Reading a cultural landscape (especially as a gringo)

The question of how to read a culture (that is not your own) has been a part of photography since the first traveling photographers set about to capture the visual world. From Maxime Du CampFrancis Frith, and Samuel Bourne the trends range (respectively) from a purely aesthetic response, to a sense of imbedded-ness and a straight (documentary?) image, to a desire to craft landscapes to match already understood and established expectations.

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Arriving from the anglo world of Flint, Michigan I have a perspective of the New Mexican landscape that allows a certain naiveté and innocence within my images that corresponds to earlier photographer’s experiences of exploring new lands. Finding a shared institution, like a cemetery, would presumably aid the making of sensitive and coherent imagery, but I found that to be a false assumption as I explored a small group of gravesides south of Taos in Talpa, New Mexico. Walking amongst the dead, I was challenged to comprehend what might be either tradition, coincidence, purposeful interaction, or accidental circumstances in the “creation” of each individual’s final resting grounds and their stories.

Statues of Jesus and a few saints were frequent and expected, but I was mostly intrigued by the additions of toys, standard household objects, wires, rings, figurines, and an assortment of hand-painted symbols (mostly crosses) and messages. Individual plots were generally easy to distinguish, but in many cases the grounds had given way to cacti, shrubs, and the other ways that nature reclaims the landscape after man has intervened. All of these elements coincide in the large majority of the images I found (or found me) and those questions remain after looking repeatedly at the frames I made. As I review the images a familiar pattern and design aesthetic emerges, it’s my way of seeing. It’s cluttered, condensed, collage-like, and something that has taken years to (first) recognize and (later) employ to its best usage. I can find evidence of this optical design as early as the mid 1970s in many of my photographs. That discovery is always a happy moment.

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But even though I like the images, I still grapple with understanding their individual stories or the culture that shapes and creates these vignettes. I am fairly satisfied that I can find a means to see and respond with my camera, but I wish for more. Perhaps that’s really all I can hope for, and all that an outsider can manage. It’s a work in progress, just as all my work is and will be. I accept that idea and hope to delve deeper into the “whys” soon.

 

A word on the making of these images… for all of my personal work I have returned to film for making images. That’s a complex and long (certainly too long for most ears) story and isn’t important here, but I wanted to make some photographs for fun, serious images, but mostly just for the enjoyment of making images that spoke to me. The cemetery wasn’t likely to become a new body of work as I already am deeply involved in making at least three other series presently and I have only so much time, ambition, and film. So, I decided to employ a digital means to create these and set about planning to produce the images. What I like about digital is the amount of science (physics of light) contained in (almost) every camera and the ease it can be employed to appropriate ends. Designing the photographs is the same as ever…it’s an optical negotiation with the elements, but the ability to use a red filter (or orange, or yellow) to alter the contrast of a scene for a black and white image always required a certain amount of knowledge and belief that the images would match your expectations. In a digital environment the end results are immediate and can aid a photographer to rapidly adjust settings and technical criteria (depth of filed for example) to suit the ends. It still requires the knowledge of the physical science of light and how light can be “filtered” to change the final scene, but it is a great tool for creating B&W images in a short amount of time.

_MG_0265_1All in all, the experience of making photographs is still fulfilling and making photographs with film is still what gets me excited, but a digital workflow can have a place when the times and situation deem speed and certainty as the primary goals.

These images (and more) are also available on my Facebook page, “Darryl Baird – Photographs and other media” in an album “Tapla, NM Cemetery”

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