ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “Poor New Mexico! So far from heaven, so close to Texas!” attributed to Manuel Armijo, the last Mexican governor of the Mexican territory of Nuevo México, ca 1841.
The photographs gleam with the rugged mystery of New Mexico’s shadows and light in defiance of Manuel Armijo.
“So Far From Heaven: Six New Mexican Photographers” celebrates that beauty at Los Alamos’ Mesa Public Library with works by Kirk Gittings, David Halpern, Jan Paul Pietrzak, Don J. Usner, Wendy Young and Tony O’Brien. All of them share teaching history with the late Santa Fe School of Art and Design.
Gov. Armijo’s poetic and prophetic words have echoed down the centuries. Given statistics placing New Mexico at or near the bottom of so many quality of life categories, it is not such a foreign idea that it exists in a valley from paradise.
But the state has served as a creative incubator for the arts from the time of the ancient petroglyphs.
The theme originated with Gittings’ mother, who grew up on a Texas farm.
“She hated Texas,” he said. “She was a very progressive person and she hated all the racism and the narrow-mindedness.”
Gittings grew up here and taught at the University of New Mexico. He also teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “I had many opportunities to leave, but I chose to stay here,” the Albuquerque photographer said.
His 2000 black and white print “Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo, Texas” captures the quirky monument to car culture.
Gittings’ summer job in Chicago sits at the genesis of Route 66. He always drives there.
“Cadillac Ranch was one of those places I’ve passed by many times,” Gittings said. “It’s a wonderful oddity along Route 66.”
“To me, black and white is more essential than color,” he added. “It narrows down the tonalities to a much simpler, pared version of what we see.”
Santa Fe’s Jan Paul Pietrzak creates prints of New Mexico’s shrine-like buildings and ruins. They often fit within the palm of his hand.
“Cañoncito church, cross and door” is a platinum print measuring just 2¼ inches by 7 inches.
“To me, it’s a fascinating building,” Pietrzak said. “I’ve been photographing it for 10 years.
Nuestra Señora de Luz Church was built in 1880 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.
“If you look at the gravestones, it was actually a cemetery for the Civil War,” Pietrzak said. “Some of the markers go back to 1863 and the Battle of Glorieta.”
Pietrak moved to New Mexico after spending years teaching photography across southern California’s junior colleges. To see a print emerge from a shadowy negative still thrills him.
‘To me, it’s magic,” he said. “And the look on students’ faces when you take a piece of paper and expose it in chemistry – the look is like ‘Wow!’ They would just be so amazed.”
Tony O’Brien turned his lens to Christ in the Desert Monastery after shooting the carnage of the war in Afghanistan for LIFE magazine.
“I wanted a project on the contemplative life,” the Santa Fe resident said. “It was a time when I had been thrown in prison in Kabul. I was traveling with a rebel group and they sold me out.”
At first, he paid multiple visits to the monastery for a few days or a week. Then he asked the abbott if he could stay.
“I had my own cell,” O’Brien said. “I was privy to everything. I wanted to get a sense of the life and I wanted the monks to get a sense of me. After six or seven months I wasn’t a photographer anymore. I was just Tony.”
“The Long Walk” shows a man trudging up a snow-swept slope toward the monastery.
“Every day the monks come together seven times a day so they always remember they are part of a community,” O’Brien said. “I believe this was for one of the psalms; they come together and sing the psalms back and forth.”
“A Quiet Moment” captures a monk in contemplation against an adobe wall.
“That was one of those moments before Mass,” O’Brien said. “He was waiting to go inside.”
The project changed O’Brien’s photography as well as his life.
“As a photojournalist, you’re always chasing,” he said. “It was learning to keep it simple. And it’s OK to miss something, because something else will come along. It was one of the greatest gifts I’ve been given.”