A photographer digs deep into his archives for images that stir memories of a place he can’t forget
BY KEVIN MOLONEY
In late January 1998 I stood enchanted, photographing the setting sun’s glow on the modest, weather-beaten monument atop the ruin mounds of San Gabriel de Yunque-Ouinge.That year marked an important anniversary; it had been 400 years since more than a dozen of my soldier-colonist ancestors and their families took over the homes of the Tewa people who lived in this small pueblo. It crouches just across the Río Grande from Ohkay Owingeh, called San Juan de losCaballeros by the Spanish who arrived there in 1598. Throughout that anniversary year I photographed one site after another where my family disrupted the Indigenous world with war, taxation, and disease until they fused with it through intermarriage and collective struggle.
The iconic 1878 spiral staircase at the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe offered elegant access to the choir loft 22 feet above.
My family is a mix of wanderers, explorers, and refugees who all found themselves in what was long the most remote outpost in North America of any government that claimed it. With names like Márquez, Pérez de Bustillo, Robledo, and Baca, they pushed in with Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate, became Mexican citizens in 1821, and then Americans in 1848. Their children married into wandering, exploring, refugee Irish and German families. My great-great grandfathers founded San Luis, the oldest town in Colorado. To them the state line was just a bureaucratic imposition across which culture and family flowed as unimpeded as the waters of the Río Grande. When I am asked where I am from, I reply that I was born in Colorado. But really, because of my long, deep roots here, I am of New Mexico.
To be of New Mexico is to have a very long memory. Those memories come from a heart swelling with pride or sometimes a stomach knotted with grudge. Like most things in a desert, they last forever. If, as photographer Minor White once wrote, all photographs are ultimately self-portraits, my New Mexico images are memories that connect my lifetime to a cascade of others—they inhabit my bones. To be of New Mexico is to know that anything that happened in the last 200 years, even the invention of photography, is recent news.
From top left: A caretaker sweeps the nave at the Santuario de Chimayó, a revered Catholic pilgrimage site near the Santa Cruz River about 25 miles north of Santa Fe; George Chavez scrapes wax from the candleholders at the church built by his family. He died in 1989; A full moon rises over the 400-year-old plaza in Santa Fe and its distinctive and controversial Soldiers Monument obelisk; Fragments, shadow art by Kumi Yamashita, at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe.
From left: Ohkay Owingeh Puebloans watch a 1998 parade celebrating the 400th anniversary of the 1598 Spanish invasion; Tourists at the Oñate Center in Alcade, New Mexico, with a statue of the Juan de Oñate. Its foot was sawed off to protest atrocities against Indigenous people committed by the Spanish.
From left: Artist Golda Blaise Pickett works on a piece during an art throwdown at Meow Wolf, a Santa Fe center for immersive, interactive art; cinnamon rolls are loaded into a wood-fired horno oven at the historic Acoma Pueblo; acclaimed chef Martin Rios (center) puts the finishing touches on a dish in the kitchen of Restaurant Martin in Santa Fe.
To be of New Mexico is to know that architecture is inhabited by the land rather than simply built atop it. Whether it is the 1,000-year-old Taos Pueblo, Santa Fe’s cherished 1610 chapel of San Miguel, or Mexican modernist Ricardo Legorreta’s Santa Fe Art Institute, valued structures here fuse with the landscape so fundamentally that they could only be replicated soullessly elsewhere. In other cities glass towers and particle-board tract houses sit temporarily atop the ground, waiting to be scraped off by environmental or developmental disasters. To be of New Mexico means that no matter where you live, you long for a home that is cradled by the land.
To be of New Mexico is to have a religion, no matter what that might be. Among those soldier-colonists of 1598 were zealous treasure seekers, dogmatic conquerors, pilgrim refugees of European caste systems, secretive crypto-Jews fleeing the Inquisition, and a handful of Franciscan friars hoping to convert by charm or force the Indigenous people who, despite those efforts, held onto important traditions. From those friars and the self-punishing Penitentes they inspired to ashrams, Sikh enclaves, and Latino Pentecostals, mystical religions abound here. Many of us also find belief and meaning outside established religion, as I have in the vocation of journalism or the priesthood of teaching.
An Apache woman walks the ruins at Gran Quivira, part of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument in central New Mexico. By 1678, the once-thriving Native American community was abandoned due to Spanish hostility, epidemics, and Apache raids.
My father, who had the heart and imagination of a mystic, carried that fervor to his own work as a photojournalist and a teacher. His love of land, image, and ritual attracted me irresistibly while I traveled trains, then the Santa Fe Railroad and Route 66, brought rare goods, new ideas, and eventually artists and writers seeking distant inspiration. They changed Taos, Abiquiu, and Santa Fe in their wake. To be of New Mexico is to know that more collisions will come, and that Santa Fe will again and again become a “city different.”
To be of New Mexico is to savor each meal as if it is your last. The high desert surrenders little surplus. Until the railroads changed the economics of supply, privation or starvation were only a dry or freezing season away. Here food is celebration, food is art, food is love. Traditional local dishes abound in the terroir of difficulty: earthy, complex, sharp, piquant, and bitter. My Nana’s Depression-era recipe for posole—our Christmas Eve staple still—embodies all of this through only six ingredients: dry hominy and red chiles from Fernandez Chile Company in Alamosa, garlic, oregano, salt, and a lamb or mutton shank simmered atop a stove all day. When local dishes are sweet—natillas, atoles, buñuelos—that sweetness is subtle, as if it is hard-won, and travels in the company of bitterness from cinnamon or anise. To be of New Mexico is to know that your food tells a fraught, complex story.
And yet anyone who considers themselves of a place would argue all these same things. The 1863 bricks of my current home in Indiana were kilned on site from local clay and its foundation stones were cut from the bedrock strata below. The river that winds past is a stream of long history, change, and conflict. People here are as passionate in their beliefs as my New Mexican family is.
Why, then, is New Mexico different? If you are reading this in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Abiquiu, Las Cruces, or even across that random and imperceptible bureaucratic line in San Luis, you know that it looks, breathes, and feels different. The air and sun feel as unique as a cool summer evening and as memorable as the incense of a piñon fire. It sneaks up on you like the warm, delicately acrid palate glow of good red chile.
From left: An Acoma man at the Mission of San Estevan del Rey on the Acoma Pueblo, which sits atop a 400-foot-tall New Mexico mesa. The pueblo was leveled by Spanish troops in 1598.; Young Native Americans stretch before sprinting up a desert hill near the Navajo Nation town of Shiprock, New Mexico.
As I write this, I search for the word that describes how New Mexicans, whether transplants or natives, feel about this place. In my photographs I see it in the sharp light of the Jornada del Muerto, the warm colors on the walls of Laguna Pueblo, the open skies above the ruins at Salinas, the dark and miraculous nave at Chimayó, and the ghosts of hundreds of generations who called this home. Is it complexity? Contradiction? Continuity? Many other places can argue the same.
I keep returning to a description of this place coined in 1906 by journalist Lilian Whiting. After a bit of nostalgic, familial, heart-filling consideration, I argue it all comes down to this: To be of New Mexico is to be enchanted.
From left: Casilda Salazar Moloney, “Nana,” on Christmas Day 1959 (photo by Paul F. Moloney); Kevin Moloney, longtime photojournalist for The New York Times, now teaches media design and development at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana (photo by Sami Hensley).