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Photographing New Mexico

First impressions of New Mexico are both illuminating and misleading; perhaps the new arrival is struck with a sense of deja vu, nurtured by so many westerns shot in the region and the American myths perpetuated by them. I recall my initial two reactions to the billowing nimbuses against a Technicolor blue sky my first day in the state: it's an East African sky, like what I saw in my childhood, and, no, those are John Ford clouds, like what lofted over the big vistas in his films with John Wayne. Later, through friends, I learned that some Natives consider those clouds to be ancestors looking down on them. And that gets far closer to the soul of the region: all aspects of this place teem with a living essence, revealed everywhere, and magic is afoot.

The quality of light here defies description; it can unexpectedly highlight what was otherwise unseen, then fade fleetingly and extinguish it. Traditional human homes rise from the earth, themselves made from the earth, and dissolve from view as clouds pass overhead, only to reappear in different light. Nearly no straight lines exist here; New Mexico is a land of curves, feminine perhaps, full of life, sensual, sculpted by eons of natural forces, prone to seasonal rhythms and upheaval, ancient, always posing deeper mysteries. One's sense of time is altered in this place. The presence of great oceans reveals itself with marine fossils atop high mesas. Modern archeology now posits the arrival of man thousands of years prior to what had been commonly accepted. I am told that the villages of Truchas and Cordova, less than thirty-five miles from Santa Fe, have residents who speak a 16th Century version of Spanish (and that linguists visit from Spain to research this pre-Cervantes speech.)

There is the solace of open spaces here, as Gretel Ehrlich might write, but also more. The longer one stays in New Mexico the deeper the strata and intricacies of relationships of land and people become. Too, history, myth, legend and Hollywood have built obstacles to seeing beyond the surface. Indeed, a cursory view of past architecture provides hints, figurative and otherwise, to what might or might not lie unseen: the Moorish/Spanish traditional walled and gated courtyards, covered kivas of the Ancient Puebloans, crumbling rural adobe structures bearing weathered mezuzas in door-frames of the "Crypto Jews" who fled the Inquisition and found New Mexico, old Penitente chapels built without windows, and the iconic "coyote fences" (tall, irregular posts of pinons) still prevalent today that provide rough-hewn function while also shrouding human activity behind.

Seeing -- and photographing -- New Mexico takes time. A local bumper sticker proclaims: "Carpe Mañana", on one level a gripe, maybe, but on another a distillate of wisdom, a gene. Lew Wallace, the first Territorial Governor of New Mexico (and later author of Ben Hur) hated this place and famously wrote: "Every calculation based on experience elsewhere fails in New Mexico." But all one really has to do is open one's eyes and take the time to truly look. Ansel Adams said, "New Mexico is the most completely beautiful place I have ever seen." Perhaps Ansel was one of the few outsiders who knew to celebrate the mysteries of this land and embrace a sense of not knowing...

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