I love the Southwest and I love New Mexico. I have visited Sante Fe about twice a year for the past five years. I call her “My home away from home”. I am a tourist and a photographer. Each time I visit Sante Fe, I see her more for what she is. Like any beautiful woman she has many sides, many looks and, as one would expect, there is more to her than first meets the eye. At her best, she is beautiful adobe architecture adorned with Native American and Spanish artwork. She is decked out in silver and turquoise. She is a lovely and quaint historic section with a square in the middle of town. She is of Native American, Spanish and Anglo blood.
It was on one of my first visits that I began to sense an uneasy undercurrent. I visited the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. It is an excellent museum a block from the square. There is a wonderful gift shop with books on every aspect of Native American history. So, as I paid my entrance fee, I expected to see more of the beautiful Native American artwork which adorned the walls of my hotel, across the street. I entered the gallery and was immediately brought down to earth. There, as one of the first exhibits, was a life-sized wooden dog with nails hammered all over its body, symbolizing how Native Americans feel they have been treated. I looked on the walls. Each piece of art depicted Native Americans being abused, killed and tortured by “Americans”, as white Europeans were depicted there. There were pictures of U.S. Air Force planes dropping bombs on American Indians.
I left the gallery in an aggravated state. “How dare those Indians spoil my vacation”. And, whether I liked it or not, I was being shown another side of Sante Fe. And, she has revealed that side more on each of my visits. After the museum I looked at the obelisk, a stone pillar in the middle of the square. One of its four plaques is dedicated to those “heros” who have fallen in the various battles with indians in the territory of New Mexico. As you can see from the attached image, a word has been carved out of the marble with a chisel. And it is when I photographed this that I began to be a “photographer”. I define a photographer as one who “sees”.
When I Googled what the wording was before the obvious surgery I found it was “savage”. The plaque and its defacement was a palpable sign of anger and resentment felt by Native Americans. And, that resentment was clearly simmering in the background at my beautiful vacation spot. It was time to wake up, albeit painfully.
I have since learned to look, to “see” with more than rose colored glasses. Seeing is paying attention with more than a camera. It is learning about a place and feeling its undercurrents. It is learning to care for its people or, at a minimum, to understand them. So, I began to look for other “signs” of what I felt viscerally. I talked to a number of the Native Americans who I met in shops I have frequented over the years. I did not discover any deep animosity there. Native Americans I have met are, by and large, a very quiet people and are not preoccupied with the battles depicted on the walls of the Museum.
But I kept looking. I found other signs, literally. On my last visit, I walked out of the museum only to see this painted on the side of the postal drop box, thirty feet from the door. The sign of a young Indian whose portrait is atop paint streaming down over the “United States Postal Service” logo, could not be more direct in its message, particularly considering the location of the image. I kept looking and found another “sign”. This one was on the back side of a building about a block from the square and no more than 100 feet from my hotel, one of the nicest in Sante Fe.
And so, I was learning to look deeper, to understand her more. That is the gift of photography if we will let her teach us.
I visited a bookstore nearby and browsed the many titles which focused on New Mexico and the Sante Fe area. I came on one called The Myth of Sante Fe by Chris Wilson. He writes, essentially, that Sante Fe is a tourist resort, built to be as much, from the ground up and at the behest of the early city fathers. The ubiquitous adobe in town is, according to Wilson, not a truly natural historical development but simply mandated by the city’s government to bring in the tourists. And I will admit to you that, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” I love her anyway. She has given me much and taught me to “see” and to “care”, as she is still my “home away from home”, a place I want to be.
El Paso. Why El Paso? Texas is the next state over from Louisiana, with a western landscape and a city I’d never visited. I pictured dusty streets, dry air and a western facade main street. Wrong. El Paso is modern and like almost any other American city, with two important differences: it’s on the border with Mexico and dead center south of New Mexico.
It is one thing to hear about immigration. It is another to leave your hotel, drive a few blocks to the Rio Grande, and look across a wire fence into another country. I turned right and drove slowly, taking in the square shacks in Mexico, the great river, which at this spot looks like a dried up stream and the white Border Patrol vehicles parked every quarter mile. It was exciting and exotic. I felt the tension of immigration in a way that can never be appreciated by watching talking heads on television. It is real, there in El Paso, just across the border from Ciudad Juarez.
As I drove west, I merged with I-10 and about fifteen miles later entered New Mexico. Frankly, when I decided on El Paso as a destination, I paid no attention to its proximity to the “Land of Enchantment”. By the end of the week, I had put almost two thousand miles on the rental car, most of it in New Mexico.
Open spaces, the elixir of life. Wind that has blown across miles and miles of land, much of it with nothing taller than tumbleweed. It is where emails, phone calls and the detritis of high rise life fall away with each mile. It wasn’t long before I looked at the map and saw the Organ Mountains to the north. Who knew? I turned and soon drove past them and into the valley where White Sands National Monumnent sits: a vast expanse of snow white gypsum dunes the size of ocean going ships. Closed. Government shutdown. I vowed to return.
Ten months later I drove into the dunes, following the only road in or out which blowing and shifting sands often covered completely. It was in White Sands that I began to learn the most important attribute of a landscape photographer: patience. Walk, frame, walk more, re-frame and wait for the light. Waiting, always waiting. Dawn, sunset, midday, White Sands is like being on the moon: a place like no other on earth.
We who fancy nature photography will often jump through hoops, crop, dodge, and photoshop out those things that man has dropped into what we envision as perfect nature. And yet, photography never ceases to remind us of the folly of expectation. As I framed a lovely shot of giant dunes and waited for the sun to set, a couple appeared in the viewfinder, “spoiling” my picture. I shot several frames anyway, knowing that they would drop below the line of sight shortly. And, of course, the image became my favorite of the trip.
I returned again, this time staying in Santa Fe. Just the name had allure for me: a place for artists, seven thousand feet above my New Orleans sea level, clear crisp air, open spaces. In fairness, Santa Fe became my base and not the center of my interest. I love to drive and I love open space. One day I drove north, first taking the “Low Road to Taos”. I went into Colorado, the first twenty miles true open range. Signs announced it, with images of elk and wild horses, warning drivers of a possible encounter. My heart sang, to be honest. “Open Range”. No fences, Wild Horses. Heaven.
After a while, I turned south, still looking but not encountering those beautiful creatures. Driving south, I took the “High Road to Taos” back to Santa Fe. As to why one takes the “High Road to Taos” to Santa Fe, the views are better southbound, and, yes, you can get there from here. On my last day, I drove to Ghost Ranch, a beautiful place about an hour and a half west of Santa Fe. It was Georgia O’Keeffe’s winter home for many years and ultimately where she settled. I treasure the simple fact that I laid eyes on those exquisite cliffs, as her art is now a little like going home to me.
As I drove into the ranch and topped the hill, there before me was a magnificent cliff with multi-colored strata, a testament to Aeons I could only imagine.
I shot only a few pictures there as I didn’t have time to take one of the available horseback tours. But, just seeing the land was enough to feel O’keeffe’s presence and gain a much deeper appreciation of her life and art. It was a chance to connect with an indomitable human spirit and stunning landscape.
As beautiful as New Orleans is, there is always the search for something new to photograph. Anyone who has visited her will surely assume the available subjects are endless and certainly that is true. She has “soul” and a European ambience that renders her unique in America. Amazing architecture, food that’s guaranteed to hypnotize and for those who want more, the siren songs from Bourbon Street- World class Jazz, “dancers” and a never ending flow of alcohol. As soft as she is on the eyes, her beauty is a combination of “easy”, and irresistible sharp edges. And, her subtropical climate makes her as green as green gets.
I am always drawn to City Park’s sweeping oaks, and the ubiquitous palms. From the beautiful patterns of sawn trunks to the uniformity of their fronds, I shoot them, again and again. So, this past Sunday, I returned to one of my favorites, the Saw Palmetto. No, I am in no way a botanist, arborist or otherwise an expert in plants. But, I am drawn to beauty and the Saw Palmetto does not disappoint. She has all the usual lovliness of the palm family, but with one very important difference: razor sharp thorns.
The place I have found them, is, surprisingly, “The Point”, a spit of land that juts out from New Orleans’ shore on Lake Pontchartrain and creates the channel to her harbor. It’s an easy place to go and fish, just sit and watch the sailboats come and go or, as I did, to wade in with camera, dodging thorns and reveling in the amazing contrasting colors. Each one of the trees has branches in each state of a plant’s life cycle, from just “blooming” at the top, to the bottom where the brown and dried braches criss cross, completing the circle of life, but no less beautiful than the new growth.
It is impossible not to appreciate a camera and photography after a session with this lovely tree. Without the drive to “get it on film”, to explore for beauty, to bring what is natural to a level some would call “art”, one might never appreciate the beauty in nature. A simple truth. I hear her now, “Just pick up the camera and shoot. Beauty will come to you.” Nature is laughing at me as I marvel at the obvious.