The photography exhibition currently on view at the Palace of the Governors has a homey, scrapbook sensibility that, especially for locals, reads like a gathering of friends and neighbors complete with visual aids for the crazy stories about how things used to be.
Through the Lens: Creating Santa Fe is divided, as is the recent vogue at Museum of New Mexico institutions, into broad categories such as "history," "place" and "identity." But such curatorial
conventions are best dismissed. Identity is history and place is identity and on and on. The exhibition is best experienced in a fluid immersion, flitting from room to room and back again, considering works by Edward Curtis, Lisa Law and Kate Joyce as though they were not separated by chasms of tumultuous decades.
Featuring more than 150 years of photographs taken in and around Santa Fe, the works range in quality from breathtaking, expert exposures to ho-hum snapshots and, indeed, manage to exude many of the rich flavors of the complex history that has unfolded in that time. Curated by Krista Elrick and Mary Ann Redding, Through the Lens suggests, rightly, that visual imagery has been as responsible as anything for creating the impressions—both true and false—that have formed the external mystique and the internal character of the city.
A collaboration between the Palace of the Governors, the Visual Arts Gallery at the Santa Fe Community College, the College of Santa Fe Photography Department and Marion Center and the New Mexico Humanities Council, the exhibition fits, conveniently, into the upcoming tangle of Santa Fe's 400th anniversary celebration.
There are many standout images, from Robert Shlaer's endlessly charming contemporary daguerreotypes to Anne Noggle's print of an accidentally psychotic gardener charging her plants with blurry claws, a work quirkily positioned next to an austere Eliot Porter portrait of frozen apples against a looming storm. More important to the soul of the exhibition, however, are the moments of built geography, captured by a view from Cerro Gordo by Herbert Lotz or construction of the convention center by Greg Mac Gregor; or the images of people, such as James Hart's photograph of two Latino muralists or Melanie West's shot of a plasterer in action.
One particular gem is Betty Hahn's series "Erlichman Surveillance," in which the photographer stalked the Nixon administration goon who moved to Santa Fe after his prison term to, what else, become an artist.
As is typical of exhibitions at the Palace of the Governors, Through the Lens is accompanied by accoutrements of the trade. Small cases are filled with a variety of cameras used over the years and displays of stereo viewers, including one interactive display where viewers can rifle through the early 3-D images.
But there is contemporary interactivity as well, such as iPod Touch consoles. Viewers can zip through the exhibition and glean artist and title information from the corresponding number next
to each photograph. Those with their own iPod Touch or iPhone may simply log onto a provided wireless network and browse as they stroll through the building.
Several photographers give brief interviews, which are accessible via this system and add considerable context to their works. Unfortunately, most works have no more information than would be on a basic placard and the technology is more burdensome for these details than the typical gallery guide and fail to take advantage of its capabilities. Significantly more history should be included with each image and artists should be searchable by name.
Another problem: There is no presence on the Web for this techno-walkthrough with video. Hopefully that will change soon because it's a baffling omission that could likely be solved with a few minutes of upload time. Still, these are small criticisms about using technology for its strengths, rather than as a substitute for conventional viewing practices. It's a step in the right direction—especially in terms of attracting younger museum-goers—and simply needs some gentle nudges in the right direction.
A slate of a dozen lectures and discussions corresponds to the exhibition, bookended by writer, culture critic and beloved malcontent Lucy Lippard and Myth of Santa Fe author Chris Wilson; each lecture is filled with content guaranteed to pique cultural interest and raise historically minded eyebrows in between.
Few historical surveys are able to both satisfy tourists who are experiencing a city for the first time and locals who will feel a sense of intimacy in the preparation, winking juxtapositions and salon-style friendliness of the presentation, but Through the Lens performs this dual role almost effortlessly.
The interface of museum and technology needs more work and the show itself could use more of the historical and cultural context that will no doubt be filled in by the ambitious lecture schedule. But there's still no reason not to add nutrition to a lunch hour (or a Sunday when admission is free for New Mexicans) by wandering through this satisfying maze of Santa Fe's visual history.
Through the Lens
Through Oct. 25, 2009
Palace of the Governors
105 E. Palace Ave.
Lucy Lippard lecture
6 pm Friday, Dec. 5
Tipton Hall, College of Santa Fe
1600 St. Michael's Drive