In 1991 I returned to Taos after a decade away.
After moving here for a brief time in 1981, I had headed back to NYC with my husband and kids, never imagining I would ever leave the city again. I like to say when people ask, that I was dragged here kicking and screaming in the first place, with no intention to stay.
Well fate proved me wrong.
I came back to the sweet Harwood apartment my youngest daughter had been born in a decade earlier. A sublet allowed me and my friend Cindy Lee Berryhill (whom I managed at the time), to camp out for six months. Cindy was going on to California where she is from, but stayed for a time.
One day, visiting the library (in the process of moving to its new location), I took out a book that had once belonged to Mabel Dodge, inscribed as it was with her signature. Once upstairs, I opened the book, and a small photograph fell out. It was written on. Taos Airport, it read and there was a date and number, 1/1. 1990. Signed William Davis.
Well Finders Keepers! I immediately framed it. It remains a favourite piece in my small collection, and the dark image of the tiny landing strip seen from the air is eerie and otherworldly.
I thought myself very fortunate at the time, having a distinct memory of looking at Bill’s work when I was in Taos the first time around when he and his wife Audrey had a gallery next to Ron and Carol Kalom’s House of Taos pizza place on Guadalupe Plaza. The Kalom’s daughters Noelle and Naomi who have been in my life forever, were my babysitters back then.
One day just over half a century ago, Bill Davis was reading a campus magazine at UT Austin and noticed several contributors mentioned Taos, New Mexico as a place of interest. He thought little of it until years later, when in 1969, he traveled across country from California with his girlfriend at the time. Their plan was to sell the car on the East Coast and go to Europe for the summer, but the Land of Entrapment had other ideas.
Driving through Espanola, Davis saw a sign for Santa Fe and Taos. He remembered the campus magazine and turned left for Taos. He never left. The road that had brought him here was an interest in history and Latin America in particular, spurred on by the Cuban crisis that permeated 60’s America. He had gone to school in Texas and had traveled to Mexico City which is how and why he bought his first camera (a Pentax he remembers.)
The year he arrived, Ron and Carol Kalom had opened the House of Taos just a short time earlier and Bill told me when we met at the Farmhouse Cafe last week, that people like the Kaloms were drawn here along with the flower children, garden variety hippies and spiritual seekers because “America was in crises, people were looking for somewhere off the beaten path, a different lifestyle, trying to get away from the cities.” He had come from San Francisco where he says, “the Haight had been this quiet neighborhood and suddenly it was overrun by all of these flower children and people from all over looking for something different.”
“I was not a hippie,” he smiled. “Despite all outward appearances.”
“Everyone was hanging out at the House of Taos when I got here.” He told me. “It became a popular gathering spot.”
Ron Kalom let Davis take over the basement in the House of Taos to turn into a darkroom, and he continued to come and go through the restaurant’s front door for fifteen years. He met John Nichols there, “and we started a conversation that led to a collaboration on “If Mountains Die.”
“He had the words and I had the images so it sort of happened easily.” He smiled. “But all of a sudden after we did that book, I was in demand. It was quite strange.”
I reminded him about my airport shot (he forgot I’d mentioned it years ago), and he said it was made for the Couse family when they were considering developing the pasture and land around the present Foundation. That project has thankfully morphed into a far more relevant and sustainable one.
We talked about all the changes in Taos and Dennis Hopper’s name came up. It was the 50th Anniversary of Easy Rider this summer as well.
“When I came here in the spring of 1969, it was somewhere between the filming of Easy Rider and its eventual release a few months after I arrived, when I saw it for the first time at the El Cortez theater in Ranchos de Taos along with half the hippies in Taos.” He laughed.
“For those of us who had been through Haight-Ashbury, the insanity of the assassinations, the overcoming of segregation (remember, I grew up in the South), as well as the ongoing nightmare of Vietnam, Easy Rider seemed to capture the apocalyptic sense many of us felt, especially the no-nonsense ending where we saw that dreams are only a shotgun blast away from being crushed out.”
“In its own crazy way, Easy Rider was much more about reality than all the drugs and Woodstocks could ever be.” He says.
Every Anglo newcomer to Taos had to atone for the sins of Dennis Hopper. He was our burden, our cross, and we all shared in his angst as he imploded both personally and professionally. Bill wrote in an essay about Hopper shortly after his passing in 2010.
Then I remember he returned to Taos to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Easy Rider, and the town of Taos (which had railed against the dubious morality of all those unwashed vagabonds 40 years earlier) declared it to be “The Summer of Love”, and celebrated Hopper at the storied Harwood Museum. The Prodigal Son had returned.
“You know years later I read an interview with Dennis and he was asked how he got to Taos, and he said he was location scouting and wound up in Espanola at the same crossroads as I had.”
He asked the location manager about Taos and Santa Fe and the guy told him Taos was an art colony.
“Let’s not go there.” Had been Hopper’s response. But the location guy read the signs wrong and turned left instead of right.” He laughed. “The rest as they say. Is history.”
Davis finally moved his studio out of the House of Taos when he and and Audrey bought a house in 1987, but he credits the House of Taos with the decision to remain here. Davis has captured so much of Northern New Mexico since 1969. When he began taking these pictures of Taos, it was not just a different era, but also photography was a different animal. Digital did not exist. It took effort to make and print pictures.
We take these things for granted in the digital era (which Davis is part of too, these days) but you can see the difference in these historical shots chosen for this retrospective of his work which includes thirty carefully curated images spanning Davis’s five decades behind the lens in Taos. “Everything from low riders to landscapes,” says Georgia Gersh, who also recalls those halcyon days in this valley, when the rest of the world seemed so far away.
Davis will also be giving a gallery talk to offer his insight into the experience behind many of these captivating and historically important images.
While we chatted about days gone by, Georgia came in to pick up her lunch and dropped by our table to say hello, bring us all back into the now. After she returned to her gallery, we paid the bill and walked outside together into the crisp spring air. It was late May but snow had fallen the night before. Such is Taos. Some things never change!
When I returned home later that day, I got word that Ron Kalom had passed. Kalom gave much to Taos in the years he lived here. Both in the theater (TCA), where he and his wife were so active, and especially in the Jewish community where he was the closest thing to a Rabbi we had in Taos, for decades, officiating at Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and funerals.
I sent an email of condolence to Bill. He had not heard. A day later he responded to my second missive. The next day he emailed me: “ I talked with John Nichols last night and he said he had heard about Ron from Hank and Cynthia Saxe while walking in the park! Strange how news gets around in Taos. Strange, too, that just as I am putting together a show honoring my 50 years in Taos as a photographer, the person most responsible for my career’s start passes on “
On Friday afternoon, I attended a press preview of the Birth Project at the Harwood. Judy Chicago’s powerful show on the heels of Ron Kalom’s passing had a profound impact on me. Hank and Cynthia Saxe were there coincidently. As I walked through the galleries, taking in the embroidered tapestries and Chicago’s potent re-imagining of the creation myth in the Judeo Christian tradition, I realised I had birthed my youngest child in this very building the year Judy Chicago had begun her (then) controversial project. That apartment is an office now, but it still feels like home; a place I can return to, a touchstone in this changing world.
When I got back to my studio, I took the small photograph – a gelatin print – of Taos airport off my bookshelf to have a closer look. I marveled at how all roads really do lead to Taos, even though nowadays, it’s not as hard to find as it once was, nor to get to, not least perhaps, for those of us who made the wrong (or right), turn getting here!
William Davis’ show at Magpie at the Overland Ranch Complex is up this week through June.
Opening Reception: Saturday, June 15th 5-7pm
Gallery Talk: Sunday, June 23rd 2-4pm
For more about William Davis and his show and talk at Magpie, please visit the sites linked below.
All photographs by William Davis.
Featured image thanks to Magpie. Following image descriptions, thanks to William Davis.
Padre Lane Geometry
This building was located on the small street behind Guadalupe Plaza where my darkroom was located and was being seriously remodeled. I decided it was a great study and made this photograph of it. This was circa 1975 and has only been printed a couple of times.
Ron and Carol Kalom with their daughters outside the House of Taos circa 1974/75
Sahd’s Grocery, Taos, NM, 1970
This was located on the hill going up to the lone traffic light at the time located at the entrance to Taos Plaza. Within a year of taking this picture, it was leveled by the landlord Saki Karavas. . . probably to appease the town fathers.
Tree And Pond
This was located on property behind our home in El Prado which became a favorite haunt of mine, and is one of many photographs I’ve made there over the 32 years we have lived here. Never printed, this was made in the 1990’s.