FOUR CORNERS (1989 - 2001)
In December 1989, I got into my car and started driving. I didn’t know where I was going, exactly, but I was traveling toward a landscape that was familiar to me, that felt like home. When I was growing up, my family had often taken off on impromptu adventures around the West, so it felt completely natural to travel without a destination in mind. Leaving California, I crossed into Arizona and meandered through the desert, heading north. But it was somewhere near Oak Creek Canyon that everything changed: I experienced what I can only call an awakening to the land, and I began photographing.
I had just finished Frida/Trotsky, a photographic series of the homes of one-time lovers Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky. This project required complicated permits and incited the constant monitoring of museum guards and federales. Frida/Trotsky exposed the indelible imprint two lives had left on their surroundings (and on history), but now I found myself longing for environments with few, if any, human traces. This new project was the perfect antidote to the intrusive surveillance and highly regimented schedule I had kept with my Frida/Trotsky Series. The open land would allow me to work in an unstructured way.
I found myself going back to the western desert three or four times a year for ten years. Each time I would wander further out; I visited Woo Canyon, Hopiland including Walpi and Shongopavi, and Canyon de Chelly, Arizona; Zuni, Nageezi, Mexican Hat, Convergence, and Chaco, New Mexico; Dead Horse, Moab, Hovenweep, and Fremont Canyon, Utah. On each trip I marked my map and very soon realized that I was making a circle around Four Corners. Mostly I worked on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property, which has been carefully preserved in its purest state by the resident Native Americans. The journey from California to Four Corners itself became an important part of the project. As I drove from the Bay Area toward my destination, I was acutely aware of the transition from dense city sprawl—with its unique sounds, smells, and visual elements—to the openness, stillness, and subtleties of the desert environment. I don’t think I would have made these photographs the way I did if I had not taken the time to descend slowly into this landscape.
My understanding of the land and of its inhabitants evolved as I went deeper into it. On an early trip, I decided to take the advice of a Native American silversmith I had met to visit the Hopi reservation. The address was “second mesa,” which seemed almost otherworldly to me. I made the long drive from Sedona through Tuba City; the scenery was dry, desolate, and inhospitable. But when I made the right turn just north of Tuba City toward Hopiland, I started to notice an incredible range of colors in the earth—from flesh colors and vivid reds to bleached white. The land, inhabited by the Hopi people, also emanated a sense of well-being and pride, and I could easily understand why they chose to live here. The comfort of this isolation was contagious. At night the landscape seemed transformed into a stark, beautiful sculpture, and looking up, I felt I was as close to the stars and the heavens as I could possibly be.
These trips were an odyssey on which each stop became a springboard for a different direction. Along the way, I discovered some wonderfully helpful guides. Early in the process, I sought assistance from the Park Service, which directed me to the BLM for further help. It was also in a ranger station that I met Jim Enote from Zuni. Jim showed me a great many things including how to walk on sacred land. In Shongopavi in Hopiland, I made the acquaintance of a family who always welcomed me. I continually met people who connected me to other people who helped map my course in this nearly uncharted territory.
In 1997, this project took a new, but, as it turned out, related turn when I found myself in a church between Taos and Santa Fe. Las Trampas, built in 1776, is considered a national treasure. I had decided to take a day off from photographing to go see it. Inside there was a faint, sweet smell of candles, and I thought of my sister Bonnie, who had recently died. I knew she would have loved this place, and in her memory I lit a candle at the altar. I sat for a while; I was the only person in the church. I noticed the playful images on the walls, which were painted in a Folk Art style. I had only been inside a church a few times before—I didn’t recognize the figures on the walls or understand their significance. As I drove back down the road to Santa Fe, these faces lingered in my mind together with my memories of Bonnie. I turned the car around and drove back to the church.
For the next two and a half years, I worked in seven different churches. All were built by the townspeople and maintained by them. I found the churches to be as evocative as the landscape they grew out of. When these new images were completed, I realized that I had not started a new project but that I had just found the framework that would bring the Four Corners project to its close. These interior spaces and the landscapes have similar meaning and significance for me. They connote a sense of place that resonates with home, solace, transformation, hope, and history.
The photographs in this book represent the correspondence of physical places around Four Corners and another, much more internal landscape. In general my work is highly personal in origin: it is often prompted by a particular concern or a question I am exploring in my own life. This process begins without premeditation, and often I understand it retrospectively. It is the unanswered question that gives me endless energy to pursue my work, a great and all-consuming meditation.
I am not wed to any particular palette with respect to time of day. I might begin my work with a hot cup of coffee before sunrise or a pot of black bean soup in the afternoon or evening. When I start out I have a general sense of which direction I am going, but I navigate as if I am in a sailboat, letting the skies and weather direct me. I especially love to work in dynamic weather. Dry, clear, blue skies I dread. Winter storms, pouring rain, dusk in a snow-dusted landscape take my breath away.
Before my sister died, she asked each day to be put in front of the last bit of light, to see the sun fall into the sea. Nighttime is hard for someone near the end of his or her life—going to sleep is too much like death. After Bonnie died I found myself working more and more in those hours after dusk, searching for that last breath of light. This is the time I feel closest to my sister. It is also the time when I can deviate from objective reality and surmount some of the mechanical restrictions of the camera. Long exposures enable me to paint with available light and reveal a world that is inaccessible to the human eye. These images are the culmination of my visual, emotional, and intellectual responses to what is in front of me.
In the years that I devoted myself to this work I have collected a few stories. When I look at certain images, they always speak to me. I have included some of these tales where I thought they enrich and/or clarify the work (please see list of illustrations). My photographs also reveal to me my own stories. They are my memories, my experiences, or, as the Zunis might say, my fetishes. It is my hope that they also speak to others, that they provide a primary experience of the land, of comfort and transcendence.