Gone are the beauty shots that show off Santa Fe’s iconic architecture. Gone are the pictures of its historic cathedral, Spanish missions, hotels, and museums. No downtown plaza, illuminated by the glow of Christmas lights, grace Santa Fe artist Ivan Barnett’s portfolio of a city in repose. No images of luminarias and farolitos lining Canyon Road. No crowds gathering for the annual burning of Zozobra or swarming the streets at Indian Market. In this suite of images, an intimate view of Santa Fe takes shape, one that’s haunting in its solemnity. Familiar, yet strange.
Shot in streets made empty by the global pandemic, Barnett photographs discovered anew the old City Different. And the project, he says, saved him from the crushing despair of living in a time of inactivity and retreat, when it seemed as though the silence wrought by the opening of the Seventh Seal was at hand.
“My first day out was Thanksgiving Day,” says
Barnett, who set out with his new digital camera but without a plan, letting his instincts guide him to interesting subjects. “We were doing our own little Thanksgiving-Zoom-best-that-we-could-do holiday — myself, Allison, our daughter Grace, and the cats. I drove up Cerrillos Road, and right where the Indian School is there’s a building that I’ve driven by for 30 years. It’s just sort of empty. It’s falling down. I don’t know why it hasn’t been bulldozed or fixed up. I scooted in there and just started taking
Selections from Seeing the City Different, Barnett’s ongoing photo project, opens at Patina Gallery, which Barnett owns with his wife Allison, on Thursday, April 15. The suite of 30 images will be released online as 13 images are staged in the gallery. The photographs are an eclectic mix of details from time-worn murals, shadows on walls, an angular shadow adding its own geometry to the detail of a building’s painted pattern, an outdoor café table accompanied by an empty chair, the bottom edge of a weathered shutter, peeling and faded, set inside a crumbling stucco wall, and an image of a crescent moon that seems somehow earthbound, as if waiting for a post-pandemic moment to rise again.
“He was able to capture things at such a time of day or in a particular light that everything has a consistent quality that seemed old even when it was new,” says local author and journalist Carmella Padilla, who wrote an introductory text panel for the exhibit. “He sort of captured the timelessness that everybody is in love with about Santa Fe and that sometimes we think doesn’t exist anymore.”
In some ways, Seeing the City Different is about paying attention to the details in the things we take for granted: a dilapidated structure, for instance, or an old pick-up. Each has its own story, which is recounted in its timeworn façade, rusted paint, or its silent dialogue with some other object, out of frame, whose presence can only be surmised by its shadow. It’s a story of abandonment and neglect but also of the beauty that remains, waiting to be rediscovered.
“I feel like I’ve stopped time a little bit,” says Barnett, who grew up in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and first visited Santa Fe in 1952 with his father, Isa, an illustrator. He was five years old. “I was finding the Santa Fe I remember as a kid. I was looking
Barnett is not a photographer by trade. Most of his work, up until November, was sculptural. Inspired by the German folk art he saw when he was living in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, he made weathervanes, garden sculptures, and mobiles. Since moving to New Mexico in the late 1980s, he’s continued focusing on mobile sculpture and assemblage. During the pandemic, he felt a desire to return to the studio for the first time in about three years, but he hit a wall. No creative ideas came. On a whim, he decided to return to an old love of photography, which he studied as a student at the Philadelphia College of Art in the 1960s.
Remarkably, all of the images in Seeing the City Different were shot digitally, but they have the look and feel of being shot on film. A subdued quality permeates the entire series, and one’s first impression is that they were made using a twin-lens reflex camera, like an antique Rolleiflex, the type of camera he had used in college. None of the photographs are cropped, but Barnett looked for intriguing compositions, juxtaposing shadows with architectural elements, and framing his shots from oblique angles that often add an element of abstraction.
“Everything is full-frame, just as when I was in art school in the old days,” he says. “We were really taught to take the moment to look at the subject and compose it as though you won’t be there again. So, every place I went, that was my commitment. But I’m proud of it because it said to me that I can still compose.”
Each photograph is 12 by 18 inches and printed on acid-free archival paper. A percentage of the sale of the work goes to benefit El Rancho de las Golondrinas, Santa Fe’s living history museum.
Had he started the project now instead of in November, it might look very different. The city is waking up again. Businesses are opening. The tourists are returning — not in droves, but returning, nonetheless. When he began the project he felt the absence of people acutely. It was a blessing and a curse. No one was around to tell him he couldn’t take photographs but, also, no one was around.
“Many of the pictures feel isolated,” he says. “I was feeling the need for human contact.” So he began photographing the figures in murals as a way to compensate. The mural photographs grew into a subset of the project as a whole. They include a detail of a mural on Lopez Lane, an angelic figure in a work he titled Saving Grace, and Real Cowgirls and Cowboys, a detail of artist Gilberto Guzman’s controversial mural Multi-Cultural on the exterior of the former Halpin State Archives building. The mural, a fixture in Santa Fe for nearly 40 years, is slated for demolition to make way for Vladem Contemporary, a satellite branch of the New Mexico Museum of Art, which is being constructed on the site. Guzman is suing in federal court to block the demolition.
“I love it, and it should be preserved somehow,” Barnett says. “The donor and benefactor, who’s underwriting the new art museum, would be doing a great thing for the community if he’d insist on trying to save even a portion of the mural. It talks about Santa Fe. It’s a Santa Fe piece.”
In some ways, Seeing the City Different is a mining operation. Barnett seeks out hidden gems, even if some of them are hidden in plain view. They’re the things we overlook in the hustle and bustle of our workaday lives. He’s preserving them, if not for posterity, at least for the idiosyncratic portrait they form of a city sui generis. And all of the photographs were taken within the city limits.
“I feel a little bit like a historian, an archaeologist, and an artist,” he says. “Some of these are very recognizable places. And others are really sweetly just there. It feels kind of like untouched territory. It’s magical.” ◀