Sunday, December 27, 2020

Nuestra Morada Privada


Cruz Blanca

Early in December I headed out for a browse of favorite photo locales around Taos. As is often the case I headed to La Morada de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, locally referred to as the Morada. Near the Taos Historic District, the Morada, a Catholic lay chapel, sits on a glorious patch of high desert with sweeping views across Taos Pueblo lands toward the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It’s a special piece of land and the Morada, while underknown and appreciated, is one of Taos’s most important and aesthetic historic sites.

Cruz Negro

La Morada with Taos Pueblo and the Sangre de Cristos beyond

La Morada de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe

To my modest surprise, as I approached the Morada grounds I found that a gate had been installed across Penitente Road so that public access to the property is no longer possible. I say modest surprise since there’s been a fraught relationship between the Penitente Brothers who use the Morada for their severe devotionals and anyone who is not a Hermano. That tension has existed forever. Since the property was sold to the Diocese of Santa Fe by the Taos Historic Museums in 2008, visitors have sometimes been accosted by Hermanos when they attempt to enter the grounds. And more recently a sign appeared saying that painting and photography are expressly forbidden. But the right of the Penitentes or the Catholic Church to deny access to the Morada grounds has been called into question. It is believed but not yet proved that under the terms of the sale of the Morada to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe by the Taos Historic Museums public access was preserved and that access includes the right to depict it artistically. 

Much to my frustration I backed out the entire length of one lane Penitente Road and put it aside for the moment. Days later I received an email from a fellow photographer who had suffered the same fate. Rupert Chambers, who does not turn the other cheek, had tracked down the parish priest under whose purview the Morada lies. When questioned by Rupert about the closing here’s how the priest replied.

Mr. Chambers,

My secretary forwarded me your email, thank you for your question. The short answer is though a historic site, it is a living morada, and the men of our local fraternity practice their devotions and care for the grounds/building. Though the choice remains with me, I chose to honor their wishes that the grounds remain private for their use and for official parish use only. Furthermore, the pueblo tribal government has asked that we keep visitors out since our land borders theirs as they are worried about issues with trespassing. So, in the end I am respecting the wishes of our special group and of our neighbors. You should know, however that visitors are allowed when we have public worship events there such as Mass (once a month during normal time) and for certain devotions during the Lenten season.

I do hope you and your loves one enjoy a warm, safe, and joyful Holiday Season!


Prompted by the Father’s answer, I weighed in.


Dear Father, 

The interchange between you and Rupert Chambers was shared with my wife Peggy who in turn shared it with me. I am disheartened that in your narrow view the desires of the Penitente Brotherhood exceed the value of the general public’s freedom to visit one of Taos’s extraordinary historic sites. It’s shortsighted at best. Further, it is my understanding that a stipulation of the sale of the property by the Taos Historic Museums to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in 2008 was that public access to the grounds be guaranteed and that access was to include the right to paint, photograph or otherwise depict the Morada and its grounds. If that is not the case the Historic Museums dropped the ball in an inexcusable way. If that stipulation is part of the agreement the Archdiocese is bound by it. In your response to Mr. Chambers, you declare with not a little pride that the decision was entirely yours. In your presumed wisdom you are denying access to the property to the devout who are not Penitentes and to those who simply appreciate New Mexico’s rich Catholic history. You are making that history smaller, less approachable and for the very few.

It is no secret that the insular, and may I say bitter, Penitentes do not want to share the Morada with anyone who is not a Hermano. Even more they are revulsed at having it painted, photographed, or otherwise depicted. Surely you are aware that artistic works memorialize sacred sites for all time. How is the Church served by denying that legacy?

I harbor no illusions that you will be swayed to reconsider. But I hope you will ponder what you have wrought.

Steve Immel


Sounds good! I have no qualms that your argument has weight and is meaningful, but as pastor here it’s both my call and it isn’t, because I do not represent merely my interests and I am also well aware of this.

In a different context I might just say do as you wish, but the Hermanos and the Pueblo have been here a lot longer than both of us and both have been wronged and often overlooked. With the abundance of gorgeous vistas in our fair valley I am sure you can find many a spot that suits your needs as an artist and in capturing visual history. 

I mean no harm and I didn’t intend my previous email to presume wisdom or anything of the kind, I am just telling you where I stand, and I would prefer we would respectfully disagree than any sense of injustice or disrespect being fostered.

I certainly hope you and your loved ones enjoy a warm, safe, and consoling celebration of the holidays. Lord knows this year has been hard enough on all of us.

Paz, Father 



Thank you for your thoughtful response. As you say, we’ll have to agree to disagree.

In my view you have chosen to serve the few rather than the many. There is no doubt that the Pueblo and the Penitentes have each been “wronged” and “overlooked.” The list is long. As you know the Penitente Brotherhood stemmed in part from the inability or disinterest of the Catholic Church in providing spiritual guidance, namely priests, to the lowest caste of New Mexico Hispanic society, mostly mestizo. After 1821 the problem became more acute when Spain withdrew its priests. In lieu of real Catholic clergy devout campesanos built their own lay chapels and practiced their own fundamentalist brand of Catholicism. Taos Pueblo provided land for La Morada de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in 1798 if memory serves.

Because I referenced access to the Morada grounds for artistic pursuits you have you have singled out that use. That trivializes my argument for access. This is not about “gorgeous vistas” or spots to fill our needs as artists. Those are of modest importance. It does, however, have a lot to do with freedom, choice, and inclusion. I am addressing the inequity of denying access to anyone who is not a Penitente.

The Morada is a special place, even a spiritual one. Being there is a gift unto itself. It’s a shame that no one else will discover it.

And finally, is there or is there not a provision for public access within the agreement that conveyed ownership of the Morada from the Taos Historic Museums to the Archdiocese in 2008?

I suggest that The Church or the Brotherhood install proper signs at the bottom of Las Cruces Road and Penitente Road indicating the Morada grounds are no longer open to the public. That way folks are spared the difficulty of backing out the entire length of Penitente. A press release announcing the closure would seem appropriate, as well. This should be public knowledge.




Steve, I am sorry, I have no answers for you as I am in the midst of Christmas preparation, a sacred and busy time for us Christians.

I know that registered with the country, morada property belongs to our parish corporation. Thus it is private property under my name currently and I have seen no clause of the sort you mention.

Certainly, our diocesan chancellor could answer your questions as he has all of the paperwork for our parish. His name is Tom Macken and you can reach him at (505)831-8100. Also, I believe some documents are also public information and you can contact the county clerk for that.

If you still want to discuss this with me personally, I would be happy to meet with you, please just make an appointment after the new year with my secretary, Anita. 

Again, I appreciate your concern and I am not opposed to discussion at all, but I can’t do it right now.

I hope this special season brings you and your loved ones hope, joy, and consolation.

In His joy, Father

Thank you once again for your openness, Father.  That there is a contractual obligation to allow public access to the Morada grounds is what I’ve been told by individuals who should know. The last two presidents of the Historic Museums, Sarah Turner and Margo Gins, contend that access is part of the deal. I don’t know the opinion of Daniel Barela the current president. Legal obligations, of course, can be different than what is right and fair and serves the common good.

Let’s table this discussion till after the busy Christmas season and the New Year. In the meantime, I wish you a blessed Christmas and a better New Year.




This is a quandary for the Father or at least I hope it is. But it feels more like a verdict rendered when only the complainant was represented before the court. And what if unfettered access to the Morada Grounds is guaranteed? Who would challenge the Father’s and by extension the Catholic Church’s decision? And when made public what judgment will the Court of Public Opinion render?

I understand that this more than a legal issue. Public access may or may not have been guaranteed. I’m hellbent, excuse the term, on finding that out whatever resolution is reached. The Father’s desire to the right wrongs comes from a good place no doubt. The Morada at some point was owned or at least controlled by the Penitente Brotherhood. They built it after all. But at some time in history, they lost legal possession of their prized property. Does that mean that this particular wrong should be righted? What about other losses at the hand of the conquerors? Is it possible to right all the wrongs perpetrated by Hispanos and the Catholic Church on Native Americans or by Anglos on Hispanos? The answer of course is no. Though it may be worthy.

I am less sympathetic to the Pueblo which wants the public denied access because someone might trespass on Pueblo lands adjacent to the Morada. Is the “possibility” of a misdeed or the rare occasion of that incursion a fair rationale for denying access to everybody else to a property you no longer own? I suggest No. Clearly, Hispano and Native American interests hold great sway in Northern New Mexico. And that’s as it should be to a point. But one suspects the Father’s deliberation in this case was made without an opposing voice.

More will be revealed.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Men in Hat, Part Six - Put a lid on it

Some hats have stories. The one below goes back to 1977. I was at the KFC National Convention in New Orleans. After my co-workers and I took home most of the hardware in the year’s Top Ten Awards, we crawled the length of Bourbon Street. Our last stop was the Old Absinthe House. It was 4am. There were only four survivors by that point. They included Peggy and me, Bob Buxton my District Manager in New York City, and the sales manager of our cole slaw supplier whose name escapes me. I do remember the name of the company though, Delicious Salad Company or Delsaco. While we drank, a couple of cowboys from East Texas bellied up to the bar. The tall lean one wore a magnificent cowboy hat. I said as much to Bob. I may actually have said, “I really want that hat.” Because, well, I really did want the hat. At some point Bob followed the cowboy into the men’s room and tried to buy it. It seemed like a risky proposition to me. He returned to our table empty handed but unscathed. Fortunately, he did get the brand, style, and color of the lid as I would discover six months later.

I was in my office in Greenwich, CT one afternoon when a rather large but light parcel was delivered. When I opened the box, I found the hat or at least a carbon copy of same. I’ve treasured it since. I shaped the hat myself the way I was taught at Porter’s Western Wear in Tucson in 1951 when I was ten. That entails steaming the crown and brim over a boiling tea kettle and forming it to taste.

I never saw Troy Brown without this hat. Troy, a retired architect from Houston who specialized in designing schools on the Navajo Reservation, retired to Taos and became a watercolor painter. We met on the Canyon de Chelly painting trip I mentioned last week. On the last night of the workshop Troy and I shared a hotel room. We’d been camping in the canyon the previous five nights. What I remember most about Troy is that he snored like a locomotive. After trying everything I could think of to make him stop I got up at midnight, packed my gear and drove home to Taos in time for Huevos Rancheros at Michael’s Kitchen. Troy and I were the same age and he was married to Peggy, his high school sweetheart. He passed four years ago.

My Peggy, my college sweetheart, was on a rock-climbing trip to South Dakota a decade ago. She was climbing in The Needles with Peter Lev and George Hurley who were the first Men in Hats five weeks ago. Also in the climbing group was Bozeman, MT climber HJ Schmidt. In fact, these portraits of HJ were taken during the same cocktail party where I photographed Peter.

HJ was an ebullient character and a great teller of stories. He was also a camera magnet. During drinks he coursed thought an array of moods.

When I Googled him for more background I found that he describes himself an Artist, Photographer and Writer and that he's a professor of photography at Montana State University in Bozeman, his home town. I'm a big fan of Bozeman with its lively downtown, college and adventure sports. I'm also keenly aware that housing prices have skyrocketed as Hollywood types and others have discovered the place. Here's what HJ said in a 1994 article in High Country News, "When I find someone is from somewhere far away I'm rude to them. I get annoyed and angry. I feel you were in your place and it got ruined. Now you're coming to my place to ruin it." 

Tell us what you really think, HJ.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Men in Hats - Part Five


Lenny Foster

Among my portrait victims over the years have been friends, and more specifically, friends who are photographers. Usually, it’s a grab shot but sometimes it’s an honest to goodness portrait session. A handful of times I’ve exchanged sessions. They shoot me. I shoot them.

In today’s episode of Men in Hats are ones I’ve extracted from those rare events.

Cris Pulos

With his trademark Greek fisherman’s cap Cris Pulos is full of craggy charm. He got a twinkle in his eyes and a playful quality. This photograph could have been taken dockside on Santorini in 1949 or under my portal in 2016. Who’s to say? Black and white portraits are timeless. Some of Edward Curtis’s images from early in the last century are remarkably contemporary today. Much like Peter Lev in the opening salvo of the Men in Hats series Cris said he looked older than his years in this image. Sorry to tell you Cris, 70 years on this earth does that to a guy. He studied photography at the New England School of Photography, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and with Minor White at MIT. Cris Pulos specializes in Photogravure.

Lenny Foster

I leaned on Lenny Foster for a portrait party several years ago. Lenny, arguably Taos’s best-known and certainly best loved photographer till he left us for Saint Augustine, consented to the shoot which was meant to memorialize his selection as Best of Show in the annual Fall Arts Festival. He’s an enormously charismatic man who proved to be as comfortable in front of the camera as behind it. He’s also never without a lid which makes him an essential part of the series. Two weeks ago, I him how many hats he owns. He told me five. I would have guessed thirty. Like a skilled actor he phased through a compendium of poses, from his usual sunny self to more brooding takes, the ones I favor.

Josef Tornick

Photographer Josef Tornick describes himself as a project-oriented humanist documentary photographer. A few less descriptors would be helpful, Josef. He names Josef Sudek, Manuel Bravo, Flor Garduno, Paul Strand, David Michael Kennedy, and Keith Carter among many others as models for his work. Josef’s magnum opus is 2009’s Tir A Mhurain – 50 years On, an homage to the roughhewn inhabitants of the Outer Hebrides and Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. The book’s title refers to Paul Strand’s 1954 photographic journal of the same name.

John Farnsworth

John Farnsworth had called himself a photographer for ten years. But for nearly 50 years before his conversion, he was one of the Southwest’s best- known painters. We first met fifteen years ago at a painting workshop in Canyon de Chelly where he and the late Louisa McElwain were instructors. When we connected by telephone before the trip, we found that we were the same age, old, and had haunted the same Phoenix dive bars and dance halls in the early sixties. We also discovered that his mother had been a switchboard operator in Williams, AZ in the post war years. My wife’s aunt Nora was a switchboard in Williams at the same time. John’s the son of a railroad engineer, his father’s father and all of his uncles worked for the railroad. His mother’s people were loggers and sawmill operators. He grew up in railroad towns and logging camps strewn across Northern Arizona. His accounts of his early years suggest a rough and tumble youth. He joined the Army directly out of high school when after a drunken escapade the local judge gave him a choice. Join this man’s Army tomorrow or go to jail. That was 1959.

When he was nine his mother and his new stepfather took him to Taos. He recalls standing in a gallery overhearing two men discuss a painting on the wall. Suddenly he noticed that one of the men was the painting. The painting was the man. In that moment John Farnsworth became an artist. He sold his first watercolors while serving at Fort McArthur in San Pedro, California. After the Army he painted while working as a draftsman, a commercial artist, and an Indian Trader. He became a full-time artist in 1967. 

The camera was no more than a research tool until the advent of digital cameras. After a fifty year career as a painter he realized he could be an artist with a camera, too.

Sunday, December 06, 2020

Men in Hats, Part Four - Polar Opposites


James Iso who served in WWll, Korea and Viet Nam

One August a few years back I attended the annual pilgrimage at the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp near Cody, Wyoming. I had visited Manzanar a decade before, but it was a chance encounter with the Topaz Camp in Delta, Utah that piqued my interest in the great American tragedy that began in 1942. There on a windblown patch of desert was the footprint of the Topaz camp. The broad nothing exemplified the intent of the U.S. government, which was to exile 120,000 Japanese Americans, most of them citizens, to the most inhospitable and remote places they could find. Topaz and Heart Mountain were such places, dry and hot in summer and snowbound in winter and windblown all year long.

That it was a human tragedy is well established. The revelation to me was the resilience of the internees who faced their oppression with dignity and resolve, an attitude called “gaman” which is to endure the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity. The Northern California internees were gathered in horse barns at Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, California. Then they were disbursed to ten camps in California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Arkansas. Yes, Arkansas.

I was waffling about attending Heart Mountain’s August Pilgrimage. I wasn’t sure that it was appropriate for a non-Japanese to participate. But when I asked Brain Liesinger, the camp’s executive director at the time, he replied “It’s absolutely appropriate.” To visit the camp with a dwindling number of former internees felt like an act of civic duty.

The attendees, from former internees to their great grandchildren, were the most inspiring I’ve ever encountered. They were energetic, warm, and accomplished to a person. I was in awe of them. It was a great privilege to be in their presence,

James Iso and Wyoming Veterans Affair Commissioner Ron Akin

None was more impressive than James Iso of Rosewood, California. At the opening dinner I was seated with Ron Akin, the Veterans Affairs Commissioner of Wyoming, a liberal of all things in the Cowboy State, and two former internees, one of whom was Mr. Iso. During the opening presentation I overheard Akin tell someone that Iso had served in three wars. I took that to mean that James Iso had served in WWll, Korea and Viet Nam. It seemed implausible.

The next day during my visit to the interpretive center I introduced myself. I said, “Last night I overheard that you served in WWll, Korea and Viet Nam. Is that even possible?”

He replied, “Yes, not always in the military but always in uniform.” Channel your inner Graham Greene with that morsel.

Iso continued, “You know we shortened the war by two years. Everybody talks about the 442nd Regimental Combat team but some of us served in other ways. We translated Japanese communications, broke their codes, and leaked misinformation. In one case we won a major battle when the Japanese commander acted on our false information. I told Mr. Iso that it was one hell of a story and dangled the idea of writing it. He intimated that he’d prefer a younger Japanese American to write his story and it’s hard to argue the point.

As our conversation wound down, I asked him how old he was. He said, “Guess.” I didn’t want to, but the math added up to old. He declared with more than a little pride, “I’m ninety.” I was nonplussed. James Iso was bright eyed and beyond intelligent. He looked me dead in the eye as we spoke. He moved effortlessly and wore a suit like a man half his age. I was in my mid-seventies and he was my peer.

John Bustos and the honor guard

Then I had a peripheral encounter was with retired First Sargent John Bustos. He would be commanding the local honor guard when it saluted the 800 Japanese American internees from Heart Mountain who a fought in World War Two. The day before the festivities I was scouting the camp when a burly gentleman asked why I was photographing the camp. I told him I was attending the pilgrimage and that I had deep interest in the camps and wanted to capture the spirit of the occasion. 

First Sargent John Bustos

Bustos, the son of an immigrant Mexican mother, told me he had served 27 years in the Army and had earned his stripes in the Viet Nam War.  He was an imposing guy. At 70 he packed 200 pounds of muscle on his 5’-7” frame and looked like he could still lead a platoon into battle. He was a big talker and a bad listener.  While his smile was bright, his eyes were cold. And he had politics to the right of Attila the Hun. He told me there was one live round in the volleys to be fired during the ceremony. That round, he told me, was reserved for President Obama. He told me twice to be sure I heard him. It was that funny, I guess.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Men in Hats, Part Three

Most of the images in the series, Men in Hats, are candids of friends, acquaintances, and passersby on the winding road of life. You may have noticed that most are of old people for obvious reasons. That’s my social set. But I have also done the occasional formal portrait session either on location or in the studio. Yes, I do have a professional set-up in Peggy’s studio, but it needs to be dusted off, re-assembled and relearned for the rare formal occasion. Come to think of it, my Profoto lights, soft boxes, Pocket Wizard transceivers and the rest of the gear were all acquired after taking a portrait lighting class with Alan Thornton at the Santa Fe Workshops a decade ago. I am an unapologetic gear slut. Thankfully, I bought the pricey Profoto strobes on Ebay so my cost per use is down to $500. There's an interesting sidebar about Thornton. After stints as a commercial photographer in Boston and Portland, OR he became a wilderness firefighter and shoots from the field for Getty Images. The man craves action. 

In Alan’s class, Lighting on Location, we used reflectors and Profoto units with an array of modifiers, most notably 4-foot soft boxes of which I have two. While we also dabbled with beauty dishes and grids in various combinations, I gravitate to the diffuse and forgiving softbox. I even use a small LumiQuest for my Speedlight. It's an easy to use, portable tool when I can't find open shade.

Beyond the bounty of gear afforded by the Santa Fe Workshops were a bevy of professional models. Donald Blake shown here is the most exemplary of them. Famed location photographer Joe Nally calls Donald his favorite model ever and he's photographed hundreds maybe thousands.

Upon Donald’s death a couple of years back Reid Callanan, the founder and owner of the Santa Fe Workshops, wrote that Blake had modeled for his organization for twenty years and that the school published a retrospective to commemorate his passing. In his commentary Callanan extoled Donald’s amazing grasp of the portrait-making craft and not just from the model’s perspective. Callanan suggested that Donald. “offered more insights and advice than many of our instructors.” I can attest to this. While I was making his portrait, he told me where to place the lights, what angle would work best, even the f-stop. He was unfailingly right.

Donald was recovering from a life-threatening illness at the time. He appeared frail but was 100% engaged. Since we were shooting in a recently abandoned hospital, we had ghoulish props aplenty. In fact, was sitting in a wheelchair between green walls when these were taken.

It's fitting that the first two photographs in the book, Donald, are by Joe McNally. It’s available from

This post was going to feature two professional models but I've changed my mind. Donald Blake must have his own post. JT, the self-proclaimed former street tough from Chicago can wait his turn. Whippersnapper.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Men in Hats - Part Two

Joe Graves joins Juma Archuletta in this week’s edition of Men in Hats. Each of these special men left a gaping void in our little burg. By burg I mean Taos, NM.

Joe was a real mountain man, a self-reliant man of the earth. He was born in Carson, NM on what we Taoseños call the West Rim. It’s said that his father was born in Abiquiu, Georgia Keefe’s New Mexico home. There’s damn near nothing in Carson; a post office, an on again off again convenience store and the stone one room schoolhouse where Joe must have gone to grammar school. He was part cowboy, part miner, part craftsmen and a renowned water witch. He was also a born again Christian and a gentle soul. And at the same time Joe was a tough son of a bitch. According to his friend Lindsey Enderby, himself an epic Taos character, on one occasion Joe pulled his own abscessed tooth, carved a facsimile out of wood, and tied it in with fishing line. It’s safe to say there were no anesthetics involved. I was relieved to hear that when he had the money Joe replaced the temporary with a real chopper he bought in Puerto Palomas, Mexico. Dental tourism is the life blood of Palomas as I learned a year ago on a visit to Columbus, NM on the US side of the border. Columbus is best known as the site of a 1916 raid by Pancho Villa. And in 2011 the town made national news when federal helicopters swooped down to arrest Mayor Eddie Espinoza, the police chief and nine others for smuggling guns to drug cartels in Mexico.

Juma was my barber and good friend. He was the unofficial mayor of Taos whose barber shop was the place to catch up on the latest gossip. He was a bon vivant, a raconteur, a patron of the arts and an astute observer of the political world. At opening time (7am by the way) you'd see him ensconced in a barber chair with the New York Times spread before him. His shop was a bastion of manly men, irreverent commentary and of neatly stacked magazines of, ahem, educational value. Whenever I was away from Taos for more than a couple of weeks my ritual was an early morning visit to Juma’s for a cut and, more importantly, the latest on the murky world of Taos politics. Juma always knew who did what to whom and why they did it weeks before made the Taos News. I swear he could predict the future.

Juma, full name Emiliano Juma Archuleta also known as Raoul, chose to be a barber right out of high school in Animas, Colorado and pursued that dream in Denver in the early sixties.  He told me he had to get the hell out of Animas. He declared several times that he'd fold his tent when he had completed fifty years of barbering. He wanted to retire on his own terms, but the cancer didn't accommodate the dream. I had wanted to document the waning days of Juma’s shop aka Raoul’s Brotherhood of Love and floated the idea several times. Because he had been given a terminal cancer diagnosis, he worried that the story would really be about his decline and imminent demise, so he demurred, and I didn't press. 

And, credit where credit is due, he was one heck of a barber. He recounts that right out of barber school he went to work for a barber in a Denver hotel, maybe The Ambassador, and that he “was lucky” because his boss was “ a good cutter.” Gotta love the lingo. Juma was a really good cutter and a better friend.

Come to think of it I never saw Joe or Juma without a hat. Male pattern baldness may have been a factor.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Men in Hats - Part One

How things have changed since I started this blog in 2006. Back then my posts were simple confections with an image or two and 75 word paragraphs. The nascent blog was about photographs. Those early efforts featured a photograph or two with a short description of the image(s). That's it. Then sometime in our adventure together I began telling stories and the images took on a supporting role. In 2018 while scouting the location of my one and only wedding shoot I started to call myself a writer, at least in my fertile imagination. I remember the very moment I made that leap. And about the same time I inaugurated my byline Telling Stories in the online photography magazine, Shadow and Light. In fact, editor and publisher Tim Anderson reached out to me because I could tell a story in few words. That's a virtue I guess.

In this week’s post I’m straddling photography and storytelling with the first of a series of posts dedicated to portraits of men wearing headgear. Welcome to Men in Hats, Part One. Actually the series is of portraits and the hat thing gave me a handle.

George Hurley and Peter Lev met at the University of Colorado in Boulder in the late fifties. Both became skilled rock climbers whose careers were built on that heady pursuit. Both self-possessed men have lived their lives their way. Other than his time teaching school in Africa with his wife Jean after almost getting his Masters in English, George made his living as a climbing guide and climbing school director until his retirement a decade ago.

Peter Lev

Peter walked a similar path as a climbing guide, mountaineer, and an avalanche forecaster. In 1979 he became part owner on Exum Mountain Guides in the Grand Tetons and the chief avalanche guru at Alta Ski Resort in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. Peter calls avalanche forecasting a “dark art” and would be the first to say it’s part science and part Kentucky windage. Lick your forefinger, stick it in the air and guess which way the wind is blowing. Not much more than sorcery in his view.

George met Peter in the Needles in South Dakota’s Custer State Park in 2008 for what turned out to be his 50th Anniversary climb and Peter’s 48th. George was already putting up first ascents throughout the Southwest in the late fifties, often with Layton Kor with whom he had a charged relationship. George always referred to Layton as “Kor” in a tone chilled with ice.

George, now retired, continues to climb the granite faces of the White Mountains of New Hampshire where he lives with his wife Jean whom he rescued from a rocky face in Boulder’s Flatirons in 1959. One imagines Jean’s breathless “My hero” when he saved her comely self.

Peter guided in South Dakota for Sylvan Rocks, his own guiding company, after leaving Exum in 2009. Last time we spoke he was living in Ouray, Colorado with a den of retired guides in what he calls “a tarpit of old climbers.” I love that description.

When we were talking about his Ouray tarpit, I told him about Kim Reynolds, a climber and guide a generation his junior who happens to live just up the road in Ridgeway. I extoled Kim’s considerably virtues and Peter exclaimed, “I should meet her.” The lanky dude’s not dead yet.

When I first posted this image back in 2008, Peter made it clear that he thought the photograph made him look old. Taut, sinewy and sharp as a cut glass, perhaps. And old or not he used it on his website. And it’s still the headshot on his Facebook page. You’re welcome.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Under a Big Sky

A dozen years ago I took an advanced Photoshop workshops from John Paul Caponigro at the Santa Fe Workshop. To say it was “advanced” is an understatement. John Paul, the son of legendary photographer Paul Caponigro, was already a master of Photoshop and led us through a labyrinth of techniques for which most of us were ill prepared. How I stayed above water is a mystery to me. I had basic PS skills gained from an adult education class at the high school in Conway NH but barely kept up. But all in all it was a great course that has held me in good stead ever since.

JP had asked us to bring examples of our work. I suppose that was to show the kind of photography we favored and our level as printers. Having come from a darkroom background I had a grasp of the basic digital darkroom. The only manipulations I performed back them were the ones I had done in the wet darkroom for fifty years; exposure, contrast and the occasional dodging and burning. I also toned my prints to warm them up. In the wet darkroom I used selenium toner and in the digital studio I learned to accomplish a similar result with Hue and Saturation. That little trick I learned from an LA art director while on a horsepacking trip to Canyon de Chelly a couple of years before. At the time of the Caponigro workshop I was specializing in still lifes, architecturals and the occasional portrait. There were a handful of landscapes in the package but nothing I emphasized at the time. That fact did not escape John Paul’s scrutiny as he declared, “Your landscapes are your weak point.” Duly chastened, I had to admit that was the case.

In the annals of 20th century photography landscapes loom large. We immediately think of Ansel Adams and the other mid-century masters from the f.64 school. And even if landscapes aren’t foremost in my mind even today, they do play a role. That’s especially true when terrestrial subject is enveloped by a monumental sky. An epic sky dwarfs even the most imposing cliff face. And it puts a dwelling, a pasture, a corral, or a human figure into perspective. We and what we have wrought are but specks in immensity of the cosmos.

I was approaching Grand Junction, CO as I drove west toward California’s Wine Country; an annual trek during the vendage or grape harvest. Two miles east of Grand Junction an imposing rock formation came into view. I got off at the next exit and wove my way through a middle-class neighborhood looking for the butte. At the height of land near the freeway I found a grassy hillock with a perfect view of Book Cliffs, so named for their appearance as bookshelves. The sun was descending so that every striation was revealed in glorious detail. The billowing sky above the imposing cliffs illustrated the partnership of earth and sky in creating the monumental landscape.

Darkness fell over Cow Springs, AZ on the Navajo Nation midway between Tuba City and Kayenta. The falling sun washed the row of trailers with a silver glow. It was oddly welcoming. The dusk turning black made the desert seem endless; a yawning empty with 27,413 tribal members strewn across 173,667 square miles of arid scrub. That calculates to 6.3 people per square mile. Manhattan has 67,000 people per square mile which lends some hard to grasp relativity. The Navajo reservation is the size of the state of West Virginia and has the population of Carlsbad, NM.

Driving back through Navajo Country and nearing the New Mexico border past Mexican Water a mesa north of US 160 glowed with the waning sun. Shafts of walking rain dropped a veil before the mountains in the distance.

A thirty-minute stroll from our house in the picture book village of Baudinard sur Verdon was a furrowed field glowing in the twilight. A painter’s sky whipped with wind brushed the scene with a late summer shimmer. The magic hour kissed the stone outbuilding. I photographed the timeless tableau then we ambled home for a local rosé under the grape arbor at our kitchen door.

We drove to nearby Villecroze for a recital at the Chapel of Saint Victoire. Featured was a symphony with all the parts written for and played by the bassoon. Wrap your mind around that unlikely evening; a bassoon symphony in a 15th century church with 80 of your closest friends. 

Before the performance we darted into a small shop and noticed a poster for an exhibition of English photographer, Michael Kenna. 

The next day we drove to Bargeme, 45 miles east to see it. The exhibition at Le Soufflé des Arts was excellent as expected. The surprise was Bargeme which we’d never have seen but for the McKenna show. That he’d even have an exhibit in a tiny, remote town was a puzzle. I later learned that the gallerist was a close friend of the artist. Bargeme at 1,097 meters the highest point in the Var; France’s richest department.  At the height of land or “belvedere” stood the ruins of a 12th century castle, Sabran du Ponteves. The storm swept sky amplified the power of the stone relic which had been left to decay after the religious wars from 1562 and 1598. The war between the Catholics and the Calvinist Huguenots cost three million lives.

From the house we shared with ten painters in the hamlet of Keremma, Brittany, Jacques Rousseau led us on a short walk to the Eglise Guévroc, a medieval chapel nestled in the sand dunes above the sea. Rousseau, the de facto mayor of the family owned village and the son of the military attaché to Algeria during the brutal Battle of Algiers, carried the only key to the gloriously situated church. Pierre told us the macabre history within its walls. They were built with enough space to bury the town's male decedents close to Saint Guévroc. It's a creepy backstory for such an idyllic setting.

Heading south on US 285 toward Cline’s Corners, I was on the hunt for dirt tracks leading into the prairie. As I photographed, I imagined that the deep ruts fading into the shallow hills to the east had been made by wooden wheeled wagons a century before. It wasn’t until I was processing the image that I recognized the contrails pointing into the frame. They made the photograph. Sometimes you only see what’s in front of you and the dawning comes later.

We had just left Wanblee, the headquarters of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The vast reservation encompasses Oglala Lakota County, the poorest in the country with 90% unemployment and 89% of its citizens living below the poverty line. There are no jobs and Pine Ridge has no natural resources or industry. It does have rampant alcoholism and drug addiction and little hope that it will improve. Its life expectancy is 66.8 years. Pine Ridge vies with Trona, California as the bleakest place I’ve visited in America. Both places exude a forbidding vibe, an ominous resentment I either felt or projected. There was palpable fear like I felt in Trona, a drug mecca in sprawling San Bernardino County. In Wanblee it was the simmering anger of despair. Wanblee and Trona feel like the Siberian steppes with a gulag loomed around the bend. Yet there’s a tragic beauty to Pine Ridge’s bleached emptiness.

In the high Moreno Valley 25 miles and 2,000 feet above Taos I came across a tumbledown corral in a high meadow. The Moreno Valley, Angel Fire and Eagle Nest are cattle country and is as close to Texas as you can get and still be in New Mexico. That I admit is a stretch. A lot of New Mexico could be part of Texas. In High Lonesome the sky is once again the difference maker. The swirling clouds complement the collapsing fence and soft grassy hillside. The elements in the image collaborate for the feeling of a day’s end on the eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristos.

This is the winter trailer or campo of The Last Shepherd, Victor Hernandez. It’s the 29th of January and the next day he’ll begin trailing his herd of 350 sheep back to the ranch in Mogote, Colorado. It will take two days and I’ll walk with him. Victor’s campsite sits on the Taos Plateau between the Pinabetoso Peaks. Look closely and you’ll see Victor’s bent figure next to his trailer. The sheep chomp on white sage along the hillside beyond him on the right. How small they all seem beneath the towering winter sky.

This post which includes images you've seen before is a draft of my November-December article in Shadow and Light Magazine.

Sunday, November 01, 2020

A little street music

Walk on by, Madrid

When I sat down to write my November- December article for Shadow and Light my heart was set on an examination of Street Photography. In fact, I had written a couple of hundred words when I realized that a full throated exploration of that broad topic would fill the entire magazine. Further, illustrating the piece with my own street photographs lunges toward hubris. But I do love capturing a slice of life, memorializing a moment worth remembering and recording a thread of history.

Trabajadores, Antigua, Guatemala

Choreography, Los Angeles

From the Hotel Medio Dia, Madrid

I was pivoting toward the monumental landscape and the epic sky as I typed the last sentence. Then it dawned that a big part of my heart belongs to street photography and I’m sticking to my guns. Street Photography it shall be.

Out of the shadows, Las Vegas, NM

The tin man, Antigua, Guatemala

First Communion, Antigua, Guatemala

The first photograph, apropos to the subject, was a street photograph in 1816 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. It was a Paris street scene without a human subject. I say “made” because the cameras of the day were clumsy and slow, and the processes were wet, sloppy, unforgiving. Those folks could time the exposure with a calendar. I exaggerate just slightly. So, while street photography and “Candid” Photography have been used somewhat interchangeably those early efforts were far from candid. Photographs of actual breathing humans were posed, static and still. Stopping motion would have been quite impossible. Though in 1838 Louis Daguerre captured a standing man at a doorway at the distance. The first mechanism definable as a “shutter” appeared in 1845. It was invented by two French, you are shocked, physicists Messrs. Fizeau and Foucault. The shutter was based on yet another laudable French invention, the guillotine. The device was a board with a hole in the center. When the shot was made, the board dropped into a slot in front of the lens. We know that Matthew Brady used a Guillotine shutter starting in 1850 and through the Civil War. And by 1870 a shutter was developed that would allow a 1/50th of a second shutter speed which with enough ambient light would produce an image with only half the humans blurred.

Slumber, Madrid

Ticket please, Avignon

We have made a mighty leap since those tedious days. We’ve leapt to high resolution digital cameras which deliver nighttime photographs shot at an ISO of 12,800 with little apparent noise. We have no excuses.

Street Photography takes in a lot of territory and, certainly if it infers spontaneity and the capture of discrete moment in time, photojournalism must be included within it. And it’s from photojournalism that come the most important photographs in history. Some of them rise to the level of high art and are far more than a record.

Memorable street photographs have important content and strong composition. Most photographs have content important or worth memorializing to the photographer. Good design is harder to come be. Cartier-Bresson suggested that the composition of a photograph should be subject to the same rigors of a painting. This from a man who began as a painter only to discover he was a better photographer. Juxtapositions within an image create tension between the elements in the frame. There can be two elements competing for the viewer’s attention or several.

Since the mid-19th century, we’ve had a fascination with verité in photography. Grit and pathos undergird the pantheon of street photography and of photojournalism. Street Photography documents the arch of social change like nothing else. The transitional moments in our history for 200 years have been saved for posterity by street photographers and photojournalists who are there when the event occurs. You have to be there to get the shot.

Legendary photographer Joel Meyerowitz has said. “I think that as long as there’s photography, there’ll always be people trying to make street pictures….” Meyerowitz called the good ones “tough” pictures. “Tough” was a term we used a lot. Stark.” he added. Tough meant it was unflinching, hard to see and yet unforgettable. Tough meant hard to do. If it were easy everybody would do it. Make a photograph so profound that the viewer feels what your subject was feeling. Make a photograph that tells a story or that demands that one to be written by the viewer for the image before them.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Abstract Thinking

Five years separate these abstract takes on fall at 10,000 feet between the village of Tres Piedras and the Rio Arriba county seat in Tierra Amarilla. US Highway 64 rises steeply out of TP, tops out at the spectacular Brazos overlook and dips into the Chama River Valley. This mountainous 47 mile stretch of US 64 is one of America’s most stunning and is relatively unknown unless you’re blessed to live in northern New Mexico. It’s a marvel in every season and beckons in all seasons including the depth of winter when we snowshoe through the bare aspen stands into broad pastures blanketed with fresh snow.

These experiments with applied motion blur create painterly modern images that sing autumn’s song without pandering to the postcard obvious. The blur has been applied by telescoping my zoom lens rapidly in and out, by panning quickly from side to side and, in one case creating selective blur from an iphone image using my the remarkable Snapseed app.

For months now my posts have told stories and most recently have spoken to my awe of the well written word. The photographs have illustrated the writing. Nothing more. Last week the photograph had nothing whatsoever to do with my appreciation of Christopher Solomon’s prose. It just that posts seem naked without at least one image. 

Today it’s the opposite. The photographs are the story.