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A Sense of Place
Guggenheim-winning photographer David Taylor

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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    August 2008

A Sense of Place

Guggenheim-winning photographer and NMSU teacher David Taylor documents the US-Mexican border and those who patrol it.

By Jeff Berg

David Taylor is an assistant professor of art at New Mexico State University whose specialty is photography. He has achieved any number of things in his career outside of academia — most recently, winning a coveted Guggenheim fellowship — but the thing he is most proud of is this:

Photographer David Taylor at work.
(Photo by Tom Lamb)

"I've had eight students go to eight graduate programs in eight years."

Not a bad record for a talented photographer who has spent a lot of time in much larger ports of call than Las Cruces.

Taylor's current body of work focuses on his experiences with those who live on both sides of the border. He has been able to build a trusting relationship with the US Border Patrol, and works with various patrol offices from Texas to Yuma, Ariz., chronicling both the routine and unusual aspects of the people crossing illegally from Mexico and those assigned to stop them or help them if they are in distress.

Taylor says his attitude toward the Border Patrol changed after he began to work with them, evolving from negative to positive after he saw and photographed what agents deal with on a day-to-day basis and how they do so. "Interacting with the Border Patrol, I found out that they are interested in people which helped me to recognize the nuance of what they do," he explains.

The Border Patrol, Taylor discovered, pays as much attention to detail as he does.

The barren US-Mexican border is worlds away from the Boston area, where Taylor grew up and attended Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, receiving a BFA. He next attended the University of Oregon, receiving an MFA degree in 1994. While in Oregon he also displayed his work in the Portland area.

"I am totally captivated by gadgets," Taylor says when asked how he first got interested in the art of photography. "I always loved building model airplanes, rockets, miniatures, playing with train sets and (toy) guns when I was a kid. When I look back, it was a fascination or impulse to 're-present' something. And photography fit into that."

Today, like many photographers, Taylor shoots primarily with digital cameras. But his continuing fascination with gadgets ranges from an interest in pinhole cameras to such historical oddities as Kodak's Banquet Camera — in which "the film was held flat and a wide-angle lens was used to cover the long narrow format," allowing for a panoramic view. He can also get excited about newer gadgets, like a drum scanner at NMSU about which he enthuses, "It is very high end and can get every bit of information out of a 4x5 piece of film. It makes a stunning print."

After discovering photography, Taylor worked on his high-school yearbook and the school newspaper. But he says, "What I was doing didn't fit into an 'easy' category" — not exactly typical photojournalism.

Taylor's curiosity and ultimately his skills were enhanced when a friend asked if he wanted to help produce a photo novella based on the work of Edgar Allen Poe. As they worked on the project, an instructor became aware of Taylor's potential and offered a book by the noted photographer, Diane Arbus.

"I didn't have a very sophisticated 'view' yet," Taylor recalls. But after seeing Arbus' work, he "became intrigued that photography could be seen as artwork." Like Arbus' work, Taylor's photos often capture stark yet beautiful parts of the world around us that we shun or take for granted; there is no emptiness in the desert that Taylor sees.

"Another teacher suggested that I go to school for art — specifically photography," he goes on. Photography trumped his other interests — history, anthropology, science and, not surprisingly, theater.

"I might have been a bit capricious," he acknowledges. "My family was very curious about the idea: 'Art school?'"

After working at a photo lab in Maine, he headed to the other side of the country for grad school in Oregon. Since that time, his work has all been educational and professional. He joined the NMSU faculty in 1999.

The official word that Taylor had won a Guggenheim Fellowship came with a list of winners printed in a New York Times ad. But he already had an inkling, as he told a writer for What's Up, an El Paso weekly: "A photographer friend who had been awarded a Guggenheim a while back told me about a thick envelope that came from the foundation right before the official announcement. I had just gotten a load of rejection letters, and I thought maybe this was another one. But that friend's story came to mind as I held this heavy envelope. My heart started pounding and I knew."

Nearly 200 US and Canadian Guggenheim Fellowships were awarded in 2008, from a pool of 2,600 applicants. Amazingly, two went to photographers in Southwest New Mexico — Taylor and Silver City photographer Michael Berman ("A Reason to Go See Places," July). The Guggenheim is one of the most prestigious awards an artist can receive; nearly $8.2 million was awarded, with Taylor receiving $45,000, slightly more than the average grant.

Image from David Taylor's "Working the Line" project.
(Copyright David Taylor.)

The money is awarded through the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, created in 1925 as a memorial to the son of former US Sen. Simon Guggenheim. Fellowships are designed to fund advanced professionals in natural and social sciences, the humanities and creative arts for work on various projects.

Fellowship applications must be accompanied by proposals for several projects. Taylor submitted three: one, to photograph all 275 mile-markers along the US-Mexico border from Texas to San Diego; second, to ride with Border Patrol officers and chronicle their work; and the third, to take photos of the areas around Asarco, Mount Cristo Rey, the Juarez landfill and the Sunland Park Racetrack, all on the west side of El Paso. The Guggenheim committee approved all three projects.

Taylor describes the awards ceremony as exhilarating. "It was festooned with art work from past fellows — Sally Mann, Ansel Adams, Arbus, Bruce Davidson and (Lee) Friedlander." All are noted photographers, past and present. "It was an amazing experience. You feel it's more than just an honor."

The work of these artists who preceded Taylor as Guggenheim recipients reveals, at least to the untrained eye, a starkness and simplicity that is not achieved by a lot of manipulation and camera tricks. The poses and faces of the portraits look and feel genuine. The landscape shots offer depth and an unwavering beauty.

All of the works on display at the Guggenheim ceremony were likely donated by their makers, as Taylor mentions that the subtle message from the foundation was that "they love it when fellows donate pieces."

One of Taylor's main supporters and references in his Guggenheim application was Charles Horak, an architect and vice president of Horak Construction of El Paso. Some of Horak's work involves the design and construction of offices for use by the Border Patrol and other federal agencies. Recently, Horak and his company finished a new station for the Border Patrol in Van Horn, Texas, about an hour east of El Paso. For the site, Horak commissioned photographs by Taylor, which are now on permanent display at the Van Horn station along with an outside sculpture by another local artist.

Horak explains, "With the Van Horn project, I wanted to propose something that I had been thinking about for some time." He'd long lamented the loss of art that was once associated with federal buildings; in a different era, nearly every federal facility utilized art as part of its decor. "The proposal was to involve public art. I wanted to have two pieces — a sculpture on the outside and something that would show the experiences of Border Patrol agents on the inside, and I was able to maintain that through the design phase.

"After construction began, we formed a small committee and put out a PSA throughout the whole region, soliciting proposals from local artists," Horak goes on. "We received a number of ideas and entries, but David Taylor's was head and shoulders above the others. He had an obvious commitment for the subject and the project, and his work tells the story of how the Border Patrol works in this region."

Unlike El Paso, where Border Patrol agents work mostly in an urban setting, the Van Horn district covers a lot of rough-and-tumble country. Most people who don't live in Van Horn only know the town as a convenient place to relax and refuel while on their way to arts-heavy Marfa, Texas, or to the beautiful border region around Big Bend National Park.

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