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  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.

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.

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

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.

"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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