New Mexico: Photographer's Eden

For nearly 100 years New Mexico has attracted well-known photographers


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Image: ©2001 William Clift
"Rainbow, Waldo, New Mexico"

"New Mexico," Ansel Adams said, is "the most completely beautiful place I have ever seen." Everywhere, it seems, there's a scene just waiting to have its picture taken: horses grazing in the shadow of Shiprock, the bustle of the SantaFe Plaza, the sunlight raking the adobe walls at the Ranchos de Taos church.

Then there's the photo scene itself. Galleries, museums, colleges, even bookstores, continually hang new photographic exhibits and hold openings, book signings, and lectures. For photographers and those who appreciate their art, Santa Fe may be the most rewarding destination on the planet - and the third largest photo market in the country.

It starts with the light. Albuquerque is a mile above sea level, Santa Fe and Taos about 7000 feet. The air here is thin, dry and clean. Fewer particles filter the incoming rays. The world looks slightly brighter. An already exotic landscape becomes radiant. A full moon casts razor - sharp shadows. "Until I came to Taos," a visitor said, "I had never really seen the stars."

Alert photographers keep an eye on both horizons. Bands of blue and pink suffuse the entire sky at dawn. To the east, the Sangre de Cristo mountains got their Spanish name, "The Blood of Christ," from the soft reddish evening light that stains their peaks. Closer to Albuquerque, the Sandia range turns a luminous watermelon pink.

Photography's early pioneers such as Alexander Gardner, Timothy O'Sullivan and William H. Jackson came here on expeditions after the Civil War, bringing mules laden with glass plates, heavy equipment, and jars of chemicals.

But they were they were not just making surveys. Many of their photos are among the most splendid ever made, reflecting the romantic and Transcendental ideals of the time. They were enchanted by a sky that took a fresh cast of light every few seconds. The vistas they photographed seemed formed at creation and to extend forever.

A people were there, too, and history would not be kind to them. The studies of Native Americans by Adam Clark Vroman and Edward Curtis portray a sorrow matched by monumental dignity.

At least 50 well-known 20th century photographers came to Taos and Santa Fe, including "the big three." Paul Strand arrived in 1926 and took hundred of pictures. Soon after, Edward Weston photographed delicate aspens and graceful nudes. For Ansel Adams, a critic once wrote, "Santa Fe and Taos were his Rome and Paris." His best known photograph, Moonrise Over Hernandez, NM 1941 was taken a few miles from Santa Fe. His photographs of Taos Pueblo remain among his finest.

The Depression brought the Farm Security Administration photographers Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Jack Delano and Russell Lee.

After World War II, Henri Cartier-Bresson stopped by. The stream of great American photographers who worked in New Mexico includes Todd Webb, Brett Weston, Lee Friedlander, David Vestal, Robert Frank, Minor White, Walter Chappell and Paul Caponigro. Perhaps the most significant color photographer of all time, Eliot Porter, lived in Santa Fe. His 1962 book, In Wildness is the Preservation of the World, alerted a generation to the beauty - and fragility - of the environment. His dye-transfer prints stand alone in their enduring power.

Laura Gilpin may have best captured the spirit of this place. She photographed New Mexico for more than 60 years until her death in 1979. Her studies of the Navajo stand with Vroman's. Whether her subject was Georgia O'Keeffe, an Hispanic family, or a vast cloud hanging over the Jemez Mountains, her prints disclose something abiding and essential about the southwest.

Other masters would follow them. Galleries opened. Colleges and workshops drew distinguished names to teach photography's art and history.

Perhaps most notably, Beaumont Newhall, whose History of Photography became definitive, moved here in 1971 to join the faculty at the University of New Mexico.

According to Dr. Kathleen Stewart Howe, curator of the extensive photography collection at the University Art Museum in Albuquerque, "In 1963, UNM became the first to offer graduate study in photography as a fine art and in the history of photography as a discipline in the history of art."

Howe notes that the presence of such respected curatorial authorities such as department founder Van Deren Coke, Beaumont Newhall, and James Enyeart (all former directors of George Eastman House, the great photo museum in Rochester, N.Y.), helped establish a world-class academic presence for photography in New Mexico. That presence was enhanced when the Marion Center of Photography at The College of Santa Fe opened in 1997 under Enyeart's direction.

And for those who want to get hands-on training from notable photographers and teachers, Santa Fe Photographic Workshops offer 130 week-long sessions each year in every aspect of the craft.

While comparisons to 15th century Florence may seem forced, it is worth noting that photography is a very young art. Adams, Strand, Weston, Gilpin and Porter are among its Old Masters.

But while a painting by Leonardo DaVinci might run you, say, $30 million if you could find one for sale, you can buy wonderful photographs, including some by the great names, for $3,000 or less at galleries in New Mexico.

Photography has exploded in the last 50 years. Names like Robert Adams, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Peter Beard, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Harry Callahan, Walter Chappell, Linda Connor, Lois Connor, Robert Frank, Annie Liebowitz, Richard Misrach, Arnold Newman, Luis González Palma, Olivia Parker, Emmett Gowin, Jerry Uelsmann, Gordon Parks — and dozens of others — have become internationally known. You can find work by most if not all in galleries here.

New Mexico photographers such as William Clift, Nicholas Trofimuk, Janet Russek, Douglas Hall, Gay Block, Ed Ranney, David Michael Kennedy, Miguel Gandert and David Scheinbaum have established strong national reputations, as well.

And photographers under the age of 30 continue to work within and outside the tradition. Sadas Cameron's photos of Afghan refugees call to mind Sebastião Salgado's prize-winning photojournalism. Michael Webb suspends Polaroid photos in water or acrylic for unusual effects. Carola Clift's vibrant black-and-white prints result from a remarkable eye and masterful printing skill.

In short, it's all here. At a recent awards judging held in Santa Fe by The New Mexico Council on Photography entries displayed every kind of image: black and white landscapes, color prints from pinhole cameras, searing social documents, surreal digital compositions, and elaborate forms of photo montage.

There may be no better place to buy both traditional and contemporary work than Santa Fe. The galleries and dealers know their subjects well, and can offer informed guidance. They are not reluctant to refer you to a competitor if they know that will serve your interest.

Over the years, photographs have proved an excellent investment. That said, remember that even a Rembrandt was put together with brushes, pigments and canvas that cost less than a night at a pizza joint. Its intrinsic value is zero. All connoisseurs advise: buy with your eye, not your calculator. A photo that engages your imagination pays a high return on investment, especially when your interest in it compounds as time goes by.

Thanks to Michael More, a writer living in Santa Fe.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 16

Related Pages

Glossary of Photography Terms article
Alternative Process Photography article
Collecting Photography of the Southwest article

The 150th Anniversary of Photography article
Phhotography in New Mexico article
Platinum Photography article

Collector’s Resources

Josie's Framery | 575-257-4156

Santa Fe

Gallery of the North American Indian pic 114 Don Gaspar | 505-984-2222
Robert J. Kelly rem 229 Camino Del Norte | 505-983-3590
Ronnie Layden Fine Art Gallery | 505-995-9783
LewAllen Galleries | 505-988-3250
Marigold Arts | 505-982-4142
New Mexico Museum of Art | 505-476-5064
Windsor Betts Art Brokerage House rem 136 Grant Avenue | 505-820-1234
Winterowd Fine Art | 505-992-8878


Harwood Museum of Art | 575-758-9826


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