Photo philosopher

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Photographer Margo Wagner gained national recognition for a series of angel photos she took in Gallup. Now she’s focusing her lens on Valencia County.

Born in New York, Wagner moved to Gallup in 1978 after graduating college. She had landed a job as a court reporter and started her own business, but she always harbored a desire to be a photographer.

Eventually, she started taking photography classes at the Gallup branch of the University of New Mexico.

In 1999, the television news show “20/20″ spotlighted Gallup. Its mayor at the time called it “Drunk City,” Wagner said.

“It really depressed the locals, and many felt embarrassed,” she said.

Inspired by her UNM photography professor, Milan Sklenar, who gave his students artistic freedom, she came up with an idea to help shine a better light on the infamous town.

She recognized the problem with alcohol in the area, but she also knew many good people in Gallup. She hired a model to pose as a fairy godmother figure in photos she would shoot around the town.

“I never called her an angel, but the whole town started calling her an angel,” said Wagner.

By coincidence, she already possessed the perfect dress for the fairy, She had bought it at Goodwill three years earlier.

It was a wedding dress in a size too small for her, but the perfect size for the model, her friend’s daughter, Leaf Bright.

“I thought, ‘Who is going to fit this?’ It was like size two,” she said with a laugh.

But in a remarkable twist of fate, the dress fit Bright as if it were made for her.

Wagner added fairy wings and a wand to the outfit, and they went around town taking pictures at various local venues, including photos on the roof of the El Morro Theater.

Another picture was taken on Route 66 with the angel by an old, refurbished classic car.

One of the local homeless men, a Navajo named Garrison “Gary” Lee Murphy thought the fairy was a real angel.

Wagner was friendly to Murphy, and often bought him something to eat. She saw that he was always being ridiculed and taunted because he didn’t smell good, didn’t talk and walked with a funny gait.

“Kids would shoot him, hunt him with BB guns, and call him Mr. Turtle Head,” she said. “It was a rough life, and I just wanted people to stop it.”

The truth is, Murphy was a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome, and although he looked like an old man, he was 20 years old when Wagner met him.

She photographed him with the fairy godmother, who held the wand above his head as if in a blessing.

Wagner took photos of the fairy godmother at a peace march, another with the local girls basketball team, in another she seems to be blessing babies at the high school day care, and with sick children at the local hospital. In all, she took 50 pictures showing the city of Gallup in a better light.

The Independent, a local newspaper, began publishing her photographs on a weekly basis.

In another photo shoot at the mission home of the Little Sisters of the Poor, an old Navajo woman thought the fairy was an angel and that the wand was a Native American prayer stick. She began to chant a prayer in the Diné language.

“She didn’t even speak English,” Wagner said. “And there were nuns all around. It was something.”

Albuquerque Journal reporter Leslie Linthicum became interested in Wagner’s angel project, and wrote a front-page story that ran on Feb. 27, 2000. The story and some of Wagner’s photographs were put on the Associated Press wire service.

“I started getting calls from People Magazine, the Boston Globe,” said Wagner. “I was really astonished.”

Woman’s World magazine wrote a story, the Chicago Tribune, Delaware’s News Journal, New Mexico Magazine and the Dallas Morning News ran a story.

“We wanted to do something to make people proud of the way we’ve changed since being called ‘Drunk City’ in the national media for all those years,” Wagner told the Dallas Morning News.

She donated the collection of 50 photographs to Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Hospital, where they were displayed for years.

In September, Wagner was notified that the Gallup UNM hospital wanted to exhibit the photos, where they are now on display.

She also took angel photos with children at the UNM Hospital in Albuquerque.

“I wanted to do (some) at Carrie Tingley because of all the kids there,” she said. “There are a lot of sick kids there, and a lot of the kids like having that beautiful angel go in there.”

She stopped taking angel photos in 2005 because she was filming a documentary about Gary Murphy and fetal alcohol syndrome.

“Gary said the most wonderful things even though he had such a hard life,” she said.

She wanted to document his story because she couldn’t explain to people how cool he was.

“He had fetal alcohol syndrome, and that was bad enough, but basically it was this human being who — I would have been so bitter; I couldn’t have lived his life,” she said. “He was this little guy, and he looked really funny compared to how other people looked — he was malformed and everybody made fun of him.”

El Morro Theater played her documentary, “Gary and The Angel,” for the community, and more than 300 people packed the little theater, including Murphy.

After the show, the audience gave him a standing ovation. He had found acceptance at last.

People began to call him the “American Buddha,” because he resembled the popular images of Buddha. Wagner tried to get him into a shelter, but it never worked out. He was too used to living on the streets, she said.

In March 2002, Wagner took Murphy to visit Ground Zero in New York City because he had been strongly impacted by the televised 9/11 events.

“He said he saw 9/11 happen, and he was scared to death,” she said. “He said, ‘I must pay my respects.’ That’s what I mean about some of the stuff he would say. He’s so beautiful.”

The collapsed towers were still smoking when they visited, and Murphy approached a police officer at the site to ask him to say a prayer with him. Murphy held his hand and began to recite a prayer.

“Gary says a prayer ‘for all those who are gone, for all those who are here, bless us all.’ I couldn’t believe it,” Wagner said. “I didn’t know he had it in him, although, he believed in angels for real. He always said, ‘The Lord is with me.’ He did what he said he wanted to do, pay his respects.”

A friend suggested Wagner start a nonprofit organization with the movie as a tool to raise awareness about fetal alcohol syndrome. She named it, EXTOL! It was given nonprofit status in 2004.

In 2007, Garrison “Gary” Lee Murphy was hit by a car on the streets of Gallup and died from his injuries.

Wagner sold her business in Gallup and moved to Albuquerque. She and her husband, Ken, moved to Valencia County six years ago, and she’s taking angel pictures again.

As fate would have it, she found her next model, Temple Daniels, a neighbor who is a rodeo queen.

Wagner has taken pictures of Daniels dressed as an angel on a horse in the foothills of the Manzano Mountains, and she has set up photos at the Belen Sand and Gravel site.

“I want to start doing this here, because I want to play with this community,” Wagner says with a smile. “It’s a fun thing for the community.”

If you would like Margo Wagner to speak about fetal alcohol syndrome at your school or organization, or for free posters and DVDs of the documentary, “Gary and the Angels,” go to the EXTOL! website at www.extolcf.org, or call Wagner at 350-3855.


-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.