 1960s and '70s. She settled in San Francisco in '65 and began photographing the underground rock scene, draft-card burnings and the Indian occupation of Alcatraz. She covered the American Indian Movement over the next 20 years. Her photos appeared in Time, Life, Vogue, Ramparts and Newsweek, as well as in French publications. Vignes brought a fresh European eye to Wyoming truck stops, and later, as an American citizen, photographed the concierges of Parisian apartment houses with "a foreign eye,'' as she puts it.
Vignes, who hated school and never got a degree, left home as soon as she could and moved to Paris. She took a temp job at Magnum Photos and began working with Cartier-Bresson and other noted Magnum photographers like Robert Capa. She already knew Cartier-Bresson's work, which "to me is a natural way of seeing,'' she says. "I learned a lot by looking at a lot of pictures.''
Before long, Vignes became a photo editor. She worked closely with Cartier-Bresson, becoming such a trusted aide that he asked her to check the quality of his prints. "I had no clue how to print, but I knew what tonality he liked," Vignes says. She didn't start taking photos professionally until she quit a public relations job in the photo department at the United Nations in New York and moved here. "I had loved San Francisco, and thought, 'That's the place where I want to live and take pictures,' '' says Vignes, who's recovering from a series of maladies that have slowed her down but not cooled her passion for life and work.
She photographed rock impresario Bill Graham at the Fillmore Auditorium, Allen Ginsberg at the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, and other hippie gatherings. "I was more of an observer,'' Vignes says. "The rock thing and the hippies, it was never my thing. I thought it was such a naive scene.''
She was much more involved in the American Indian pride movement, making trips to Alcatraz Island when it was occupied by Indians from 1969 to 1971. She later went to Wounded Knee in South Dakota to photograph the Indian occupation there and became friends with American Indian Movement co-founder Dennis Banks.
The Indians on Alcatraz, she says, "resented white people, and I was careful not to intrude too much.'' At Wounded Knee, "my aim was to show what it is to be under siege, surrounded by the Army,'' Vignes says. Most pictures from Wounded Knee showed an Indian with a gun, she adds.
"If a man loses anything and goes back and looks carefully for it, he will find it, and that is what the Indians are doing now"
Sitting Bull, Lakota Sioux
"Each person upon this earth had ancestors who lived in close harmony with all of nature. For too many, this basic tie between man, spirit and creation has been forgotton. The spirit, the very blood cries out for us to re-examine ourselves in relation to our environment and to one another.
The Indian occupation of Alcatraz island was an attempt of Indian people to awaken the nation and show the owrld that the Indian spirit would live for ever." --Peter Blue Cloud
I went for the first time as a photojournalist to document this event on Alcatraz. This was also the first time I realized that we all live on Indian land, and I was taken within the sacred hoop, what we call a circle. From this point, I followed the attempts by Indian people to show the reawakening of their pride, re-educating non-native Indians to these changes.
I went to Wounded Knee and to many historical events that became part of the circle. There are things happening in the present day which have a link to the past. Non-Indians would say it is only coincidence. Indian people say that is is the completion of a circle. This view of the sacred hoop makes history especially important to native people.
The history I am showing also centers around women. I learned that the First Woman is the most powerful among the spiritual figures, because she represents regeneration. The Earth is the mother, and the Moon is the grandmother.
Through these images I chose to penetrate more deeply in daily life, both in reservations and in the city, showing the reality of native American life and its daily struggles, as well as their changing role in our society. I have attempted to stay away from the romantic version of Indian life that exists only in white society's imagination.
"Today we sing what we believe others have believed and trust the past for the future. Our song of peace and timeless myths may bring all men together with a good energy to live. In the language of the Anishinabe the word 'wanaki' means to leave somewhere in peace. Now we sing 'wanaki'"
--Gerald Vizenor (Anishinabe)