How two eminent, long-married photographers, archivists, and gallerists changed the artistic landscape of Santa Fe by putting photography at its heart
BY STUART A. ASHMAN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JANET RUSSEK AND DAVID SCHEINBAUM
Perhaps it is the quality of light and the monumental landscapes. Or the diversity of ancient cultures and traditions. Whatever the lure, New Mexico, particularly Santa Fe and Taos, has attracted artists and photographers for millennia.
Native Americans had been making art here for centuries before Europeans arrived. But it was more recently that New Mexico earned its estimable reputation in the art world. In the late 1920s, a group of painters known as “Los Cinco Pintores” made Santa Fe their headquarters, building studios and houses on Camino del Monte Sol. A broken wagon wheel led Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips to remain in Taos to paint and found the Taos Society of Artists. Mabel Dodge Luhan, after settling in Taos, invited writers and artists, including the iconic Georgia O’Keeffe.
Photographers were not far behind. New Mexico attracted Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, Minor White, Willard Van Dyke, Laura Gilpin, Paul Caponigro, Walter Chappell, and William Clift among others. Some visited regularly; others settled permanently.
Janet Russek and David Scheinbaum are two photographers who came from New York City in the late 1970s and, like many artists before them, made New Mexico their home. The dynamic husband-and-wife duo are among the art world’s most important photographers. Though the subjects of their images are sometimes widely different—from pregnancy to Hip Hop—they share parallel masteries of photographic techniques, infinitely careful skills of observation, and intellectual curiosity that make their images beautiful and fascinating.
Parallel, too, are their deep reverence for the great photography of the past and a sense of responsibility about keeping it in front of the public. The impact that they have made as educators and coaches has impacted countless nascent photographers in New Mexico and together they have made an important place for photography in Santa Fe.
Brooklyn born and bred, the couple has shared roots in Jewish families and neighborhoods. “Our families focused on the arts and education,” Russek says, whose family history includes artists and an appreciation for art. “The Brooklyn Museum was a part of our lives from childhood on.”
David Scheinbaum, Cross of the Martyrs, Santa Fe (1979). Top: Janet Russek, Bridge Mural, Santa Fe (1983).
From left: David Scheinbaum, El Rancho de las Golondrinas, Santa Fe (1980) Janet Russek, Gilbert and Ruff (1984).
Clockwise from left: Three images from Janet Russek’s series, The Wheelbarrow, photographed over four seasons and several years; Isabella and the Wheelbarrow (2020); Dry Pine Needles (2018) and Floating Pine Cones (2019).
Janet Russek, Pregnancy III (2006).
Janet Russek, People in Paintings (2014).
Both were educated in New York public schools and graduated from the City University of New York colleges. Russek trained as an archivist and conservator at the Brooklyn Museum. Scheinbaum studied and practiced his photography and, at a very young age, taught photography at Pace University and LaGuardia Community College in New York. They met through mutual friends in Brooklyn in 1978 and married in 1982.
Scheinbaum’s interest in photography led him to New Mexico in the late 1970s. While studying the history of photography, he learned that one of his heroes, Beaumont Newhall, lived in Santa Fe. Widely recognized as “The Father of the History of Photography,” Newhall served as the first curator of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and was a persuasive advocate for the recognition of photography as a legitimate art form.
Scheinbaum’s dream was to work with Newhall, so he made a cold-call. Much to his surprise, Beaumont agreed, and there began a relationship that lasted more than 15 years and changed Scheinbaum’s and Russek’s careers and lives.
“I had visited Santa Fe during a cross-country trip in the early 70s and was quite enchanted with it,” Russek says. “When David decided to move, I was the only friend who supported the plan and even helped him pack.”
Scheinbaum’s first project for Beaumont: Organize his mentor’s library. Drawing on his knowledge and family history in the book business, Scheinbaum successfully devised a system of cataloging and reorganizing Newhall’s collection of precious books. Next, Scheinbaum became the exclusive printer for Newhall’s images, moving the process away from a New York laboratory to Santa Fe. Scheinbaum now serves as the executor of the Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Estate.
Russek joined Scheinbaum in Santa Fe in 1980. “We both were ready for new adventures and Santa Fe was—and still is—a place where you are accepted as artists and you can have dreams that come through with hard work,” she says.
Through the artists’ network in town, Russek was recruited to serve as an assistant to the eminent photographer Eliot Porter. She became his archivist, assistant, collaborator, and good friend. She began by helping Porter mount his color photographs for a 1979 Intimate Landscapes solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She spent the next three years cataloging some 7,000 of Porter’s photographs, becoming so familiar with the scope of his oeuvre that she inspired several new publications of his work.
Porter’s photographic archive was committed to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. In order to continue his legacy in his hometown, Russek suggested to Porter that he also leave a representative body of his life’s work to the permanent collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe. It represented a significant gift to the State of New Mexico, and Russek now serves as the representative of the Eliot Porter Estate.
From left: Tripura Bhairavi Ghat (2017); David Scheinbaum made several long-anticipated pilgrimages to Varanasi, India, which resulted in Varanasi: City Immersed in Prayer, his most recent book. A Family of Devotees Wait for Sunrise on the Banks of the Ganges (2019); Chhat Puja, Waiting for Sunrise (2019).
The seemingly tireless couple turned to another project intended to feature the photographers they most admired. In 1980 they created Scheinbaum & Russek Ltd., a gallery in a modest adobe house in what was then the Westside barrio. The inaugural show featured the work of Willard Van Dyke. Subsequent exhibitions focused on Edward Weston, Diane Arbus, Manuel Carrillo, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Frank, Gustave Baumann, and many others.
After that success, they moved in 1987 to Guadalupe Street in the area now known as the Railyard and remained there until 1994, after showcasing more than 300 photographers. Then they built a gallery, archive, and library next to their home and continue to represent the highest level of photography internationally.
Scheinbaum also served as a professor of photography at the College of Santa Fe for 33 years, and was awarded the honorific of professor emeritus. Later at the Marion Center for Photographic Arts, he served as director and subsequently distinguished himself as director and chair of Photographic Studies at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design.
Meanwhile, Scheinbaum and Russek continued to develop significant bodies of their own photographic works and collaborated on several projects and books. Among their collaborations is Images in the Heavens, Patterns on the Earth: The I Ching, Museum of New Mexico Press (2004), a handsome volume of their photographs that enhances the written words in this ancient Chinese classic. “The I Ching is one of our most important projects together as we use the I Ching and its counseling in our lives,” says Russek. “In many ways it is autobiographical.”
Another joint work is Ghost Ranch: Land of Light, Balcony Press (1997), which required the couple to hike for years through hundreds of acres to photograph the landscape and environment that so deeply inspired Georgia O’Keeffe. Later they spent a decade making photographs in New York’s Lower East Side, culminating in the 2017 Radius Books publication Remnants: Photographs of the Lower East Side. “Remnants brought us back to our roots in New York and the history of immigration and Jewish culture in both our families,” Russek says.
David Scheinbaum, Two Sadhus at Waterside, Kedar Ghat (2016).
From left: Gza and Rza, Wu Tang Clan (2007); From holy India to Hip Hop with David Scheinbaum: Questlove, The Roots, Sunshine Theater, Albuquerque (2003).
From left: Janet Russek, Hat and Coat Hanging (2009); Dolls, Emma (2008); Memories, Typewriter (2009).
Janet Russek, Pregnancy I (2005).
From left: David Scheinbaum, Shiprock, NM (1999); Janet Russek, Orchard and Pedernal, Ghost Ranch, NM (1993).
Radius Books also published a monograph of Russek‘s long-term project, The Tenuous Stem, focusing on new life emanating from a seed, bud, or a woman’s pregnant belly.
Hip Hop: Portraits of an Urban Hymn, Damiani (2013), is Scheinbaum’s exploration of the beauty and dynamism of the Hip Hop world. It includes photos that were in the first exhibition of Hip Hop imagery at National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, in 2008. His most recent effort, Varanasi: City Immersed in Prayer, George F. Thompson Publishing (2022), beautifully documents the people and ceremonies in this holy city in India.
Having found a vibrant arts culture in Santa Fe when they arrived from the East, Scheinbaum and Russek helped put photography at its heart. They participated in the Santa Fe Center of Photography, a gathering place and modest exhibition space for New Mexico’s photographers, beginning in the late 1970s. They are also founding members of the New Mexico Council of Photography and Russek is one of the founders of the Santa Fe Children’s Museum.
Russek and Scheinbaum credit their mentors, Eliot Porter and Beaumont Newhall, with teaching them the importance of passing on one’s knowledge to future generations of young photographers, because they were fortunate enough to work with these two giants of photography. Both Russek and Scheinbaum take this responsibility seriously and it serves as the guiding light of their work. Their gallery and personal library of photographic books are testimony to their commitment to this medium and to the artists who work in it.