In the first half of the twentieth century, New Mexico’s rugged landscape, rich culture, and generous sky attracted a throng of photographers who came to define the form, including Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. As Stuart A. Ashman writes in his introduction to Photography: New Mexico, Mabel Dodge Luhan invited artists and writers to Taos to visit the “desert salon” she maintained, and many came, including D.H. Lawrence, Paul Strand, and Georgia O’Keefe.
The artistic foundations that these people established are still in place today, as are the elements that initially made New Mexico so appealing to photographers—as Ashman writes, “New Mexico’s unusual landscape, vast open spaces, and diverse topography, as well as its adobe architecture and mix of cultures,” provide fertile photographic ground. Photography: New Mexico is not primarily a look back, however. Instead it collects the diverse work of 25 contemporary photographers connected to the state, some of whose work follows along in the tradition of the earlier photographers of New Mexico, while others break different ground.
Paul Caponigro’s black-and-white Southwestern landscapes would have fit in alongside those of New Mexico’s earlier photographers, some of whom, including Adams and Weston, served as his mentors. On the other end of the spectrum, Thomas Barrow, one of the editors of the book, favors experimental techniques, photographing collages of Polaroids and other objects, and using a pinhole camera to capture brightly painted adobe buildings in a grainy haze reminiscent of a surveillance video.
Several photographers in this collection take people as their primary subject, including Miguel Gandert, who teaches at the University of New Mexico and takes dynamic documentary photos of elaborately costumed revelers at festivals throughout the state and Latin America. Delilah Montoya‘s section features some of the work she collected in Women Boxers: The New Warriors. She captures women in and out of the ring, and their personalities leap out from the images, especially in the case of Teri “Lil’ Loca” Cruz, standing outside the Sky Ute Casino in Ignacio, Colo., her thick black eyeliner enhancing her intense gaze over a shoulder tattooed with comedy-tragedy masks and the phrase, “Smile Now Cry Later.”
Timeless landscapes meet the wreckage of modernity in the work of two photographers, Greg Mac Gregor and Joan Myers. Mac Gregor photographs the aftermath of experiments at New Mexico’s Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center, including a blasted out army helicopter hull, (“Helicopter Test”) and the grasping rebar left behind in a smashed concrete bunker (“Bunker Buster”). In many of his photos, the state’s beautiful landscape appears in the background, overshadowed by piles of war junk.
Joan Myers captures panoramas of outposts of the energy industry. One of my favorite photos in the book, Myers’ “Coal-Fired Plant” in Geronimo, New Mexico, extends from smokestacks pumping out coal smoke on the left, across the highway to what looks like a tourist trap with a smattering of white teepees and a mesa rising behind on the right. She also depicts a nuclear power plant, a solar energy fields, and a wind farm whose windmills are graceful beacons on the scrub-brush covered California terrain.
The most disturbing work is the haunting compositions of the late Jim Kraft, built around old Mexican photographs of children’s funerals, “meant to preserve the memory of an ‘angelito.'” He combines the pictures of the deceased children in their coffins, some surrounded by flowers and grim-faced family members, with designs, bits of cloth, and other photos, including some of mummified children. It makes for powerful collages about the grief rituals for children that, judging from the age of the photos, are probably no longer remembered.
Photography: New Mexico demonstrates that the heyday of the state’s photographers continues today, with many artists still creating vital and challenging images.