Aurelia Gallery mounts All Under Heaven, showcasing striking images by master photographer Lois Conner of Navajo people and Navajo landscapes.
Lois Conner has been photographing the landscape for decades and since 1994 has used the term landscape as culture to describe her work in the genre, beginning with her important exhibition at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., at that time.
Her early photographs of trees (1979 – 1983), mostly made in her home state of Pennsylvania, were an hommage, through style and form, to Cezanne, Constable, Van Gogh, and Pollock, whose work she had studied as a young student. Working at the United Nations for more than a decade (in New York and Geneva), she was directly exposed to a multitude of cultures, traditions, values, and viewpoints, and she became “an obsessive collector and observer of the landscape and of cultures.”
“Putting together my exhibition on Asia for the Sackler Gallery Exhibition in Washington, D.C., in 1994 – 95, I chose the title Landscape as Culture as my photographs are a result of the histories of the places I photograph. I’m interested in the fact that even if you are not photographing a ruin, you are faced with layers of history beneath your feet. I wanted to understand the landscape through this lens.”
Some of Conner’s most recent landscapes-as-culture train her lens on the Navajo Nation. The prints are in both black-and-white and color. “She is a master printer in the platinum process and excels at it — there are not many left that do. Her prints are amazing to experience and contemplate,” says Marius Muresanu, owner of Canyon Road newcomer Aurelia Gallery in Santa Fe, where Conner’s Navajo images are on view in the exhibition All Under Heaven.
Lois Conner; Tuba City, Arizona
“What I am trying to reveal through photography in a deliberate, yet subtle way, is a sense of history,” Conner says. “I want my photographs to describe my relationship to both the tangible and the imagined, to fact and fiction.”
Cowboys & Indians: Photographically, what distinguishes the American West as a landscape and culture?
Lois Conner: I don’t see the landscape existing without the cultures that lived on and cultivated the land. In the American West, civilizations existed long before the white man came. Ancestral Puebloans (the Anasazi), forerunners of contemporary Pueblo peoples, have been living in the area around the Four Corners since the 12th century B.C.
C&I: How do you go about describing it?
Conner: You begin by walking, contemplating, and observing. I like to be in one place for long periods of time, so I can become familiar. My view camera, which is only used on a tripod (it’s big and heavy), has a ground glass where you view the image (upside down and backwards). I spend countless hours moving the camera around and looking with the focusing cloth wrapped around the camera at the beautiful, colorful image, where leaves move and people walk upside down across the frame.
As an artist, it’s your responsibility to know the work that preceded your time. I am completely fascinated with depictions of the American West though the paintings of George Catlin and Charles Russell and photographs from the early 19th century by Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson. Also, more contemporary work, such as Justine Kurland and Victoria Sambunaris.
C&I: You live in New York City. What draws you to the West as a subject?
Conner: I began photographing the American West in 1988, inspired by a family trip made in the early 1960s where we camped slowly across the West.
C&I: Let’s talk specifically about the show at Aurelia Gallery, on view through September 19 in Santa Fe, and the body of work represented by the exhibition title, All Under Heaven. How did you arrive at that title?
Conner: The title All Under Heaven was suggested to me by the scholar Geremie Barmé. Tianxia (天下) is a term for a historical Chinese cultural concept that denoted either the entire geographical world or the metaphysical realm of mortals. Here I feel it’s appropriately elusive and particular at the same time, as the Navajo have survived so much: from displacement (the 1864 Long Walk — the fearing time) to forced assimilation to white society (1870) to innumerable treaties meant to protect them that were broken and ignored. Yet the Navajo continue to thrive on their own terms, as they continue to do everything within their power to maintain the balance between Mother Earth and man.
C&I: How did you come to photograph the Navajo Nation? Tell us about that experience and some of the images and backstories that really stand out to you.
Conner: The All Under Heaven exhibition is a retrospective view of my photographs of the Navajo Nation, made slowly over two decades. These bodies of work were inspired by the stories told by my maternal grandmother, Ruth, who was Cree. Beyond the stories, my grandmother shared her special photographic stereo cards. You looked at them through a viewer that made the landscape seem three-dimensional. This kind of visual storytelling to her, and passed down to me, wove tales about the wildness of the landscape, the vastness of the world, and the possibility and freedom to wander and discover. With her encouragement, I hoped to be an explorer like the photographers who traversed the land before me, making pictures.
Lois Conner; Labrung, Ando
C&I: How did you go from that hope to actually traveling the world and photographing what you found in your explorations?
Conner: In 1989 I made my first journey driving cross-country in my Ford 150 pickup truck. I had a cap on the back, outfitted with specially fitted boxes (made by my father) that stored my photographic gear and at night became my bedroom. This enabled me to work late, and sleep in campsites without setting up a tent. It was incredible to wake up in the landscape where I wanted to photograph.
C&I: You began making portraits not long after. …
Conner: I started making the portraits in 1992, though I had wanted to make portraits from the beginning but had had no idea how to begin to approach my subjects. Working in Ando, Tibet, making portraits on the street, I struggled to make a portrait of two men. I knew enough Labrung Tibetan to ask them if I could photograph them, and if the answer was no, to ask them why not. I approached them, and they quickly walked away, so I just stayed in the same place, situated under my dark cloth, watching the pilgrims walk by. Suddenly I couldn’t see through my lens, as it was blocked. I came from behind my cloth to find the two men. They huddled under my focusing cloth, looking at the upside-down world, speaking in hushed tones for half an hour. Then they agreed to be photographed.
C&I: Some of the work is in black and white, some in color. How do you make this type of decision?
Conner: Each trip out west is a new chapter, even though I’ve frequently returned to the same place. I have no desire to keep making the same pictures. The color photographs were made much later (2012 – 2014) and are with the 8 x 10 format. They were inspired by my artist-in-residence at [American artist] Sol LeWitt’s residence on the Amalfi Coast in Italy.
With a view camera, the double exposures come accidentally. But it seems to me, they are also purposeful — they always point to something I hadn’t considered was related. In 1983 I made a group of 10 pictures of Central Park in New York, then took those same 10 sheets and photographed a boatyard in Mandeville, Louisiana. The boats are nestled in the trees. I didn’t pursue it, but I thought of it often, as these small miracles would continue throughout my work.
C&I: Any epiphanies during that time?
Conner: Living for months with Sol LeWitt’s fresco paintings and drawings made me reconsider particular details in the landscape — jet trails, webs, nests, fences, stones, water drops, roads, walls, walkways, tiling, and mesh — as part of an organizing system that could be imposed on the landscape. His grids of line and sweeps of controlled color powerfully mesmerize, impose, suggest, and reverberate.
In my first weeks in Praiano, I collected flowers that had dropped along the paths, bits and pieces of old discarded tiles from the olive groves that I photographed, and odd, twisted pieces of wood and wire from the garden outside. I thought comparing the scale of LeWitt’s paintings with these small objects could complicate our conversation. These multiple exposures were made in at least two locations: my “studio” at the LeWitt house and an outside landscape. I traveled as far afield in Campania as Pompeii, Vico Equense, and Napoli. This work called for a different kind of transparency, a layering that would both separate and unite the images; color was essential. When I continued the work outside of Italy, in New York, out west, and in Pennsylvania, it became less structured. Sometimes I waited weeks between exposures, though often they are made on the same day, so that there is a more immediate conversation in the landscape.
Lois Conner; Shiprock, New Mexico
C&I: And in the Navajo work?
Conner: With the Navajo portraits, I worked intensely for almost a decade, driving across country every summer to work. Then there were long pauses while I was working on other projects. I work differently now than I did in the 1990s, and much has changed out on the reservation. People don’t gather in the same way in public places where I feel I could approach them without invading their space. So I’ve changed formats in response to these changes.
Currently, most of the work I do there is in color, using the 8 x 10. Though I am still making portraits, I made a series of double exposures in response to invisible monuments in their history. Layering specific images through double and triple exposures extended the narrative in another way and allowed me to picture part of these histories. The thought [was] that perhaps color double-exposures could render visible the unseen monuments embedded in the land, the Navajo, and their myths and histories. This a project that I will continue indefinitely.
C&I: You have long lugged around a big “banquet” camera, 7” x 17” all over the world. What does that camera allow you to do that makes it worth the trouble?
Conner: This panoramic camera has an extended rectangle that embraces a cinematic experience within the space of a single frame. It produces a narrative that draws the viewer in, moving them through the frame. It’s analogous to the cinematic format. The larger-format cameras allow for an extraordinary level of description. The fact that it must rest on the tripod gives me permission to pause, to observe with more care, the world that is laid out in front of me. I want to make the most elaborately detailed description possible of the things I photograph. It is an attempt on my part to make them more believable than the world. Black-and-white photography is really a myriad of grays, where the chiaroscuro of the tones is never limited.
C&I: You have taught photography at Yale, where you got your master’s after getting your bachelor’s from Pratt Institute. What’s the overarching thing you try to instill in your students?
Conner: My role is essentially to change the way my students see, to open their eyes, to help them utilize the camera’s rectangle as their canvas.
C&I: Your bio includes a nod to Philippe Halsman, who was influential in your decision to pursue photography among many other creative endeavors that have attracted you in the arts. When I think about your work though — Native, Western landscapes, platinum printing — I think of Laura Gilpin. Who do you consider your influences and teachers?
Conner: I was given my first camera when I was 9, and I pointed it at virtually everything I saw. Things never looked the way I remembered in the viewfinder. It was always surprising to discover I had arranged things differently than I had been conscious of. It took many years to realize that photography was my medium. It was the photographer Philppe Halsman who took me aside after studying with him for six months at the New School in New York City, and told me that I was a photographer.
When I was a student at Pratt Institute I took a course in the history of photography, which took me to the Museum of Modern Art every week to look at prints in person. It was a semester of great discoveries. I already knew the work of Peter Henry Emerson. Looking at his Life and Living on the Norfolk Broads essentially changed the way I see, as did the work of Frederick Evans.
Painters — such as Turner, Picasso, Bada Shanren, and Shen Zhou — continue to inspire, as do the photographers Gustave Le Gray, Timothy O’Sullivan, Eugene Atget, Walker Evans, the Bechers [Hilla and Bernd], Robert Adams, and my contemporaries.
Lois Conner; Monument Valley, Arizona
C&I: Anything else you’d like to discuss and point out?
Conner: My photographs are taken from real life, but I feel that they’re fiction because they have to do with my point of view and my understanding of the thing I’m looking at. I’m trying to draw this larger portrait of the Navajo Nation, but it’s not completely historically based. You have to deal with the fact of the thing in front of you and the light that you’re given; the fiction is in the selection, in what not to include.
C&I: Where does digital fit in?
Conner: I like to think of my cameras as tools. You need to learn how to use them, so they become useful intuitively. I think each one of my cameras with their different forms and their ease of use does something very specific.
I always have a handheld camera with me. Although I originally thought I’d be a street photographer in the great tradition of Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt, or Lee Friedlander, I’m more of a contemplative photographer. Although sometimes I need the small camera to draw quickly what is fleeting, ephemeral — this is where I use the digital camera.
Cover image: Lois Conner; Medicine Men; Bluff, Utah