Photography in New Mexico

A long, distinguished history.


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The history of photography in New Mexico is as old as the history of photography itself. Itinerant daguerreotypists were active here as early as the 1840’s. Later, well-equipped photographic expeditions led by men like Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan came through New Mexico making documentary surveys for the railroads and government, and helping to feed the appetites of Easterners, eager for pictorial information about the newly opened continent.

The 20th century saw the evolution of photography from a means of documentation and historiography to a full-fledged fine art. The modern era of photography in New Mexico began with the arrival of that great patron and muse Mabel Dodge Luhan. By the time Luhan settled in Taos in 1916, photography was widely accepted as a fine art medium. Among her coterie of visitors were Paul Strand and Edward Weston, already respected photographers and artists who are now regarded as giants in the history of photography. Both men found here dramatic inspiration from the land and sky, from the people, both Native and Hispanic, from the architecture and most importantly from the light.

Strand and his wife first came to New Mexico in 1926 where they stayed for ten days as guests of Luhan. Strand returned, and over the course of three summers he made more than 500 negatives. Strand did not shoot that which attracted most photographers to New Mexico. He was instead attracted to the weathered wood, the decaying adobe haciendas, ghost towns and sand dunes. His work of this era is exquisite and greatly influenced his subsequent work. It was in New Mexico that Strand formulated his aesthetic, his resolve to seek in his photographs the “spirit of place.”

It was during this time on a visit to California that Luhan met Edward Weston, whom she invited to Taos. Weston, like Strand before him was profoundly inspired by what he saw there. The ever-changing, ever-dramatic clouds and shifting sands were very much to his liking. Weston was known for his precise and clear landscapes. Unlike Strand’s brooding and emotion-laden images, Weston’s pictures convey a sense of joyful celebration.

It was about this time that the young Ansel Adams visited Taos at the invitation of Alfred Bender, a prominent California art patron. Adams had been making a modest living shooting contract photographs, but still believed that music would be his life’s work. The opportunity arose to collaborate with Mary Austin on a book about Taos, and both the process and resulting publication was so satisfying to Adams, that he declared his intention to pursue photography as his chosen career.

Image Name

Ansel Adams
"Moonrise Over Hernandez, NM"
Courtesy of Andrew Smith Gallery remote Santa Fe
© Trustees of the Ansel Adams
Publishing Rights Trust

One of the hallmarks of the photographic art is, of course, its ability to capture a fleeting moment. Some ten years later Adams returned to New Mexico on a government-sponsored excursion through the Southwest. Midway though this trip, at the end of a long and unsuccessful day of shooting, he was driving back to Santa Fe on Highway 84 went he saw a particularly striking moonrise just as the sun was setting. Adams pulled over. Shouting to his companions, he quickly set up his camera and took a photograph that would in a few short years make its way around the world. Moonrise Over Hernandez, NM soon became one of the world’s most beloved and reproduced photographs.

Following World War Two, the purist tradition continued in the work of Brett Weston and Eliot Porter, one of the pioneers of color photography. However, New Mexico was also visited by a new generation of photographers, both native and itinerant, who came armed with a radically different aesthetic.

Adams’ contemporary Laura Gilpin was native to the west. Born and raised in Colorado, she made a career of photographing the indigenous people of New Mexico, particularly the Navajo. Her portraits of them in everyday life indicate a deep sympathy for her subjects and an uncanny ability to portray the profound connection of people and place.

The Swiss born Robert Frank crossed the US photographing the back roads and byways of his adopted country. He took several famed pictures here, notably his picture of a Gallup bar called Gallup, New Mexico, which depicts a crowded and harshly lit bar full of ranch hands. The macho figures are oddly framed; the point of view is low, the camera hidden. There is a charming spontaneity in the image.
Henri Cartiér-Bresson made numerous visits here, too, where he found inspiration in the Indian and Hispanic cultures, the light and the land. Both Frank and Cartiér-Bresson, like Gilpin, sought to portray a humanity captured in the moment.

A new aesthetic was developing at this time as well, one best illustrated in the work of Lee Friedlander. We can see in his images the evolution of what might be called post-war irony. Gone are photos depicting majestic mountains and dunes, or expressive portraits of Native Americans. Instead, we see rather ordinary street scenes, with oddly cropped images. Mundane objects are positioned front and center. A prominently placed telephone pole divides an image in two. Pure aesthetic photography has developed into something colder, more biting, more satirical. Cropped and framed in odd juxtaposition, we are forced to look at the subject of the photo in strange and unfamiliar ways. Friedlander’s work continues to influence younger photographers.

In the early 60s the University of New Mexico founded what was to become one of the premiere photography programs in the country, featuring such noted photographers as Van Deren Coke and Wayne Lazorik on the faculty. In short order a new generation of photographers came here to hone their technical skills and refine their aesthetic sensibilities.

The program continued to thrive and expand in the 70s, with the addition of Thomas Barrow, Betty Hahn and the eminent historian of photography Beaumont Newhall. Newhall was instrumental in the building of a formidable photography collection at the University Art Museum remote, which continues to exhibit brilliant and incisive shows. The program remains one of the premiere university photography programs in the country.

New Mexico remains home to many renowned photographers. William Davis, Anne Noggle, Meridel Rubenstein, Joel-Peter Witkin, Douglas Kent Hall and Nicholas Trofimuk are among the best-known New Mexican photographers working today, and there is a new generation of strong young photographers as well. Adams’ Moonrise Over Hernandez, NM remains one of the most popular photographic images ever made, and sustains strong sales of reproductions. An original print of this iconic image can sell for $350,000. The photography scene in New Mexico is vigorous and healthy. Visit the work at the fine photography galleries of Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque. Visit the excellent photography collections at the University Art Museum in Albuquerque and the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe. Enjoy the fruits of New Mexico’s rich photographic traditions.

Thanks to Kevin Paul, a writer and multimedia artist living in Albuquerque.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos, & Albuquerque – Volume 19

Related Pages

Collecting Photography in the Southwest article
Glossary of Photography Terms article
The 150th Anniversary of Photography article
Platinum Photography article

Alternative Process Photography article
New Mexico: Photographers' Eden article
E.S. Curtis: The Shadow Catcher article

Collector’s Resources

Elsewhere in New Mexico

Corrales Bosque Gallery | 505-898-7203

Santa Fe

Kat Livengood Studio |
Gallery of the North American Indian pic 114 Don Gaspar | 505-984-2222
Charlotte Jackson Fine Art | 505-989-8688
The Johnsons of Madrid Galleries of Fine & Fiber Art | 505-471-1054
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
The Rainbow Man | 505-982-8706
Windsor Betts Art Brokerage House rem 136 Grant Avenue | 505-820-1234
Winterowd Fine Art | 505-992-8878

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