Day 7: Last day of filming; the Black Place

Since I began researching locations to film in New Mexico for my Georgia O’Keeffe video project, I’ve been both excited and a little nervous about the Black Place. Georgia O’Keeffe’s series of paintings on this subject (e.g. Black Place II and Grey Hills) are among my favorite works of hers. While composing O’Keeffe-inspired music (see this post for info), I often felt most drawn to relate my music to the Black Place paintings. I’m fascinated by the sense of infinite movement in her vision of these enigmatic hills.

The Black Place
The Black Place

I was nervous about filming because the location is relatively remote and seemed like it would be difficult to find. Add to that the fact that it’s supposedly “oven-like” in the summer (the grey-black dirt absorbs and multiplies the sun’s heat), and we were experiencing an uncharacteristic heat wave in the southwest.

But thanks to this website (and thanks to Barbara Buhler Lynes, curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, for directing me to that website), we were able to navigate through surprisingly verdant mountains, valleys and ranches to the exact place where O’Keeffe painted (about a 1 1/2 hour drive from Abiquiu). We made an effort to arrive late in the afternoon, when the day’s heat was on the wane.

Filming at the Black Place
O'Keeffe said the Black Place was like "a mile of elephants".

It turns out that the Black Place is located directly on a four-lane highway (which it definitely was not when O’Keeffe painted it in the ’30s and ’40s!). This was both convenient and problematic: convenient because we didn’t need to hike the tripod and camera very far from the car, but problematic because it was difficult to get off of the road at the best spots for filming (not to mention the power lines and fences – and small oil pumps! – that stood in between my camera and the hills).

Despite small setbacks, I think this may turn out to be the best footage of this trip – and, poetically enough, the last footage. The “real” Black Place was fascinating and, more than any other location we had visited, it felt for me like walking into an O’Keeffe painting. While looking through the viewfinder of the camera at those smooth, undulating mounds of painted-looking grey-pink-white-black, I felt like I was seeing some of what she had seen.

O’Keeffe said that she traveled around the world and had never found a place that was better than where she lived. This project has taken me to those places that she considered great, and it has given me a new depth of understanding of her experience and where her visionary artwork came from. After a week of travel and filming, the footage is in the can – five hours in total (eek) – and now, the most time-consuming part of the project lies ahead: editing!

Day 5 & 6: Return to the White Place; Pedernal with storm clouds; a break in Santa Fe; more at Ghost Ranch

Cacti at the White Place
Cacti abound at the White Place

I went out early to catch morning light at the White Place (this was our second visit – see this post), and spent a good couple of hours getting footage there. I heard that a major Hollywood flick (“Cowboys and Aliens”) will be filming on location at the White Place very soon, so thankfully we were there just in time to get it to ourselves! (There was, incidentally, a lower-key crew from Britain filming a documentary on dinosaurs at Ghost Ranch during the whole time we were there.)

O’Keeffe once said that when looking at her subjects, they sometimes seem to paint themselves – until you try. That’s how I feel about the White Place. It’s so multi-faceted and filled with different possibilities for angles, lighting, framing, etc, that it felt nearly impossible to get a shot that sufficiently captured what I could see with my eyes.

Pedernal with storm clouds
Pedernal with storm clouds

Later there was a lightning storm (a welcome change from the constant dry heat and sun), and I grabbed the opportunity to take some road-side footage of Pedernal with storm clouds hovering above. Afterwards, we took a break from filming for a leisurely afternoon and evening in Santa Fe (an hour drive away from Abiquiu).

The next day (Day 6), still using the Abiquiu Inn as our home base, we rested and worked on planning our route back to the Denver airport. We also returned to Ghost Ranch to capture just a bit more footage of the landscape from the road.

Day 4: Tour of O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu home; 1977 documentary

Today I took a guided tour of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu home and studio where she lived from 1949 until 1984 (except for the summer months, during which she lived at Ghost Ranch). The tour had information about the history of the place, the significance of the site in her paintings, and the small realities of her life and relationship to her space and objects, which I won’t attempt to relate here in full detail. The house has been preserved virtually exactly as she left it (“Beware of Dog” signs and all!), and I was struck by O’Keeffe’s distinctive decorative sensibility – spare, earthy, elegant. Every nook and cranny is perfectly composed, with collections of rocks and sculpture pieces on empty surfaces. The style of the furnishings is classic mid-century modernist, tinged with a Japanese aesthetic. It’s relaxing, beautiful, although not exactly “cozy”. Clearly a conducive place for making art and leading a quiet, contemplative lifestyle.

Later in the day I watched the 1977 documentary “Georgia O’Keeffe” by Perry Miller Adato, which features exclusive interviews with the artist herself when she was in her 80s. The film is out of print on VHS and has never been released on DVD, so I was excited to see that it was available for viewing at the Piedra Lumbre Education and Visitor Center at Ghost Ranch. It’s a fascinating and well-made portrait, offering genuine insight into O’Keeffe’s life and identity as an artist.

Day 3: Ghost Ranch and vicinity; the White Place

Chimney Rock
Chimney Rock at Ghost Ranch

We started the day very early in an effort to capture the morning light, and to get out before the day’s incredible (uncharacteristic) heat set in. We walked a short way into the Chimney Rock hiking trail to shoot a stunning 360 degree vista. We spent the rest of the morning exploring other views in the area, and the part of Ghost Ranch known as the Piedra Lumbre basin, which includes the several acres of land that O’Keeffe actually owned. Unfortunately, we discovered that the hiking trails there are currently closed to visitors – but we were able to enjoy the landscape from the side of the road, and caught a distant glimpse of O’Keeffe’s home and studio (owned and maintained by the museum, but closed to the public), where she painted views of Pedernal and the badlands that surrounded her.

After an afternoon of filming and walking, we left Ghost Ranch to check in at the Abiquiu Inn, where we will spend the next few days. The inn is a short drive away from Ghost Ranch and close to the town of Abiquiu, where O’Keeffe kept a home for the non-summer months.

The White Place
The White Place

Following our arrival at the inn, we promptly drove to the nearby “White Place”, an area which was the subject of several O’Keeffe paintings. Her paintings focus on isolated detail views, which highlight the shapes and negative space in the column-like rock formations (see “From the White Place”). I didn’t know quite what the White Place would be like in person.

It was breathtaking. Cliffs, columns and mushrooms of soft white rock roll off into the distance, giving the appearance of an ancient Roman palace from Mars. I took time walking, filming, and admiring this place (which is host to plenty of insect life, including hundreds of gnats which seemed determined to land on my face and neck at the very moments I was attempting to execute precise camera maneuvers…).

The accessibility of the White Place was a relief: leaving the car in a parking area, I was free to hike into the site and station the camera up close without the limitations of power lines, fences, buildings or private roads in the way, as has been the case with every other location I’ve filmed. Although the light was beautiful, the angle of the late-day sun cast shadows on much of the landscape, so I decided to return on another day.

Day 2: “Abstraction” at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum; arrival at Ghost Ranch

Jemez mountains in Alcalde
Jemez mountains in Alcalde a la "Black Mesa Landscape"

We awoke at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos and headed out towards Santa Fe. On the way, I stopped to shoot some film of the Rio Grande river and surrounding hills. We also pulled over by Alcalde, the town where Georgia O’Keeffe had stayed on a ranch in her early visits to New Mexico and painted views of the Jemez mountains. I snapped a photo that shows approximately the same view as her painting “Black Mesa Landscape / Out Back of Marie’s II”.

We eventually made our way to Santa Fe and went straight to the “Abstraction” exhibit at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum (co-organized with the Whitney Museum in New York and the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC), which was wonderful. The textual curation was limited to some interesting quotations from O’Keeffe herself, which shed some light on her attitude towards the art on view. The works spanned the length of her career, from her early minimalist watercolors (see “Black Lines”) to late bronze cast works (see “Abstraction”). The exhibit encompassed “purely” abstract pieces, such as “Music – Pink and Blue II”, as well as works that blend the line between abstract and representational, like “Pelvis Series, Red with Yellow”, the least literal in her group of paintings in which magnified animal bones frame views of the sky. And of course, the exhibit also featured some of O’Keeffe’s abstracted landscapes.

I found the series of jack-in-the-pulpit paintings particularly beautiful and interesting, displaying clearly how O’Keeffe would start with a quasi-realistic representation of an isolated subject (see Jack-in-Pulpit – No. 2), and transform it into increasingly abstracted images (see Jack-in-Pulpit – No. 5) , like fantasias on the shapes and colors that she saw in the original subject.

There is a certain feature of these works that is essentially imperceptible when viewing reproductions in a book or poster. Generally speaking, the largest of O’Keeffe’s paintings tend to show her most simplified images (see “Sky With Flat White Cloud”) , while the smaller paintings often feature much more delicate and detailed subjects (see “The Black Iris”) . It seems to me that the bolder the image, the larger it needs to be in order to be really seen – it was O’Keeffe’s way of throwing the viewer into her vision. (In a famous quote about her flower paintings, O’Keeffe explains her reasoning: if she made flowers big, even the busy New Yorkers would have to stop and look at them.)

After taking in “Abstraction”, I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center across the street for an appointment with Barbara Buhler Lynes, who was generous enough to take the time to speak with me. Ms. Lynes is the museum’s curator, co-curator of the “Abstraction” exhibit, director of the Research Center, and the author of “Georgia O’Keeffe and New Mexico: A Sense of Place”, among other books, which documents views and locations of O’Keeffe’s paintings and explores the compositional inventions (abstractions) in her so-called representational paintings. Ms. Lynes pointed me towards some leads for research on O’Keeffe and music, which I’ll be discussing in a future blog entry dedicated to the topic.

Ghost Ranch
Ghost Ranch

We left Santa Fe and continued toward Ghost Ranch, the location of O’Keeffe’s beloved summer home and studio, formerly a dude ranch and now a retreat and education center. As we approached Ghost Ranch, we suddenly came upon epic vistas of red-orange cliffs and rolling tree-dotted hills, always with Cerro Pedernal (which O’Keeffe called her “private mountain”) looming in the distance. We were treated to a spectacular view of the sunset reflected on the cliffs outside our lodgings at Ghost Ranch. All of this, of course, was captured on film.

Day 1: Denver to Taos; the road to the D.H. Lawrence Ranch; San Francisco de Asis Church

Looking out of window on my flight into Denver
Out of window on the flight into Denver

After a long day of travel, we finally got into to Denver late last night. We spent the better part of the day driving to Taos, seeing some impressive snow-capped peaks along the way. This evening we are staying at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, which housed many great artists and writers in the past. Georgia O’Keeffe stayed there in the summer of 1929 on an early formative trip to New Mexico.

On the drive to Taos, we passed through San Cristobal and we spotted a roadside sign for the D.H. Lawrence Ranch, where Lawrence lived and wrote for two years. O’Keeffe painted a well-known depiction of a tree located on the ranch (“The Lawrence Tree”).

The road to the D.H. Lawrence Ranch
The road to the D.H. Lawrence Ranch

We started to venture down the dirt road heading toward the ranch, but decided not to make the full trip due to limitations of time. There was a mountain vista on that road, however, which begged to become the first real film shoot of this trip. Although I wasn’t quite yet in O’Keeffe’s home territory, it felt right, and I would bet that she liked that place.

After this spontaneous side-trip, we continued through Taos and further south into Ranchos de Taos to film the famous San Francisco de Asis church (aka St. Francis church). This structure has been well loved by American artists and photographers, including Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, and of course, Georgia O’Keeffe. I was surprised to find the church smack dab in the middle of a parking lot, making it difficult to get a good wide-shot, but the golden sunset light was exactly what I had been hoping to catch. It was energizing to finally see and film this compelling building.

Tomorrow it’s off to Santa Fe to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, and tomorrow evening… Ghost Ranch!

Additional photos:

San Francisco de Asis church in Ranchos de Taos
San Francisco de Asis church in Ranchos de Taos
Rocky Mountains on the drive from Denver to Taos
Rocky Mountains on the drive from Denver to Taos
Filming on the road to the D.H. Lawrence Ranch
Filming on the road to the D.H. Lawrence Ranch