Richard Baron, Gallup, New Mexico (from the series Still Lives, New Mexico), 2013, pigment print, courtesy of the artist
Photographer Richard Baron’s collection of photographs entitled “Still Lives, New Mexico” included in the Grounded exhibition, the New Mexico Museum of Art’s year-long focus on photography, is a wonderfully interactive series of photographs that encourages the viewer to fully engage with each image. Baron’s photographs – pigment prints in black and white – are images of anonymous graves that the Santa Fe based photographer found in cemeteries throughout New Mexico. Baron visited all regions of the state, starting in San Antonio in Socorro County, where he took the first photograph in the series.
The graves bear no crosses, monuments, plaques or hidden numbers that would allow a family to find Uncle Ed, for example, buried on Row 37, plot D. What do you learn when you look at a granite or marble monument anyway? The name of the occupant: Peter T. Smith. The dates in which he inhabited the planet, say 1882 – 1948, for example. Beneath Pete’s name is a word or two, usually the following: Beloved husband and father. If the rest of the family is nearby, you might learn a little more. But you never learn if Pete had a hobby. Was he a golfer? Was he a Democrat? Was he generous? Did he have a dark side? He was born in 1882. He died in 1948. What about the years in between? We have to fill in the blanks.
In viewing Baron’s series, the viewer is compelled to fill in the blanks thus creating a narrative or biography. Each photograph in “Still Lives, New Mexico” treats the subject with dignity and respect. As a result, the viewer senses the care that went into laying the dead to rest. The graves might have been dug by the family in a cemetery near the ancestral community. At one time, the graves may have been marked with whatever the survivors had available: wooden crosses, bouquets of flowers, a rosary, or a favorite Santo.
Many of the graves are marked by rocks now, but the rocks and stones are organized in circles, squares, even piles, crude monuments perhaps, but celebratory nonetheless. The simple markings are clear evidence that the individual resting there left more than a footprint. Their lives mattered. They still do. The dead represent our history, our past. Each grave is someone’s mother or father, son or daughter, husband or wife.
Many of the graves Baron photographed appear unkempt and overgrown with weeds, but the photographer says the cemeteries are all in beautiful locales, peaceful places near pastures and mountains. Perhaps the descendants of these individuals had to move on. That doesn’t mean they abandoned their ancestors. As we pull up roots, we take our history with us, often documented in photographs that allow us to celebrate the lives that passed before ours yet enrich our lives today.
To learn more about Richard Baron’s fascinating project, the museum will host an informal gallery talk. Baron will discuss his work. The lecture will be held on Friday, July 11, at 5:30 p.m. It’s free.