During a recent exhibitions design class taught by professor Devorah Romanek, curator of exhibits at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at The University of New Mexico, the works of two photographers who chronicled life in New Mexico captured the interest of two graduate students. The class projects, online exhibitions by Katie Conley and Paloma Lopez, are now available on the Maxwell website. They highlight the work of American photographers John Collier Jr. and Charles Fletcher Lummis.
The Maxwell has been presenting online exhibitions and other content since the beginning of the pandemic shutdown in 2020.
Lummis was a writer, editor, journalist, publisher, archaeologist, ethnographer, librarian, museum founder, conservationist, advocate for Native American rights, promoter of the American Southwest, and, of greatest interest here, a photographer, Romanek explained, noting, “Lummis was part of a group of people in the late 19th and early 20th century, who helped bring attention ̶ for better or for worse ̶ to the American Southwest to the rest of America, helped put it on the map, so to speak, as a place of interest, and as a tourist destination.”
Lummis’s photos are eye-catching not only for their scenes of New Mexico but also because of his use of cyanotypes, a photographic process that renders pictures in shades of blue.
“I was interested in Lummis because of my interest in photography and photo history and his use of cyanotype processes,” said student Katie Conley, who received her BFA in Photography and minor in Museum Studies and Honors Interdisciplinary Liberal Arts in 2020. “I think his photos offer such a unique perspective on the landscapes and people of the American southwest. You can tell through his images that his perspective comes from experience and knowledge of so many disciplines like archaeology, anthropology, photography, history, and journalism.”
Cyanotypes, with their telling blue tint, are fairly unstable and fade easily over time, but were easy and cheap to make. Cyanotypes were also possible to process in the dim light of adobe and were tolerant of impurities in New Mexico well water, Romanek said.
Conley’s video presentation tells the story of Lummis’s 3,507-mile, 145-day trek from Cincinnati to Los Angeles, where he arrived, dressed for the part as an “eccentric frontiersman.” Along the way, he took more than 19,000 images in places that included Acoma, Isleta, Taos, Laguna, and San Ildefonso pueblos and was permitted by the Penitentes to take photos of their private ceremonies.
Get the Charles Fletcher Lummis: Photos of the American Southwest exhibition program here.
The Maxwell holds a small but significant collection of Lummis pictures, including an album that is “a revealing window into a dense history, a biography of a sort of Charles Lummis himself and a unique history of the American Southwest,” Romanek said. The UNM Center for Southwest Research also holds material of his, photographs and papers.
Lopez tackled the work of mid-20th century photographer and visual anthropologist John Collier Jr. in her presentation.
Collier is so important in the realm of mid-20th century American photography and anthropology, establishing the field of Visual Anthropology,” Romanek said, adding that he was also fascinating for his life story and the challenges he overcame, having suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was struck by a car at the age of 8, and subsequently struggling with formal education.
Collier established the field of Visual Anthropology, taking some of the most wonderful and important America photographs of the mid-20th century, she continued. He was also an important teacher, teaching a generation of photographers and visual anthropologists at San Francisco State University and the San Francisco Art Institute – a gig he got when his mentor, Dorothea Lange, decided not to teach anymore and just reeled him in as her replacement there. Lange is probably best known for her iconic picture of migrant farmworker Florence Owens Thompson and her children.
Collier’s work is in black and white, many of his photos were taken at Taos Pueblo, the nearby town of Taos, the Navajo Nation, and other locations across New Mexico, nationwide, and in South America. He also worked for the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information. In Ecuador, Collier and his wife Mary took photos for Standard Oil and captured the lives of oil workers and local people.
“I’ve actually come across John Collier Jr.’s work a few times throughout my academic career,” Lopez said. “I first learned about him as an undergraduate studying cultural anthropology at Boston University many years ago, and then again more recently here at UNM in photography class. So when Professor Romanek mentioned that the Maxwell has this impressive collection of his photographs, I jumped at the opportunity to learn a little more about him and do my part to help showcase his incredible work.”
In 2003, Mary E.T. Collier, widow of John Collier Jr., and their son donated to the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology the John Collier Jr. Archive. Consisting of approximately 12,000 print photographs, 20,000 negatives, dozens of hours of film, and the papers of John and Mary, it is one of the largest and most important part of the Maxwell’s Photo Archive, Romanek noted.
Students Conley and Lopez are looking to their futures after their exhibitions.
“While I did enjoy developing and designing the Collier exhibit with Professor Romanek, my passion is for education. After I graduate, I hope to find a position in the education department of an art museum,” Lopez remarked.
“I am currently interested in two fields of museum work, one being exhibit design, and the other being archive work. I am in the process currently of exploring both of these areas,” Conley said. She is working part-time at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology in Exhibit Graphics and part-time at the Center for Southwest Research on various projects in their archives, as well as taking coursework outside of UNM's programming towards a Digital Archive Specialist certification through the Society of American Archivists. “I really love both areas of museum work and hope to find an interdisciplinary career where I can wear both of these hats. After getting my master’s my ultimate goal is to work in an archive or doing exhibit design at a national institution serving the American public like the Smithsonian or Library of Congress.”