Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, is a magnificent yet challenging place to photograph. It’s big and beautiful. But much of it had already been impressed upon my mind by the painter Georgia O’Keeffe. In the beginning, walking along the cliffs, I’d feel a lingering sense that I had seen this somewhere before. Then I’d realize that O’Keeffe had painted here. It wasn’t recognition so much as it was remembrance. When I began making photographs at Ghost Ranch, I sometimes hesitated. I couldn’t see the intended image by itself—only as something influenced by O’Keeffe.
I didn’t want to make photographs that resembled her paintings; I wanted to photograph the spirit of the place that had moved her. I wanted to reveal in my photographs the essence of a particular moment that held me, as I thought it might have held her.
I had to spend time there. I had to walk it. I had to wander around and lose myself. I had to fall in love with this place.
Eventually, after hiking the many miles of Ghost Ranch, I began see and feel the space, depth, and light that might have inspired O’Keeffe. I began to feel more at ease at the ranch, more as if I belonged there as an artist, not just as a visitor or one of O’Keeffe’s many admirers. The place revealed itself to me when I slowed down, paid attention, and quieted my mind.
When O’Keeffe first moved there, in the late 1930s, she, too, was learning how to see the West. She thought a great deal about space and how to fill it. In this she may have been especially influenced by one of her earlier teachers, Arthur Wesley Dow, who specialized in Asian art. According to one biographer Charles C. Eldredge, she noted that Dow had admonished his students to think about “how to fill a space beautifully.”
This idea helped me as well. Many students work with rules of composition that attempt to define space in a formalized way. But composition is not about a rigid set of rules. Photographer Edward Weston said about composition that “it’s the strongest way of seeing.” Art is often taught as if there are rules behind it. I suspect there is a degree to which one can teach art. But there’s also a point at which the artist must take a leap from form to inspiration. For example, one of the many compositional rules is that you shouldn’t place an object in the center of a frame. But I sometimes like to place the subject in the center of the frame. It tells the viewer that the photographer believes the subject has significance.
“I am unwilling to allow any rule to define how I make photographs. I know it looks right when all the spaces and relationships and tones are in balance and a complete whole coalesces. That’s where the mystery can happen, too. Sometimes, when it all comes together, there’s a deeper response that goes beyond what I do and beyond the subject to strike profoundly at the soul. Exciting, mystical, and wonderful photographs are made when this conjunction happens.”
Intuition is more important for me than formula. If I labor to compose a photograph on the basis of preconceived ideas—to force objects to find a place within the rectangle of my camera’s frame—I seldom succeed. The best pictures I make are the ones for which I have somehow landed on the precise place where the magic happens.
An excerpt from Four & Twenty Photographs: Stories from Behind the Lens
Photographs by Craig Varjabedian Published by the University of New Mexico Press
In his quest for those convergences of light and mood that define a great image, fine-art photographer Craig Varjabedian has spent decades exploring the secret corners of New Mexico. The surprising moment, for instance, when this mare’s eyes met the camera just as her cowboy, Richard, was looking down, created this shot’s lasting impact. Yet tales of how pictures are captured rarely reach their audience—inspiring Varjabedian and fellow Santa Fean Robin Jones to write Four and Twenty Photos: Stories from Behind the Lens. The book reveals how an artist’s work, and his life, continually intertwine.