The Look of New Mexico

by Ed Osowski

The Essential Landscape: The New Mexico Photographic Survey, Steven A. Yates, editor, Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press, 1985. 147 pages, $45.00.
New Mexico, U.S.A. Barbara Erdman, editor, Santa Fe: Santa Fe Center for Photography, 1985. 111 pages, $35.00 (hard), $19.95 (paper).

The photographer who chooses to work in New Mexico does not face an easy task. He or she must first contend with the examples of others who have already been there. Ann almost endless list – Ansel Adams, Laura Gilpin, Paul Stranf, Eliot Porter, Edward Weston, Paul Caponigro – of photographers who have photographed an, in several cases, lived in New Mexico imposes a burden of vision, of subject, and of purpose on the photographer working there today. Two recent publications demonstrate a variety of ways of dealing with the weight of these masters of the past.
The Essential Landscape: The New Mexico Photographic Survey, the more impressive of the two publications, is a response, in the words of its editor Steve Yates, to the “transformation and decisive change” that have altered the physical and social look of New Mexico over the past two decades. It records how twelve photographers, commissioned by the Museum of New Mexico, saw the state in the first years of the 1980’s. Informing them were the examples of other important surveys of the past – in the nineteenth century the projects of Timothy H. O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson and, in this century, the work of the F.S.A. photographers. If they had a charge, then, it was to preserve, through their photographs, what New Mexico looked like at a specific time in its history.
The effort to “preserve the look” raises the question of what “landscape” means in the title The Essential Landscape. Its tradition, for photographers as well as for painters, is especially rich and landscape is now again very much in vogue. The land, all that surrounds us, is in a sense, all that is not us, is apart from us, is the other. Yet, it is there in the traditional view of landscape art, that we find those values that give us greatest comfort and hope – beauty, harmony, peace, majesty. Whether the photographer can still elicit in the viewer a response to these expansive ideas is problematical. Writing in The New Criterion Eric Gibson criticized much recent landscape painting (and, by extension, photography) for its smallness of vision, its “absence of any significant message of transcendence or spirituality.” One has little difficulty locating in the photographs by Joan Myers in The Essential Landscape those abstract, stable values, weighty with spiritual significance. In her “San Miguel” a gate, arching across the sky, leads one off, down a path, past houses, to the world beyond man-made objects, to that idyllic space where one experiences, in Myers’ words, “a hope for the future, a dream of opportunity.” If, as in her photograph “Telecote,” barbed wire and fence posts block one’s view of the land, Myers still maintains that beauty and elegance exist, beyond those things that inhibit one’s sight.
Myer’s photographs demonstrate what might be called the myth of optimism, the fiction that maintains that the natural world continues to survive the efforts of man to destroy it. In their book Landscape as Photograph Estelle Jussim and Elizabeth Lindquist-Cock comment on the way that the natural world is filled, not so much with discovery, as with data that corroborates beliefs already held. “What individuals think about nature they bring both to the making of an to the appreciation of landscape photographs.” To use Ansel Adams as an example, he approached the natural world knowing before hand that majesty inhered in it and his photographs uncover, rather than discover, that majesty.
Bernard Plossu’s “Around Deming” and Mary Peck’s “Lake Bed, Palo Blanco” depicts views that stretch to infinity, views that move beyond the real world of scrub brush, dust, cracked lake bottoms, and endless skies to a transcendental sphere. The roads that divide these two photographs are motifs that make obvious the spiritual journeys implied in both works.
Myers, Plossu, and Peck are concerned with defining the natural world as one in which man’s hand has not “contaminated” what is out there. What emerges from the other photographs is that the world without man is, at best, a nostalgic wish, a deliberately naice attempt to deny what is there and, by imposing the pastoral myth on what one photographs, to see what is not there. “Las Trampas” by Alex Harris graces the cover of the book and Harris may be the pivotal figure in The Essential Landscape. Four of his fifteen photographs offer the grand solemnity and intimations of the sublime that Myers and Plossu (and upon occasion, Paul Logsdon, Edward Ranney, and Meridel Rubenstein) express. But Harris pulls back from this approach in the majority of his remaining works where he entered the closed, ordered world of rooms where he records, with sharp, precise detail, the objects of daily life. In these curiously de-peopled spaces Harris finds the solemnity, the peace, the transcendental vision others locate in the out-of-doors.
It is the social landscape – the world with and made by people that dominates the remainder of the survey. Meridel Rubenstein’s works are topographic collages that romantically convey the struggle to establish a place called “home” on the unyielding land. Richard Wilder’s “archeological” photographs cleverly poke fun at the efforts of developers and decorators to create a Santa Fe that will appeal to the desire of the tourist to find something old, but clean, and adobe, and cute, if you will. When Wilder returned eighteen months later to photograph the Beva Café he found a new adobe wall now disguised the entrance to what looks like an upscale restaurant.
In the street scenes of Miguel Gondert and the portraits of Anne Noggle the world has receded to a backdrop against which are enacted small, personal dramas. Gondert’s subjects primp for the camera, flaunt their teenage angst and their adolescent sexuality, look ever so slightly troubled, not by the camera, which they embrace, but by their own lives. What imposes on them is not the world but their own psyches. Noggle writes that what attracts her to her subjects is how they represent the “uniqueness” that is “alive and well and living in New Mexico.” She feels an obvious fondness for her subjects, but her reach is limited. So unique are her subjects that one cannot move beyond them and the rooms or spaces they inhabit to any reading of how they relate to the world beyond. Noggle’s people remain fiercely unique.
Calendar art always disappoints because its reach is so limited. It fails to stretch our perceptions, rarely shocks us with new awareness but rather lulls us into complacency and a dull acceptance of the status quo. Give of the twelve photographers in The Essential Landscape are among the fifty-eight represented in New Mexico, U.S.A. Their pieces, along with works by Roy Blecher, Paul Caponigro, Eliot Porter, Stephen Cooper, Douglas Kahn, Robert Saltzman, William Davis, and Willard Van Dyke, are the best in the collection for what they locate in the land is a statis, a permanence of vision, and a commitment to precise detail, to the very “thisness” of material world. But the majority of the photographs is New Mexico, U.S.A., a catalogue of two exhibitions organized by the Santa Fe Center for Photography, shares many of the shortcomings of calendar art.
The images in New Mexico, U.S.A. rely on the safety of stereotype and glorify the obvious to make their point. In Richard Erdoes’ “Navajo Carnival” the cultural juxtapositions are too obvious, too cute. Michael Heller’s “Shidoni Sculpture Garden” is, again, clever and tired, an image we have seen too often before. What dominate are photojournalistic versions of what the editor, Barbara Erdman, would like us to believe life in New Mexico looks life. While New Mexico, U.S.A. disappoints with its numerous overworked imaged, The Essential Landscape suffers from a more serious problem. Really two books in one, The Essential Landscape collects eight essays by J.B. Jackson, a cultural geographer and subject of one of Anne Noggle’s portraits. Jackson’s essays, interesting in themselves, do little to illuminate the photographs they accompany. But, more distressingly, an editorial decision was made to print a mere handful of the 180 photographs in the survey at full-page size. The actual catalogue of the exhibition does a disservice to these twelve photographers. Reducing their works to a 2 by 4 inch image renders them partially unreadable. And, in the case of Rubenstein, Harris, and Logsdon not printing them in color makes them very different works from those submitted to the survey. Last summer, on a trip to Santa Fe, I saw the pieces commissioned for The Essential Landscape. The publication of that exhibition only hints at the beauty and strength in many of those works.