Ghosting after O’Keefe

Stormy Pedernal

We pulled into camp in Ghost Ranch, near Abiquiu, NM just ahead of the storm front.  While Nick headed in for the start of his 3 day retreat, I started my 3 days of exploring the famed landscape that dominated Georgia O’Keefe’s art for decades.  Or, I would have started exploring but for the thunderheads that moved in and kept me within running distance of our rv.

I am not conversant in O’Keefe.  She remains, for me, an iconic but abstract name in the world of 20th Century art, like Frida Kahlo, Dali or Pollock.  And yet, it’s impossible to live in this state and be unaware of her images of the high desert heartland and her impact on the psyche of New Mexico. So here I am, camera in hand — or rather, on-neck — ready to see for myself.

Clouds are a photographer’s best friend.  Over the next 48 hours, the formations and patterns were pure Southwest, giving me wonderful context for the landscape.  At the time, I didn’t realize that I was taking shots of O’Keefe’s guiding spirit mountain, Pedernal, when I watched and tried to capture the moving storms, clouds, fog and clearing sky.  Pedernal Clearing

The story told later was that O’Keefe had a dream that God told her he would give her the mountain if she painted it enough; she painted some version of this mesa almost 30 times.  I’m glad the mesa is still there for the rest of us to capture in our own forms of expression.

I did a few little studies in black and white, which seemed natural given the gray, rainy skies.

Typical tourist, I took an afternoon bus tour that left public-access behind for a drive through the red hills that O’Keefe hiked daily,  where she painted the same scenes at various times of day, and on one or two occasions, painted various times of day on the same canvas.  And like all the other tourists, I took pictures of the same formations, hills and canyons O’Keefe painted.  Then, in processing my images, I decided to have a little fun.  I found online a couple of her paintings that were highlighted by the tour guide, locations which I had also photographed.  And I tried, using my processing software, to come close to the effect that she created with oils, pastels and watercolors. Here’s O’Keefe’s original Cliff Chimney, followed by my approximation, followed by my more typical processing.

Because there are so many ways to explore and understand a landscape, I went from 4 wheels to 4 feet — that is, I followed the bus tour with a horseback tour of the same limited access ranch area.  Where the bus had to stay to the road, the horses were able to meander among the hills, drop down into the arroyos, circle the outcroppings at a much more deliberate pace.  This guide/wrangler didn’t hold photos of O’Keefe paintings for our appreciation and elucidation; she told us the local origin story of a monster snake coiled around a big mesa, which ate interlopers, about mad witches after which the ranch was originally named, about the cattle rustlers who made a living and a killing there, and the bad turn of a gambler’s card that cost him the deed to the ranch.

About the Author

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I grew up and lived in the DC Metro area for most of my life. For the last 20-some years of my career, I worked for the Federal Government. Much of that time, I worked with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Forest Service. Visiting refuges and National Forests around the country, working with the folks whose jobs were to protect, restore, and manage the wild lands, forests and creatures that depend on them is where my heart resonated. I didn't know it then, but that's where my public lands advocacy must have been born. I moved from DC to southwestern NM in 2008. I continued to work until 2013, when I left the government in December. Now I spend my time volunteering for various conservation non-profits. And traveling through the west to National Parks, Refuges, National Forests and BLM lands in our little motor home. And advocating for the protection of these lands that belong to all of us. I enjoy writing, photography, reading, birding, and driving bad roads in my big-girl 2001 F150 4x4.

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