No, it wasn't the green chiles melting my brain cells or the more relaxed manner people here employ to get things done with (sloooooowly). It was that damned sky. The initial three days in Arroyo Seco, outside of Taos, featured sunsets the likes of which I'd never seen before. Not only were they hallucinogenically colorful - as if God had flicked the SATURATION lever on the cosmic Photoshop menu to 100% - but they kept changing every minute and at every point of the compass. For several hours, I was like a spinning top outside with my camera. Blinding colors to the west were mirrored by the incredible reflections on the mountains to the east. The structures of the cloud formations to the north and south defied description. All these cardinal points changed by the minute. If I were shooting Kodachrome instead of using a digital camera, I would now be bankrupt from film and development costs.
After three days of this, I begged the Almighty for a cloudy evening. I was visually exhausted, a new experience.
The notion of an Eastern artist visiting New Mexico and getting smitten by the light and color of the sky is by now a well-worn cliché. And, like all clichés, oh, so true. The list is long of those artists and photographers who were called to relocate here. Georgia O'Keeffe up and moved to Abiquiu when she was 63, the same age I was when I up and moved to Seco. People might not appreciate just how raw and primitive the landscape was (and still is) in Abiquiu. Even today, there isn't much in the dusty town center although Ghost Ranch and the Abiquiu Inn are somewhat upscale. Cerro Pedernal, the slanted mesa that features in many of her New Mexico landscapes, can be seen from my front porch despite it being 70 miles away. Up close, it is an imposing edifice.
One of my favorite photographs, "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico 1941" by Ansel Adams was taken right down the road from there. Few who have seen this iconic work are not likely to forget it. Its main feature is this inky black sky despite it being only 4pm, the result of Adams' groundbreaking "Zone" technique. In his notes, Adams, the uber-perfectionist, describes this mad scramble to get his ponderous 8 x 10" view camera in place with the right lens, filter and exposures with only seconds to spare before the light is lost. Like me, Adams knew that the fickle quality of New Mexico illumination could change in a heartbeat.
New Mexico in 1941 looks little different that it had in 1741. The adobe village church, the cemetery and the more modern houses are contrasted by the timeless sagebrush plateau and the snow-covered Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background. Today, you are more likely to find a "Family Dollar" store, a defunct art gallery and a deluge of chain emporiums (Lowes, Wal-Mart, Staples) in neighboring Española.
I am currently engaged in a whirlwind of photography, mostly what I call “Skyscapes”. They are all ending in a Photoshop file as possibilities for future painting subjects. Some locals complain about the limitations of subject matter that appear in Taos gallery offerings. The old pick-up truck. The Rio Grande Gorge. Exaggerated and stereotyped renditions of Indians from the Taos Pueblo. And, of course, the sunsets.
I’m fine with more sunsets. Like sex and chocolate, they're good for you. A sunset reminds us of the beauty of heaven and earth. It gives us hope, peace and inspiration. Out here in northern New Mexico, no matter how many you see, you never get jaded. Every month, one comes along that blows the camera or the paintbrush right out of the artist’s hand. The trick is to hold onto them and record the image on the flash card, the canvas or the memory. Those who see it later on will never regret it.