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Picturing Santa Fe

Can a renowned photo workshop improve your travel snaps? Our correspondent reports from class.


SANTA FE, N.M. — At the beginning of a workshop on travel photography I attended early this summer, I asked a fellow student why he'd come all the way to New Mexico to study the art of making pictures. "I'm not a beach person," he said. "My idea of a vacation is to work hard at something I love."

We were at the Sunday night welcome dinner for the Santa Fe Photography Workshops, which offers a series of about 40 weeklong classes every summer on topics ranging from fashion portraits to digital imaging. The workshops' campus is a Catholic retreat center in the sun-blasted foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a 10-minute drive southeast of Santa Fe's historic plaza. It is also not so far from the lonely village off U.S. 285 where Ansel Adams shot the haunting photograph, "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941." Just north of that, Georgia O'Keeffe found the landscape that inspired some of her most arresting paintings in the barren red hills around Ghost Ranch.

"Half your work is done for you in New Mexico," O'Keeffe once said. So it's hardly puzzling that even before she came to the high desert valley of the Rio Grande in 1929, Santa Fe had grown from a rough and tumble territorial capital where judges were gunned down in the street to a sophisticated city with a Museum of Fine Arts and its own little Bohemia. The latter was established among the shady adobes that line winding Canyon Road by a group of artists called Los Cinco Pintores (the five painters). Soon after that, modernist painters such as O'Keeffe and photographers such as Adams, Paul Strand, Beaumont Newhall and Eliot Porter started settling in, many drawn west from Greenwich Village by the wealthy art patron, Mabel Dodge Luhan, who had a house in Taos, 70 miles northeast.

Today Santa Fe and art are virtually synonymous, of course--especially in the high summer season. The city, which welcomes about 1.4 million visitors a year, has a renowned opera that got a dramatic, new roofed theater this year, a busy concert and theatrical calendar, seven museums (including the world-class Museum of International Folk Art) and 250 galleries. About a hundred of these are on old Canyon Road--now Madison Avenue West--where the Santa Fe decorative style was born. Art looks particularly fetching against adobe walls, and every Friday night brings at least half a dozen art openings. Not bad for a desert town of 67,000, founded by the Spanish in 1607 at the northern terminus of the Camino Real.

Reid Callanan, who started the Santa Fe Workshops in 1989, after serving as a program director for the prestigious Maine Photography Workshops in Rockport, says that the city's confluence of Spanish, Native American and Anglo cultures, the landscape, art and predominantly adobe architecture are what attracted him to Santa Fe. That, and the ineffable light. "Never is the light more pure and overweening than there," wrote D.H. Lawrence, "arching with a royalty almost cruel over the hallow, uptilted world."

Perhaps more important to photographers, in the summertime it also is extraordinarily varied and long-lived--starting flat before dawn at 6, glaring by noon, turning subtle and cool as the sun descends into the Jemez Mountains to the west, and finally disappearing at 8 or 8:30 p.m. in a reliably stunning glow, with clouds suitable for a saint's apotheosis. In short, a photographer's dream--at least 12 hours of F-stop and shutter speed adjustments a day.

Frankly, I'm an unlikely candidate for photography workshops: a right-brain person as a writer, not a visually oriented left-brain type, and in the past a random picture-taker as opposed to a careful image-maker. But after the welcome dinner at the Quail Run Club about a 10-minute drive south of the workshops' campus, we were shown an inspiring slide show about the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson called "The Decisive Moment" in which the French photographer says that for photography, "You don't need a brain. All you need is sensitivity, a finger and two legs." Which I have, I think. At the time I also had a very fancy borrowed Canon EOS A2E camera and set of lenses I barely knew how to use.

Photography workshops are offered by individual photographers and organizations all over the country, from Disney World in Florida to the Yosemite Field Institute, which is why I did a good deal of shopping around before choosing one. What attracted me to Santa Fe was the workshops' reasonable price ($650 tuition for travel photography); large staff and small class size (there were nine students in mine, with one instructor and a teaching assistant); 30% student return rate; and faculty, which includes the celebrated National Geographic photographer, Sam Abell. But his classes fill up a year in advance and require portfolio review for admission.

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