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Las Cruces Oral History group is the talk of the town

Living Through the Droughts
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A Spiritual Home in Nature
Sharman Russell's new book about pantheism

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

Photographer David Taylor

Page: 2

"Taylor's photos also capture the experience of the border crossers who come through the area," Horak says. "His work covered the evidence of their travel through the area, as well as that of drug runners."

Horak started working on the Van Horn project in 2005, and it wrapped up in 2006. He is hopeful that people will start to see Van Horn a bit differently because of the project, since the art work is open to the public. Even though Taylor's photographs are in a restricted area, visitors need only ask to view them.

"I was fortunate to work with someone whose consciousness is the caliber of David's," Horak concludes.

The project was so successful that Horak is planning on a similar display of art in a new building that he is designing and building for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Las Cruces.

Taylor pulls out a letter from a grateful photography student and reads it to himself. He shares a brief passage or two, but decides it is too personal to share with a large audience. He will reveal that the student is a single mom of immigrant parents who received a full-ride scholarship to Arizona State for graduate studies.

"I like being a mentor to my students but not in a parental way," Taylor says. "When there is a profound exchange between myself and a student, I learn so much and how lucky I was. I am an Anglo from the northeast. I was privileged and I know how fundamentally lucky I am to be who I am. So, my goal is to convince students that are from this area that the same things can be accessible to them. There is the idea of seeing them question what they do on the most fundamental level and that they are not operating from some rarified place."

Another of his students was Manuel Pena, whose exhibit, "The Swimming Hole," was partially banned at the Las Cruces Museum of Art — even though it helped Pena get into the master's degree photography program at the well-known Rochester (NY) Institute of Technology. Objection was made to the male nudity in Pena's work; Pena charged that officials refused to display the six prints because Pena is gay. The entire show was immediately picked up and displayed by the now-defunct White Raven Gallery.

Understandably, Taylor was pleased with Pena's work, but not with the outcry that ensued over the show.

Besides the opportunity to teach, Taylor came to southern New Mexico to work out in the field and to photograph a sense of place. "On the border you can recognize how different a place this is from all other locales," he says. "It might as well have continued to be Mexico."

He laments the changes being wrought by Las Cruces' explosive growth. "I arrived here at the tail end of that the beginning of that change," he says with a hint of bitterness. "Home Depot arrived here when I did in 1999."

Taylor's work incorporates this notion of "place," how place functions, how the changes that have happened in a specific locale have changed the meaning of the locale.

"The 'West' never really happened in the way that it happened," he offers. As an example he mentions the history of the iconic garb attributed to American cowboys. "We never see the real origins, since most of that persona was taken from Mexican vaqueros."

As Taylor finishes this thought, a FedEx truck pulls up in front of his studio. On the vehicle are a couple of crates of his work, now returned from an exhibit elsewhere. Taylor banters with the driver, but also carefully monitors his work as the wooden boxes are unloaded.

Unable to find crates that he felt comfortable shipping his work in, Taylor, the eternal tinkerer (he was installing air conditioning in his unpretentious studio prior to the interview), has designed his own. A quick inspection of the contents reveals no damage other than a minor ding on some of the padding surrounding one of the returned prints. These crates will come in handy over the next few months, as Taylor has at least three different shows coming up: in Rochester, NY, Chicago and in Santa Fe, at the rotunda of the statehouse.

As the FedEx truck pulls away, Taylor shares a portfolio of prints he did about the Grand Coulee Dam and vicinity in Washington state — another exercise in "place." He speaks at length about how the dam. He describes how it has blocked the Columbia River since the dam opened in 1933, it produces 6.5 million kilowatts of power, and is the largest concrete structure in the US. He even relates an obscure New Mexico connection, linking Grand Coulee and nearby Hanford, Wash., which made atomic-bomb material for Los Alamos.

Taylor knows the ancient history of the area, too. He notes that the dam sits on a flood plain and that 11,000-15,000 years earlier, a flood in central Washington sent a 250-500-foot-high surge of water through the area. He cites the work of geologist J. Harlen Bretz, who in the 1920s first offered the theory that the landscape formation, which he named "channeled scablands," were actually formed by cataclysmic water flows.

In his comparison photos of the area, Taylor points out geographical differences that may confirm Bretz's theories, which were dismissed until the 1950s.

“I am curious about how images function,” Taylor offers as he points out details in the photos. “Using a photo as a marker is problematic for me. “It takes retraining to excise a specific image,” he says. “Every image made is a choice that is reframed and automatically edited.”

You can see more of David Taylor's work at dtaylorphoto.com (Make sure you have the correct Web site. Several other photographers share the name, but not the quality of work.)


The Preston Contemporary Art Center, 1755 Avenida de Mercado in Mesilla, will host a talk by Taylor Sept. 5 at 6 p.m.




Senior writer Jeff Berg's place is in Las Cruces.

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