Forty minutes before sunrise, and Taos looks like a
watercolor painting that’s been slid into a tray of blue liquid. Indigo
dissolves into cobalt; navy bleeds into cerulean. On this frosty November
morning, I discover that a Starbucks card makes an excellent windshield
By the time the sun has eased open the door of
morning, I’m standing at the edge of the Rio Grande del Norte gorge. The river
far below winds through northern New Mexico like a backbone. I take my first
step forward. The trail is steep: over the next mile I will descend over 800
At the trail’s end, I’ve entered another world.
Beside the river, Ponderosa pines create a shaded area around a natural spring.
Centuries-old Native American petroglyphs cover a basalt rock, and the wind
sends a fragrance of Juniper through the air. The only other human presence
I’ve seen all morning has been my shadow. I sit on a large rock, trying to
absorb this extraordinary moment, lost in the sound of the Rio Grande’s steady
How long I sat there is hard to say, as at some
point time had stopped being relevant. Had minutes stretched hours, or had
hours collapsed into minutes? I started to think of Akira Kurosawa’s film Dreams. In the final chapter, a man
wanders into a village where everything is perfect, a utopia that completely
I too had found my edenic place. And I was in no
hurry to leave.
Monday morning, early. I walk across the dirt parking lot to the
adobe church at Ranchos de Taos, NM, completed in 1810 and made famous by
Georgia O’Keeffe and so many others. It’s the time of year when the structure gets its
annual coat of fresh mud, a protective later to see it through another season.
There are a few workers setting up for the day. I start talking
with one of them, an engaging fellow named Juan, who tells me that his
volunteer crew hasn’t been seen for several days. Would I like to lend a hand?
For a couple of days I put down my camera and pick up a trowel
and plasterer’s hawk – la plana y la coca
– and spread a coat of mud, called an aliz,
over wide sections of the church. A watery mixture of mud with a bit of sand,
the aliz forms the final layer to
cover the centuries old adobe bricks.
Photo of Rob by Karla McWilliams, NM State Preservation Office
At times I’m high up on a ladder, leaning far over with la plana, my entire existence being held
in place by the weight of Juan’s foot on the bottom rung.
After the second day, I join my new Taoseño friends for a round of beers. I listen to their stories and
laugh along with them, tired and dirty, but happy to be with such good company.
Juan tells me that I’ve really helped them out, and that I seem to have a knack
for adobe mud work. Who knew?
The next morning I’m on a regional jet heading to LAX. The New York Times lies flat on my lap,
unopened. All I can do is stare at my mud-encrusted shoes…and smile.
"Other than that, Icarus, how was the fight?" I've been spending a lot of time lately with the book Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Project, edited by Sam Stephenson. In 1955 Smith, one of the great photojournalist of his time - or any time - was commissioned to create images for a book on the city of Pittsburgh, and some of his best-known images result from that endeavor. While he was only expected to spend three weeks in the city and supply his publisher with one hundred finished images, his obsessive personality soon took over. He ended up photographing for close to three years and made about 17,000 images, of which he printed two thousand work prints. The book was never published; Dream Street is only an approximation of the magnum opus Smith had envisioned, with a fraction of the images. But it is a great book none the less.
One image I love most from the project is pictured above. On a lark, I searched Google Maps for the location of the street corner where Smith shot, then used the street view feature to make the contemporary frame grab, above right. (It's scary to think of how much time I spend on Google maps, tracking through city streets, a vicarious kind of travel.) Smith characterized his obsession of photographing Pittsburgh with references to the Greek myth of Icarus: "Mine would not be the first wings to melt near the sun."
My first print-on-demand (POD) book is now available through Blurb. It can be viewed here. It will be "Exhibit A" in a class on photography books that I will be teaching at Langara College starting at the end of April.
Going through some older files on a backup hard drive, I came across this shot I did in Venice, California, with its obvious reference to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It brought to mind something I remember reading in the Huffington Post: they ran an article on the live video feed of the oil spill, reviewing it, actually, like they would a film. The "review" mentions the work of Godfrey Reggio, the Santa Fe-based filmmaker who wrote the foreword to my book, Neon Mesa. I've included part of the review below.
Despite the simplicity of its execution, BP's Oil Spill Live Feed offers something unprecedented in the history of cinema: a $200-billion experimental art film.
The plot is straightforward to the point of primitive: An underwater gulf oil pipe gushes oil incessantly. It challenges the viewer with a single, static protracted shot -- lasting, so far, for days stretching into weeks and, soon, months -- and a nontraditional narrative.
Watching Oil Spill Live Feed for hours upon end has a mesmerizing cumulative effect, not unlike Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, only minus the bravura editing, the gorgeous and disquieting vistas, and the music.