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About the cover

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

   


    Building Images

 

In two new exhibits, Silver City photographer Dennis Weller documents downtown and ghost towns.

By Richard Mahler

 

 

Old and abandoned buildings. New Mexico is full of 'em. Take a drive in any direction and there they are, beacons of bygone eras. Dozens of adobe homes, plaster fallen and bricks melting, dot pastures reclaimed by weeds. Mountain mining shacks, tin roofs torn by wind and bent by snow, cling precariously to hillsides. Frame ranch houses, broken windows used by bats and swallows, collapse one board at a time. Their stories, like the people who once were sheltered by them, are fading into distant memory.

Dennis Weller's panoramic photos of downtown Silver City will be on view at the Silver City Museum.

 

But at least one man is taking careful notice.

"I like to travel among abandoned spaces around here," confesses Dennis Weller, a Silver City photographer with two new exhibitions this month. "I've been taking pictures of old buildings and interiors for about 15 or 20 years now."

For a dozen of those years Weller has lived and worked in a split-level brick house on Yankie Street, built in 1904 by brothers Van and Richard Manville. Prior to the photographer's purchase, it was occupied by a judge who installed beautiful hardwood flooring rescued from one of the infamous Madame Millie's Hudson Street brothels. Weller subsequently acquired one of Millie's rocking chairs, and has remodeled the home's interior to include a darkroom and private gallery. The Territorial-style duplex, with its distinctive shed roof and staggered parapet, is barely visible in a century-old panoramic photograph that came with the house when Weller bought it.

"You have to look very hard to find it," says Weller, dusting off the framed print, "but this is one of the only photos I know of that includes my house."

It is also one of the inspirations for a project displayed at the Silver City Museum beginning Oct. 10, in which 34 color panoramas document each and every block of Bullard and Broadway. The photographer used an eight-megapixel digital camera and a computer-based process that stitches several separate images into a single long picture. Between three and five photos were combined seamlessly by a software program inside Weller's Hewlett-Packard computer.

"I set my camera on a tripod across the street and carefully panned as I shot," explains Weller, a soft-spoken man with crystalline blue eyes and a medium build. "You have to overlap them by a considerable amount so that the computer can align the final, single image for you." As recently as three years ago, he notes, such software yielded imperfect results: "But it's advanced to the point where I can't tell where one image starts and another begins. It's magic." Before such technology became available, photographers used special lenses, film and techniques to create such panoramic shots.

"It was very impractical," says Weller. "You had to have a very expensive, special-purpose camera and then you had great difficulty in the darkroom developing these images."



Modest and casual in his dress and manner, Weller does not mention the precise measurements such photography requires even today, nor his commitment to getting up before dawn over a series of weeks in order to capture deserted downtown blocks at sunrise. Only a few blocks could be documented in each session, given the fast-changing light conditions and traffic congestion. The result is a remarkably comprehensive series that documents Silver City's historic business district in an understated, artful way. The pictures have an almost haunting, still-life quality, the colors of buildings vibrant against a washed-out sky. Weller hesitates to label them "artsy," leaving others to judge.

"There is a conceptual aspect to Dennis' panoramas that I think is very unusual," says Ann Lowe, a graphic artist who printed the photographs on the museum's 44-inch-wide inkjet printer. "The lighting is interesting, for example, because the photos were taken very early in the morning and the interiors of the buildings are sometimes illuminated" by the near-horizontal rays of the rising sun. "You can see right inside the rooms of a few of these businesses."

Using Adobe's Photoshop program, she layered Weller's photographs into high-resolution files, printing the images three abreast on a long roll of semi-gloss paper. The photographer then mounted, matted and framed them himself, as he does all of his work.

"I also personally print all of my images in my own darkroom," says Weller, who measures his words carefully and presents them without embellishment. A sense of pride, however, seeps into his descriptions of recent work: "They're something different," he allows. "I got some unusual perspectives."

Because the panoramic scenes combine several photos and were taken through a relatively wide lens, they provide a view impossible to duplicate in real life. A person would have to step back 200 yards or so to scan these city blocks in the same way — a vista prevented by buildings on the opposite sides of each street.

"You get this interesting isolation," says Weller of his panoramas, which have no human figures and very few cars. "If I am around in 10 or 20 years, I may take another set, just to see how things have changed."

The Silver City Museum show was scheduled after Weller showed up with a complete set of the 34 prints, donated to the facility's archives. And while there are plenty of historic pictures of downtown streets, the museum's collection holds nothing like this; most are angled shots showing such events as parades, floods and political rallies.

"I really think of my pictures of being of more value in 50 or 100 years," says Weller, "when people may wonder what Bullard and Broadway looked like back in 2008." He points out that the resolution of his photos is so high that even some of the posters in downtown windows are legible, "which might interest someone doing research in the future."



Unlike Silver City, most of the communities where Weller takes pictures — Mogollon, Old Hachita, Fierro and Yeso among them — are nearly uninhabited, their heydays long past. What they have in common are physical reminders of fortunes lost and dreams unrealized. These are a focus of Weller's other new exhibition, opening Oct. 3 at the Mimbres Region Arts Council Gallery in Silver City's Wells Fargo Bank building.

"My preferred subject matter is black-and-white imagery of simple interiors," he explains. "Since moving to New Mexico 12 years ago, I have concentrated on abandoned buildings found in the many ghost towns of the Southwest."



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