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”

Back in the saddle, but looking for my map

...found at a coffee shop in Dodge City, Kanses

…found at a coffee shop in Dodge City, Kansas

Whatever happens with me in the next two or three years, one thing is certain and that’s I’ll be traveling in new and unfamiliar territory. Choosing to spend a great deal of time away from Flint has consequences, some understandable and desirable, others unseen and (a little) unsettling. The core of both is creating a lifestyle that revolves around work and self-fulfillment and it comes rather late in life by many standards, but I can’t turn back. So I plod along. Plodding is apropos, since I have (finally) learned to resist impulses, or resist long enough to consider the good and the bad of the possible outcomes.

My biggest impulse is to stop teaching and jump into an abyss of unknowns… just following my gut and put everything into making a new life in a new place. That place would be Taos and every day that I am here, it calls to me in wonderful and seductive ways, but is it a siren song (the impulse to find something new) or truly my heart? That’s the scary question, and even scarier is that there is no answer yet. So I plod along, acting out a drama where the script is unfinished, but believe it will end well. It reminds me of the theater manager character played by Geoffrey Rush in  Shakespeare in Love, who when asked how the play ends retorts, “Who Knows, It’s a Mystery.”

I met a long time Dallas friend and fellow artist, Stuart Kraft, yesterday in Taos and we shared stories and the same dream of making the move here. Seems this urge has been fairly constant since around 1915 with the founding of the Taos Society of Artists, and later as painters, poets, writers, socialites, and intellectuals came here seeking and finding similar satisfaction. There has been a continuos flow here, many come and leave, others stay and prosper. I’d like to think I have the spirit, will, and fortitude to gain membership in the latter group. Time will tell.

Rio Grande Panoramic

This trip comes as many of my goals and ambitions have born fruit — multiple publications this year, good results in my darkroom adventures, and images that have become more true and direct to my purpose. Yet, I am concerned that the scenery has painted a solid rosy tint on my eyes, effecting my vision and my thinking. But ultimately, it is my life and that single fact allows me to think, act, and plan in ways unimaginable just a few years ago.

Stay tuned. The ride will certainly be bumpy, but what a ride it will be.

Influences and the eclectic me

I’ve been looking at this work by James Luckett for a few days. After the very first glance I didn’t want to look at it more, because I was immediately reminded of work I’m engaged with at the present and didn’t want to be influenced by another artist… especially a contemporary one.

BUT, it wasn’t possible to avoid and even if I’m influenced by the images, it taught me a lesson that isn’t about fearing to appear the same as another creator, but allowing art inside, no matter if it’s like your own or not. I felt I gained a silent partner in a conversation.

And it further helps me to embrace my very eclectic nature.

Thanks to James Luckett. You rock.

http://consumptive.org/portfolio/practicalities/#1

We’re still in the early days of digital…

Having almost finished teaching a “fashion assignment” in a studio photo class, I saw this image (from a student’s link) and considered it for a few minutes. Then I wrote:
“I like this, but don’t want to. I enjoy the skill and craft of the image, but am also sad that photographers are (once again) emulating painting. Whole lot of photoshoppin’ goin’ on here.”

How The Grinch Made Christmas Beautiful

Chimayo: The past is a little glossy these days

Ok, I like churches, particularly very old churches… I’ve seen many of the big ones in Europe and countless tiny ones too. I lean towards the smaller ones, where it is evident a congregation is strongly connected to the spirit and soul of the structure. I like the vernacular expressions of faith — symbols that reaffirm our existence and struggle on this planet. Sometimes these include personal items left as a offering or personal prayer, symbols of harvest(s), objects of superstition, or of a miracle (headings in particular). That is what compels me to visit (and often photograph churches) although I’m not a religious person per se. I like the tradition and rituals of social groups, and for me, churches often provide me that experience.

My re-visit to Chimayo, NM was NOT that experience. As I drove into the sanctuary’s compound, I was struck by a level of graphic sophistication that is usually reserved for  upscale, well managed tourist venues… certainly not a church that dates back to 1816.

Since my last visit, the church has become a well designed, slick, and “protected” tourist-mecca. There are designated parking lots, signage, a new logotype, paved walkways, an outdoor amphitheater, a conference center, a museum, and several supporting structures all connected by pathways and a similar architecture aesthetic. As a former professional architectural photographer, I understand the nature of these improvements and how they function to “brand” a company or organization. But, I haven’t seen it applied to a historically significant site to this degree before. I’m no virgin to the nature of tourism and it’s connections to history having spent years of my academic life researching, visiting, and documenting the original site of ‘visual tourism,’ — the Wye River Valley in Wales.

I’m not here to disrespect the Santuario, instead I’m commenting on the nature of change in the New Mexican landscape and those changes which seem to defy logic or understanding. I’m looking with the same eyes I had before, but seeing a very different picture today. I did find a brief article about expansion and it might appear the Catholic Diocese of Santa Fe (who was given the church in 1929) is behind the improvements.

Some visual comparisons might explain my shock upon re-visiting Chimayo in this time.

Up first is a small church in Skenfrith, Wales that has weathered time (800 years!) and holds an important place in the lives of the local people.

St. Bridgets celebrated 800 years in 2007 and has remained largely unchanged in that time.

 

 

Another New Mexican church that  I love is the small and wonderfully parishioner-maintained Santo Nino near Three Rivers Petroglyph site (near Alamagordo). I’ve visited this small chapel many times in the last ten years, and I have seen a few improvements, but the essence of the place has not changed. The interior is a hodge-podge of Milagros, pictures, sculptures, rosaries, and other artifacts of worship… all donated and cared for by the visiting priest and parishioners themselves. It isn’t a major tourist destination and I wonder if it were discovered, it would also undergo a “make-over?”

Each artifact in the church represents a human touch, left as a connection between a deity and the wishes of an individual for a blessing, help, miracle, or just worship. It isn’t well designed, yet it offers an authenticity that would be hard to replicate by a design team.

 The current Santo Nino figure was donated by a parishioner and the upkeep is similarly provided by locals. The altar is loaded with these personal touches, and I continue attempting photographs that might do justice to the church.

Here’s a portfolio I executed a few years back. I’ve been attracted to the idea and history of Milagros since I first saw them in Puebla, Mexico in 1972. They still resonate that belief in something larger than the individual and a hope in miracles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was recently in Italy and photographed large and small churches, each of them were overrun with tourists and were happily conducting their mission in the same structures as many, many earlier generations. They haven’t been updated to satisfy tourist demands or any attempts to appear modern.

Sienna and Arezzo both have spectacular churches, with huge throngs of tourists visiting annually and Sienna has a separate museum (fee based) that holds their important works of art and manuscripts. The rule here is no FLASH photography, since the UV from the light will deteriorate pigments in the art or hand-lettered illuminated manuscripts.
 Sienna

Arezzo 

 Arezzo

 

 

 

Here is Chimayo today. (exteriors only since there are signs everywhere stating “No Photos!, in order to protect this shrine” … protect from what? Once inside, the beauty of the church/shrine is intact, little has changed and the experience returned for me. Although I chose to respect the signs, others have not.

<rant mode ON>…. I’ve encountered this idea of protection, whether as a ‘copyright’ issue, or as a means to protect sales at the gift shop, but it doesn’t really protect anything to do with the structure. <rant mode OFF>

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t currently have access to my original photographs of Chimayo, save one, but it’s conversion is a far cry from that time back in 1995.

 


One last image, from a similar church in Las Trampas (1760, but without an annual pilgrimage), just a few miles away… unchanged and still functioning.

 

 

 

 

A local native I’ve befriended surmised the changes were prompted by the demands  of tourism and the poor state of the economy, and I am mildly persuaded this makes some sense after viewing other areas of New Mexico. It’s a shame that a site with this much character and history needs such an extravagant change to remain viable. It will continue to attract believers and non-believers for decades to come, but it’s a pity they won’t have the same experience once possible. It would seem I am not alone in my concern of these changes, a local preservation group is discussing what might happen to the church’s historic status.

Time Travel: Where the past isn’t so easily found

I’ve visited a few sites here in New Mexico that are familiar to me because of my previous visits… at least, familiar in their latitude, longitude, and geography. In a matter of a few years (less than than twelve), many of these site have been transformed (mostly) by man and seem quite foreign to my photographic-memories.

I think there is a tendency to remember places and events through visual windows of our creation. In my case it’s through the photographs that I’ve made; for others it might be pure memory or remembering images that someone else made or placed into a scrapbook or shared on the web.

My memory of these places is connected first to the images I’ve made, and secondly to the events that surrounded their making. I made a few trips to New Mexico back in the mid-1990s with a group of students from Richland College (Dallas) as part of a class trip exploring infrared photography. I returned later to enlarge and expand that early work into a series I’ve entitled Terrible Beauty after being challenged by the Water in the West group’s presentation at the 1999 SPE (Society for Photographic Education) conference in Tucson.

Those images served a purpose then (commenting on water usage in arid regions), but today they serve as a reminder that we live in a very ephemeral trajectory. Nothing is stable, but I wish that time weren’t rushing by so fast as to make the more memorable places, people, and things unrecognizable within my own lifetime…. and certainly not within a mere decade. This is not the case with Truchas or Chimayo, New Mexico. Each place has undergone rapid change and in many cases (in my opinion) not always for the better, especially Chimayo. It’s a point also made by John Nichols in his novel, The Milagro Beanfield War, that pits older established ways of life with new residents, alternative lifestyles, and an inevitable collision of cultures. What was true for Nichols (and most of Northern New Mexico) in the 1960s, seems equally true today.

infrared photograph

Consider Truchas, once a small, quiet, and slightly derelict mountain village that I first photographed in 1995. Today Truchas has given way to an onslaught of art galleries enabled partly by the normal attrition process of aging home owners leaving the place or planet and the younger generation’s migration towards better job prospects in nearby cities. Add to that an influx of artists seeking to recreate themselves in this New Mexican mountain air (@8400 ft) landscape. I discovered one the first of these artist through a blog, The High Road Artrist, by Jeane George Weigel. She came to Truchas on a rather spiritual journey back about  2006. I found at least a dozen galleries on the main street alone and others just outside of the town limits.

The owner of Truchas’ general store commented that these new galleries contained art that “wasn’t very good.” While I don’t usually seriously consider unsolicited art criticism, I did sense these newcomers’ introduction hadn’t been totally welcomed. Whether the art was good or not wasn’t as important to me as to WHY there were now so many in a town that (as far as I remember) had none just a few years back.
The galleries of Truchas, NM

He offered these were rich or well-off individuals who were retired and perhaps pursuing a dream or something else to do which was personally satisfying. I could certainly understand that last part, but again…. WHY Truchas? It is on the “high road” to Taos, but still rather isolated.

What isn’t obvious is how much traffic comes this way during the ‘high season” summer months or possible connections to the art establishments of Santa Fe (38 miles to the south) and Taos (40 miles to the north) or how the entire area seems to be moving towards a self-fulling goal of becoming an art region like no other in the United States.

Robert Redford first put Truchas in the spotlight by filming John Nichol’s The Milagro Beanfield War in 1988. It’s hard to imagine that alone was the catalyst for Truchas’ popularity among artist, but it certainly isn’t hard to see the effect on Santa Fe that Redford’s presence and notoriety propelled. Santa Fe is routinely touted as a great place to live or visit… and I can distinctly remembering the press’ flurry over Redford sightings in the plaza and elsewhere and subsequent articles about Santa Fe in Time Magazine and others. Who knows? I’m trying to contact Ms. Weigel and John Nichols for some insight. Yes, I get obsessed about these things. Somebody has to, right?

Up next, Chimayo and the ‘branding’ of a religious icon.

Leaving and Learning How to Prepare for a Long Trip

What was I thinking?

I left Flint a few days ago to spend the rest of summer in Taos, New Mexico. I love northern New Mexico. I spent time traveling through the area last fall and stayed with my friend Keith in El Prado (just north of Taos and a short hop from the Rio Grande River.) I loved the different geographies and I made some photographs that resonated with me and wanted to return this summer. Keith has a great house that I’m renting, including his darkroom, and I will be able to access vast stretches of rivers, forests, mountains, deserts, and peoples. So, why am I’m so damned stressed?  What I didn’t know was how hard it is to leave for a long photography expedition that also includes setting up a new residence, merging my darkroom practice into that of another photographer, and adjusting to new surroundings, people, weather, and culture. Is my Honda Accord big enough? Am I big enough? Time will tell. As I packed, I was frustrated with my neediness and the desire to bring “comfort” to Taos. What am I afraid of, why should a grown man worry about things like having warm enough clothing for the arid desert nights (or mountains), good enough shoes, cool enough shirts for the scorching hot days, or enough clean underwear (of course he has a laundry closet and I could always go to a launderette)… Of course, none of this has anything to do with making photographs, but it’s a mental game played out to distract me from my real fear — the fear that I might not make any worthwhile work. That’s the scariest prospect of all, one that drives me to drink, to sleep at inappropriate times, and find mindless diversions to whittle away my precious time in New Mexico. But that won’t happen (much, haha), because I’ve given myself the time, space, and permission to go for broke. I’m going to put myself on the line and try to break through all the mental gyrations and theories about photographic images and I’m going to “feel my photographs” with my eyes before opening up the camera case and loading film holders into the back. I know when I feel like I’m looking at an illustration of my life that I’m about to make a good photograph. The photograph I’ll make will melt away all those fears and terrors of the artist and fill my spirits with a comfort that no car or fancy camera case could deliver.