Santa Fe in 1912 taken by Jesse Nusbaum. All photos courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Archives

Desert of the (un)Real

Teasing Meaning from the New Mexico History Museum’s Photography Archives

by Jason Silverman

February/March 2010

When archivist Daniel Kosharek began work at the Palace of the Governors photo archives in 2005, he walked into a situation as daunting as it was thrilling—down there in the basement of the New Mexico History Museum he discovered a labyrinthine world of cardboard boxes, filled and overflowing with photos, piled in stacks, tucked under tables, hidden behind desks. Most were unlabeled. Some of the photos were disintegrating. And the archives didn’t even own a computer.

Originally founded by the New Mexico Historical Society in 1851, the collection currently boasts more than 840,000 works. But anyone other than the most dogged of researchers might find the place impossible to navigate. During the past four years, Kosharek, curator Mary Anne Redding (who joined the team in 2006), and a team of volunteers have made it their Sisyphean mission to make the visual history of New Mexico, and the history of photography in general, available to New Mexicans.

To accomplish that, the two, along with digital specialist Nicholas Chiarella and, finally, proper equipment, have begun organizing the massive collection according to the principles of modern library science. No more cardboard boxes: The crumbling negatives have been scanned and are now kept frozen in a special refrigerator, and all of the archives’ holdings have been logged into a database. “In the past it was a secret society,” admits Redding. “Nowadays, we want people to know we are here.”

Ironically, getting the word out about its vast trove of images harks back not only to one of the seminal moments in the history of both the archives and Santa Fe (in 1912), it also gets at the heart of that weird, alluring, loaded, contextually squishy intersection where photography, reality, fantasy, history, the west, and the American Dream all collide—again and again, it seems—and what comes out of that collision is a new mythology, one where the west becomes “the West,” Santa Fe “Santa Fe” (or, better, Fanta Sé)—a strange brew of the real and the magical, a place onto which America—and Americans—projects its fantasies and aspirations.

Fittingly, photography was being birthed right about the time the United States had perfected its concept of Manifest Destiny. Equally fitting, photography and Manifest Destiny served each other’s purposes: Photography showed the glorious, adventurous, potent possibilities of an American empire, and M.D. gave American photographers the resources to go out and shoot everything in sight—miners, Native Americans, the building of the railroad, the landscape. But, while both put into a frame (or into a box) whatever they came across (capturing an elusive moment in time, capturing an elusive race of people), photography caught its subjects artfully, romantically, powerfully, and often unforgettably. On occasion, it even did so truthfully as well.

An old image of Santa Fe, New Mexico
William Henry Jackson's 1897 shot of Gold's Old Curiosity Shop on West San Francisco at Burro Alley in Santa Fe.

For example, when the U.S. government, in the late 1860s, commissioned four major surveys of the uncharted West, the images sent back east by esteemed photographers Timothy O’Sullivan, Alexander Gardner, and William Henry Jackson, among others, forever instilled into Americans the impression of the West as a limitless frontier, sometimes teeming with savages needing to be tamed, but otherwise big enough, open enough, wide enough for anyone. As Eva Respini, associate curator of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art observed in her notes on MoMA’s 2009 exhibit Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West, “photography created the myths that galvanized people to move west.”

It’s a statement with which practically any curator of photography would tend to agree. Redding certainly does. In her essay for a book written with historian Krista Elrick, Through the Lens: Creating Santa Fe, based on the PoG exhibit exploring the visual history of the city, Redding wrote that “photography… offers us a captured (or created) view of the multiple meanings of Santa Fe,” and “much of the world understands Santa Fe through visual imagery that provides both historical and contemporary reference.” Redding can make such claims, which are neither negative nor untrue, because they get at the essence of both photography and, for the past 1OO years or so, the history of Santa Fe.

An old image of Acoma Pueblo
William Henry Jackson's view of Mesa Encantado from Acoma Pueblo, 1899.

Ready for its Close-Up: Reinventing Santa Fe

Santa Fe may be the best example of Western-style reinvention in the age of photography. Once a major trading site, the town, forsaken by the railroad (for—gasp—Albuquerque), had by 1912 become a dusty, slow-dying village. Desperate for an identity that would revivify the city’s fortunes, that year the mayor appointed a committee to create a revitalization plan, and they in turn asked 29-year-old Sylvanus Morley and 24-year-old Jesse Nusbaum, both employees of the Museum of New Mexico, to photograph nearly every building in town. The two then sorted through the pictures, identifying the most interesting architectural elements in hopes of codifying what Morley called “the hundred variations of the Santa Fe style.”

At the photo exhibit New-Old Santa Fe, held at the Palace of the Governors in November 1912, Nusbaum and Morley presented their findings, which suggested a new architectural style that would blend the best elements of the existing buildings and romantic flourishes lifted from other styles into a photogenic new mix: Pueblo Revival. The city then held architectural competitions and gave tax credits to encourage buildings that would suggest the romance of an ancient city.

By the 1920s, in the interests of the city’s survival, builders in Santa Fe had reached a consensus: Let’s make our structures conform to this new-old local architecture. As more Pueblo Revival buildings rose, photo-rich marketing projected the new-old Santa Fe as an age-old Southwestern city—a strategy that continues to this day. The millions of visitors who believe they know Santa Fe to be an authentic, ancient place would be surprised: A group of mostly Anglo newcomers, armed with cameras, reinvented it 1OO years ago.

“Nusbaum, Morley, [T. Harmon] Parkhurst, and [Carlos] Vierra were focused on creating Santa Fe as a cultural destination,” says Redding. “They used their photographs to create an attractive view of Santa Fe.”

An old image of the church at Acoma Pueblo
Connecticut photographer Ferenz Fedor's somewhat self-reflexive view of Acoma Pueblo, taken around 1940.

20th-Century Photography: Layers of Meaning

Redding herself, it turns out was influenced by the romanticized notions of the West that magazines and tourist boards continue to use. As a child born in Washington, D.C., she consumed her mother’s copies of Arizona Highways, mesmerized by its gorgeous, Technicolor Western landscapes. “[The media] gave me preconceptions about the West,” she admits. “What I saw in the magazine was far different from what I found when I arrived here.”’

What Redding and many others discover in the Southwest, with just a little bit of digging, is a land of complexity, and images that reflect it. After nearly a century of romanticized images, photographers have spent much of the past 70 years exploring the distance between the reality of the West and the nostalgic, market-driven images that helped shape it. In the 1930s, for instance, WPA photographers including Russell Lee (who created a series in Pie Town, New Mexico) and John Collier, Jr. (who shot in Trampas) captured the brutal poverty of the Great Depression, and Dorothea Lange included portraits of Dust Bowl refugees heading west in her 1939 book An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion. Other photographers interested in this evolving New West were Edward Weston (who twice based photo expeditions from Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Taos house), Robert Frank, and Lee Friedlander, and later, revisionist explorers such as Garry Winogrand, photographer turned filmmaker Dennis Hopper, and contemporary photographer Cindy Sherman shot and/or created their own narratives of How They Saw the West.

As photography caught on and cameras and equipment became cheaper and easier to use, more people started shooting away, the narratives broadened, the images broke through the barriers of old. The visual history of the West expanded. Finally reflective of that accessibility, today’s archives is hardly the purview only or primarily of academics and the intelligentsia (or artists and arbiters of what’s history-worthy and what’s not), and is, as much by default as by design, transparent, democratic, and accessible, and serves as a repository of images of this multilayered, diverse Southwest.

It’s a place where different truths, in the form of pictures, overlap, intersect and bump up against each other. Though viewers can find pictures that reinforce the standard, John Ford-style mythologies—the rugged, pristine, heroic—the archives also contains impoverished kids in shabby clothes, seemingly mundane street photos, Chicano hipsters, and images from a gay pride parade. “You can come down here and look at Ansel Adams and Laura Gilpin and have a romantic vision of New Mexico,” says Redding. “Or you can look at photographs that give you a different sense of the place. You can create whatever story you want to down here.”

In that way, photographic archives—and every Western state has at least one—offer a more honest depiction of the West than the one that marketing companies continue to push our way. At the archives, the sensational is filed directly next to the ordinary, the historically charged next to the seemingly irrelevant, anonymously snapped shots next to works by celebrity photographers. The archives is, in essence, a giant, collectively created scrapbook, documenting a complicated place during a tumultuous time. Or maybe it stands as a metaphor for our own mental processes—a physical manifestation of the way we make sense of the world in the photographic age: not as a monolithic story, but as a series of competing narratives.

“The most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads—as an anthology of images,” Susan Sontag wrote in her groundbreaking 1977 collection On Photography. “To collect photographs is to collect the world.” 

A Note from the Publisher

Thank you for reading articles in The Vault: The Best of Past Issues. The Santa Fean magazine will not be updating these articles with current information, as these articles are posted as originally published.

Visit The Vault  | THE BEST OF PAST ISSUES

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.