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With one click: Photographer captures daily life in Albuquerque in the late ’60s

Street photography, such as this 1969 Walter McDonald photo of teenage girls on a Central Avenue sidewalk, employ candid shots to capture spontaneous moments in time. (Courtesy of Albuquerque Museum)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In the picture, the elderly man is sitting on a bench against an adobe wall. He is wearing a neat, narrow-brimmed hat and glasses and clutching the top of a cane perched between his legs. A red handkerchief peeks out of his hip pocket. His gaze suggests that he is looking more inward than at anything in front of him.

“It was down in Old Town,” photographer Walter McDonald said during a phone interview from his home in South Padre Island, Texas. “He was sitting in the sun. He just looked so doggoned comfortable. Click. I walked away. I knew I had a great picture.”

It was one of thousands of pictures McDonald shot over eight months in 1969-70 as part of an Albuquerque street photography project launched by the still-new Albuquerque Museum, which had opened in 1967 and was at the time of the project located at its original site at the Albuquerque International Sunport.

“I went everywhere,” McDonald, now 77, said. “I looked for strong composition and good expressions. I wanted them to be animated. And I was taking into consideration all the environment that was being nibbled up by this big city.”

In the moment

Walter McDonald took this photo of an elderly man in Old Town as part of an Albuquerque Museum street photography project in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Project photos were converted into 35mm slides and shown in a projected exhibit at the museum in May 1972. (Courtesy of Albuquerque Museum)

The photographs taken by McDonald and a couple of other photographers were converted into 35 mm color slides and displayed via an intricate projection system in “Have You Seen Albuquerque?” – an exhibit that opened at the museum in May 1972.

Now, nearly half a century after that initial show, more than 100 photo prints from that project will be displayed in “Let the Sunshine In,” an exhibit opening at the Albuquerque Museum on Saturday, Dec. 21, and continuing until May 24, 2020.

“I thought it was a story we should definitely tell,” said Jill Hartke, museum digital archivist. Hartke conceived the exhibit and worked with Rebecca Prinster, assistant curator of history at the museum, to bring it to life.

Jill Hartke, Albuquerque Museum digital archivist, talks about photographs in the “Let the Sunshine In” exhibit which opens Saturday, Dec. 21, at the museum. Most of the photos were taken by Walter McDonald in 1969 and ’70 as part of the museum’s Albuquerque street photography project. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

The new exhibit makes evident that Albuquerque’s landscape and infrastructure has changed – as well as other things. Men wear sports coats and smoke pipes. There are women in miniskirts.

“Walter McDonald was trying to show what the city was like in that moment,” Hartke said. “He knew it was not what the city would be in 10 years.”

McDonald shot photos from the Sandia foothills to Rio Rancho, which was just beginning to grow on the West Side. He took photos on the interstates coursing through the city and along the irrigation ditches in the North and South valleys. And he took photos in the heart of Albuquerque’s Downtown.

“I really kind of like the photos on Central and how many (people) are there,” Prinster said. “People were really concentrated, but at the same time they were moving out to the suburbs. There was a loss of community.”

And there was a loss of uninhabited space as the city expanded in all directions.

“I shot photographs with crops in the foreground and mountains in the background,” McDonald said. “Wide-open spaces is what Albuquerque was about back then, and it is what I loved about it.”

A little budget

McDonald, who grew up in Orange, Texas, worked in the late-1960s as a photographer for The Albuquerque Tribune, a newspaper that ceased publication in 2008.

Walter McDonald

It was during his time at The Trib that McDonald met Frank Crabtree, who was hired in 1967 as the first director of the Albuquerque Museum. McDonald and Crabtree talked about a museum project employing street photography, a style that emphasizes spontaneity through the use of candid photos. But McDonald left Albuquerque for a newspaper job in Dallas before Crabtree secured funding for the venture.

“I had been in Dallas maybe a year when I got a call from Frank Crabtree,” McDonald said. “He said he had got a little budget (for the project) if I didn’t need much money.”

McDonald quit the Dallas job and went back to Albuquerque for what he figured would be a two- or three-month project. It stretched into eight months.

“They gave me a desk at the museum and a little name tag,” McDonald said. “But most of the time I spent out.”

He photographed people getting on buses and crossing streets Downtown, dogs trotting along sidewalks, kids playing in yards, a pickup football game in a city park, a movie being filmed on Central Avenue, vendors and shoppers in Old Town, a meter maid writing a parking ticket, foot-deep floodwater at Lomas and Broadway, people at the New Mexico State Fair.

“They wanted street photography and that is what that was,” McDonald said. “I saw more of Albuquerque in that eight months than I had seen when I lived there before. And probably more of Albuquerque than some people who have always lived there.”

Just burn it

Other photographers took up the project after McDonald finished his part of it.

Hartke said some persons associated with the museum soured on the effort because of the length of time it consumed and the expense required to create a theater space, assemble a multiple-projector system and mix in accompanying music by Bernalillo musicians. She said there were calls to abandon the project and burn the slides.

Some people Walter McDonald captured in his photos, such as this blind woman selling gum and piñon, were familiar to city residents of 50 years ago.

Eventually, Crabtree was given six weeks to either install and produce the show or to scuttle it. He made the deadline and submitted his resignation in July 1972, not long after the exhibit opened.

“We were so into the project and (Crabtree) was so dedicated to it,” McDonald said. “He just pushed it and pushed it and did whatever he needed to do. The whole purpose was to make people more aware of their environment and how things were changing. If it worked, it worked. And if it didn’t – well, you tried.”

That would have been the end of the story if Mo Palmer, Albuquerque Museum photo archivist from 1992 to 2002, had not found the slides in 1996.

“I just discovered them sitting in all these boxes,” Palmer said. “I said, ‘This is a gold mine. The public deserves to see them.’ I was just blown away because of the documentation of things that are no longer there.”

Museum volunteer Dick Berg painstakingly photographed all 8,400 slides and Palmer integrated them into the museum’s permanent collection.

“And now they’re back,” McDonald said. “It’s exciting. I love it. I got a little emotional about it.”

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