Between Two Worlds
Photography at The El Paso Museum of Art, by William Thompson
Among the highlights of the Whitney Museum of American Art's 2000 Biennial Exhibition was Que linda la brisa (How Lovely the Breeze), an edgy series of photographs by James Drake. Drake was a former resident of El Paso and is known for his intuitive explorations of life along the US/Mexico border. Drake's photographs, candid portraits of transvestites in a shabby bar in Juarez, Mexico, brought a rare glimpse of border life to the Whitney's pristine walls and vividly illustrated how the region has served as rich territory for adventurous photographers.
Borders define life in El Paso. Situated on the boundary of Texas, New Mexico and Mexico, the city has grown from a small, dusty settlement nestled between the Rio Grande and the rugged Franklin Mountains to a sprawling, bilingual metropolis, severely taxing the fragile resources of the surrounding Chihua-huan Desert. Today, the city is home to a predominately Latino population of more than 700,000 people. Across the Rio Grande, the population of El Paso's sister city, Juarez, has swelled to nearly two million residents, many of whom work in local maquiladoras, vast foreign-owned manufacturing plants, and live in the impoverished colonias that have developed along the outskirts of the city.
Within this setting of striking beauty and stark contrasts, the El Paso Museum of Art has grown into a major cultural resource for the surrounding region. Once housed in the historic Turney Home, the museum moved in 1998 into a state-of-the-art, ioo,ooo-square-foot facility designed by BKM Architects on the site of the former Greyhound bus station in downtown El Paso. Best known for its strong holdings of Renaissance and Baroque painting, Colonial Mexican art and 19th and loth century American art, the museum's collection features more than 5,000 objects including a sizable gathering of works on paper.
Currently some 500 photographs, spanning the mid-igth century to the present, are in the museum's permanent collection. The earliest of these images include a small, uneven gathering of daguerreotypes and tintypes and several historic albums relating to the history of El Paso/Juarez. The collection takes on more character, however, in the early 20th century, with several fine portraits of affluent El Pasoans taken by Fred J. Feldman, a local studio photographer, and scenic views of Mexico by the accomplished German photographer Hugo Brehme. The largest body of work by a single photographer in the museum's collection is that of Manuel Carrillo, who donated more than 200 of his exhibition prints in 1969. Born in 1906 in Mexico City, Carrillo took up photography at age 49 and devoted himself to documenting the landscape and people of rural Mexico. Inspired by films and the work of Modernist photographers such as Edward Stei-chen, Paul Strand and Edward Weston, Carrillo achieved widespread recognition for his sensitive interpretations of his native country. El Paso remains the most important repository for Carrillo's work — more than 10,000 of his prints, negatives and archival materials are housed in the library of The University of Texas at El Paso.1
Since the early 19903, the museum has made it a priority to exhibit and collect contemporary art including photography, from the southwestern United States and Mexico. In the process it has acquired more than 200 works by contemporary photographers who have worked in Texas, New Mexico and Mexico particularly along the border. The majority of these artists have exhibited at the Museum during the past decade, many in the 1994 group exhibition Shot in El Paso, curated by photographer Richard Baron. The installation featured a wide range of work from more than 30 photographers, all of whom took pictures in El Paso at some point in their careers. While a number of the artists, including Max Aguilera-Hellweg, Bruce Berman and James Drake, were longtime residents of El Paso, others, such as Richard Avedon, Peter Coin and Hiroshi Hamaya, spent much shorter periods of time in and around the city. Despite their divergent backgrounds and approaches to the camera, all of these photographers shared at least one thing in common — a powerful response to the unique environment of the border, particularly its people, landscape and architecture.
A substantial number of photographs in the museum's collection fall under the category of "itinerant" or "street photography," broad terms frequently used to describe images of urban life. Among the photographers most closely associated with the tradition in El Paso/Juarez is Max Aguilera-Hellweg, represented in the museum by nine works and highlighted in the 1995 exhibition La Frontera Sin Sonrisa (The Border Without Smile). Fascinated with people on the streets and their stories, Aguilera-Hellweg sets up his camera along bustling thoroughfares and, using Polaroid film, takes frank portraits of pedestrians, most of whom stare directly at his lens without smiles or pretense. His large-format prints, arresting in terms of their scale and presence, possess a quiet sense of dignity, often lost amid the gaunt realities of life on the Border. El Pasoan Bruce Berman, a widely published photographer and the subject of the museum's 1995 exhibition Side Trips into the Night, is likewise known for his salient images of the border's unique urban culture. The museum's collection features several of his works, ranging from a touching portrait of a Mexican laborer walking home to a study of the hulking Black Bridge, the infamous railroad overpass connecting El Paso and Juarez and the site of countless illegal border crossings and tragic deaths. Other photographers in the collection who have explored the subject of the border's urban landscape include Jim Bones, Peter Coin,
Virgil Hancock, Maurice Heller, Victor La Viola and Willie Varela. Hancock's vibrant Cibachrome prints, which depict the crowded, industrial towns and cities of Chihuahua, Mexico, were featured in the museum's 1996 exhibition Coated Walls.
While the museum's fledgling photography holdings are modest in comparison to those of larger institutions, they are not without depth. In 1997, the museum acquired a collection of 90 prints by John Ward, a Harvard-trained physicist turned photographer who now resides in Estes Park, Colorado. Donated by James Haines, the CEO of El Paso Electric Company and a friend of the artist, these prints span the late 19605 through the 19805 and chart Ward's investigation of the landscape of the American West. Inspired by the imagery of Eliot Porter and Ansel Adams, Ward works with large-format view cameras in order to capture subtle nuances of tone and texture that are not possible with 35mm film. Like many landscape photographers, Ward expresses a profound interest in the environment and the visual poetry of the natural world. Working in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas among other locales, Ward depicts grand, sweeping vistas of forests and mountains untouched by civilization, as well as eerie, abstracted close-ups of deteriorating buildings. His imagery resonates with the work of other contemporary landscape photographers in the museum's collection — particularly that of El Pasoans George Drennan and Manuel Rosas — and has provided a direction for future acquisitions in this genre.
Shortly after the acquisition of Ward's photographs, Willie Varela, an independent filmmaker from El Paso, donated 74 of his photographic prints from the early 19705 through the mid-1990s. Currently assistant professor of film studies at The University of Texas at El Paso, Varela has shown his work throughout the US and is a veteran of the 1993 and 1995 Whitney Biennials. Varela's photography parallels his work in film and video over the past 30 years. A trip to the interior of Mexico in 1984 resulted in his series of black-and-white prints on the cemeteries of San Miguel de Allende, a compelling exploration of Catholic spirituality and rituals associated with death.While the extensive number of works by Carrillo, Ward and Varela are clearlythe photography collection's greatest strength, one of its most glaring weaknesses is the lack of representation by women. In 1994, photographer and filmscholar Cynthia Farah became one of the first women to be included among the museum's photography holdings when she donated a portrait of El Paso artist Tom Lea. A native of El Paso, Farah serves as assistant professor of film theory and criticism at The University of Texas at El Paso and has published several books of her photographs including the highly acclaimed Literature and Landscape: Writers of the Southwest, released in 1988 by Texas Western Press. The museum is working to remedy the gender gap in its photography collection, and recent gifts have brought in a hand-colored print by San Antonio-based artist Kathy Vargas, known for her innovative reinterpreta-tions of traditional Mexican imagery, as well as works by several El Paso photographers: a montage self-portrait by Diana Molina; a portrait from Gloria Prieto's series on the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico; and a print by Isabel Fierro Taylor from her series on homecomings at Fort Bliss following the Persian Gulf War.
The museum's photography holdings continue to grow through gifts and selective purchases. In 2000, the Lannan Foundation donated three large-format color prints by Juarez photojournalists Jaime Bailleres and Julian Cordona, whose potent imagery figured prominently in Charles Bowden's book Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future, published by Aperture in 1998. Most recently, the museum acquired a print depicting a border crossing in downtown El Paso in the late 19805 by Austin-based photo-journalist Alan Pogue, who has documented the US-Mexico border for many years. The geographic scope of the museum's photography collection has started to expand with the acquisition of photographic works by internationally recognized artists Yasumasa Morimura and David Wojnarowicz.
Complementing the museum's growing collections is a diverse exhibition program, which regularly features historic and contemporary photography. Funded by the City of El Paso and donations from individuals, foundations and corporations, the museum's new facility includes a 10,000 square-foot gallery for contemporary art and traveling exhibitions and the Peter and Margaret de Wetter Gallery, devoted to works on paper. Gateway Gallery, a multi-use space adjacent to the Museum's Grand Lobby, is also used primarily for the display of prints, drawings and photographs. Recent exhibitions have included The Pictures of Texas Monthly: Twenty-Five Years; Midway: Portrait of a Daytona Beach Neighborhood, Photographs by Gordon Parks; The Forest Through the Trees: Photographs by John Ward; Nic Nicosia: Real Pictures 1979-1999; Ann Stautberg: Texas Coast; and Peter Coin's Humanature. Upcoming exhibitions in 2000-2001 will feature the work of Gay Block, Edward S. Curtis and Ansel Adams.
William R. Thompson is curator of the El Paso Museum of Art, El Paso, Texas.
1. The University of Texas at El Paso and the Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives have collaborated on an online exhibition of Carrillo's work at: http://latino.si.edu/virtual-gallery/