The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Photographing Prose

The art of storytelling is arresting to the senses. A great book will stop you in your tracks. You'll forgo other responsibilities to continue the story. You want more.

More is what you get if you're participating in the Fresno County Public Library's Big Read events, which focus on Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima. Part of the programming includes the photography exhibition Rituales de la Tierra y Espíritu, featuring 20 black-and-white photographs of the Southwestern lanscape by Miguel Gandert. While Anaya's mystical landscapes of New Mexico are enough to capture the senses, Gandert's work takes the experience to another level, engaging (and arresting) viewers in a visual and literary story of cultural hybridity, family, faith and disbelief, and a touch of mysticism.

Gandert’s photographs, which are being shown at the Arte Américas, were specifically chosen by Gandert and his colleague, Dr. Enrique Lamadrid, both close acquaintances of Anaya. The exhibit traces the book’s fictional locations and metaphorical representations of character to provide a sense of the place and magic that encompass Bless Me, Ultima.

We had an opportunity to speak with Gandert about his photographs, Bless Me, Ultima, and the photographic philosophy that grounds his work.

NEA: How did your involvement with the Big Read come about?

MIGUEL GANDERT: I primarily work in the Southwest photographing ritual, performance, and ethnographic [scenes]---what I call creative nonfiction work, focusing on Indo-Hispano and mestizo culture. I've completed four or five [photographic] books really focusing on the culture and place of New Mexico and the Hispano culture here. This exhibition, Rituales de la Tierra y Espíritu, really came about really because of the Big Read. I've been a friend of Rudy’s [Rudolfo Anaya] for years. The first exhibition was with the State University of New York (SUNY) museum’s Big Read events and their director, Neil Trager, heard about my work. He asked me if I would be interested in putting together an exhibition to make Rudy's place real. Rudy grew up about 100 miles from Albuquerque, to the east, in a little town called Puerta de Luna. We wanted to capture Rudy Anaya's New Mexico and show people the place. It’s on the Great Plains, or rather, the beginning of the Great Plains, and addressed the two fundamental issues of the book which are agricultural and cattle raising, as shown through the Màrez and the Luna family.

Enrique curated the show essentially from a large body of work I have on the Southwest. We decided to pull together symbols of Rudy Anaya's New Mexico. New Mexico's artistic community is very small and very intense. We went back through volumes of work, I re-read Ultima, having read it when it first came out, and we put this show together for SUNY New Paltz. We also went and did some lectures. Then it was in a box in storage, until one day I get a call from the University of New Mexico, and UNM had decided, two years ago, that every incoming freshman would get a copy of Bless Me, Ultima. We once again hung the show and then we did an event where we actually got Rudy to come out. In that situation, you throw Rudy a powder puff question and suddenly incredibly profound and brilliant comments come out. And after we did that panel at UNM and the show went back into hold. Then the third resurrection, which I was delighted to do, came here with the Fresno Library and suddenly the show gets legs again, primarily because of Rudolfo Anaya and his mythical world he put together.

NEA: Your photographs lend a visuality to Anaya’s novel. How does the exhibition offer a visual answer to help a reader better understand this mythical world?

GANDERT: One of the real issues that comes with New Mexico is it has its own interesting kind of paradox that Rudy's book completely breaks. Almost all writing on New Mexico is focused on the Rio Grande Corridor, the valley that stretches from the Northern to Southern Colorado, through Taos, past Sante Fe, coming right through Albuquerque down the spine of New Mexico. Rudy’s book is suddenly looking at a different New Mexico. It’s once again very much about a river but it’s the Pecos River. Rudy's fictional world is about the edge of the end of earth---the Great Plains. His book is focusing on these two kind of metaphoric constructs. The other thing it does so well and eloquently is it deals with a real duality of Hispano culture in the Southwest is the conflict between two different heritages: the Spanish heritage of the explorer coming here and crossing the oceans to be here, which is the Màrez family, and then the other more indigenous, circular culture of farming, which is the Luna family, the Moon Family, essentially. Rudy is really laying out and defining that. We wanted to examine as much as we could, those two poles within the context of the work. So there's actually horsemen in the exhibition’s collection by chance---it’s a picture I took for an NEA grant in 1983 or so. There's a little boy with the apple because I needed the little boy from the story and so there he is. He's just a metaphor for the story. Then there is the older woman---I had to find an Ultima. I found my Ultima in a picture I had of a farmer I photographed---it was his mother. We looked for pictures that could metaphorically lay out the story. All the photos are very much about relocating this in a real place, that linkage between Native-American culture and ritual and Hispanic cultural. 

Regando la milpa: Estevan and his cornfield, Embudo, NM (1998). Gelatin silver print. Photo by Miguel Gandert

NEA: Do you believe pictures can help speak to a culture or perhaps capture an essence of a culture in a way other mediums cannot?

GANDERT: Pictures are memories and pictures are stories. That's what is really important me. We could have literally illustrated perfectly Rudy's book, but we decided we would become more metaphoric. Most of my [photographic] books on New Mexico are very much about stories. My first major book, my first major exhibit was a show at the Smithsonian in 1990 called Scenes from an Urban Chicano Experience, and for me it was about telling stories for people whose stories aren't being told. It’s really easy to talk about certain acceptable ideas of what Hispano culture or Chicano culture is, for example. You throw in a picture of an Azteca, and "Oh, yeah, this is great." But in New Mexico, you throw up a picture of a Comanche and the immediate response is, "Oh, those Indians are dancing" and in the reality of it, they are not. Those are Hispanos dressing as Indians, paying homage to half of their heritage. So for me it has always been about telling stories that are not told. Reframing the notion and recognizing this cultural confluence that has happened very uniquely in New Mexico. This exhibition was about affirming rituals and traditions.

NEA: You are also a photojournalism professor at UNM. What do you tell your students about the mantra or ethos of photography? Something you perhaps tell them on the first day of class?

GANDERT: There are a couple of ideas that are really important but the main one relates to fieldwork and ethnographic training. Photography is an attempt to gather new knowledge---it’s an attempt to affirm a cultural existence of other people. The most compelling thing is that you've got to be there.

NEA: What do you hope a visitor walks away with after visiting the exhibition, whether they have read the book or not?

GANDERT: One of the things that is really hard in the academic world is that people create certain stereotypes about culture. And the Chicano movement that I was actively involved with as a student many years ago sort of created these paradigms to re-affirm itself and the way it exists in the world as a political movement. It looks back to Mexico. For me, what I would want people to see in this show, is there's...a rich part of heritage [here] that goes back just about as long as anything in Mexico. We are linked to the tremendous Mexicanos that came here and settled with the indigneous people of this place to create something unique---that's what I would want people to see when they look at the show and then to feel the power of place. Cultural hybridity has created a richness to make the Indo-Hispano culture as old as any in the Americas, and I want these pictures to give that sense.

Tres generaciones cantando: Grandfather's song, Ranchos de Taos, NM (1997). Gelatin Silver Print. Photo by Miguel Gandert
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