Surrounded by sights

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When most people refer to vernacular, they are referencing the common language of a region or area that is filled with colorful slang and creative phrases. But vernacular has another, less well-known meaning.

It refers to the typical architecture of an area. Boston has its brownstones and the deep south its plantations. But the more nuanced meaning speaks to the common buildings, what could be called the low-brow stylings of builders.

Courtesy of Robert Christensen: Belen photographer Robert Christensen has spent four decades recording buildings across the state, including several here in Valencia County, such as this image of a morada in Tomé.

Here in New Mexico, we have houses — great and small — literally built from mud, one of the most common and eternal materials known to man.

So when Belen photographer Robert Christensen chose the name of his photo exhibit, his use of the word vernacular was no accident. Christensen’s display, “Vernacular Architecture of New Mexico 1973-2013″ at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, features 40 years of pictures, showcasing buildings from across the state.

They are not the flashy, grande dames with guilt edges, but instead the solid, comforting abuelas, ready to offer shelter, sanctuary or a good cup of Joe. The photos, often taken under cloudy skies, are studies of southwestern resilience in the face of harsh living — the ability to make something out of nearly nothing.

As you enter the south gallery at the museum, in the hush you can hear the breeze that snaps and ripples the flag outside the post office in Vado, you can smell the dust of the adobe and the moisture of the coming rain.

Christensen bought his first 35mm SLR camera on a whim in 1970. Fresh out of the Army, he was in Albuquerque visiting his brother. The camera arrived just in time to tear open the box, grab the camera and stuff the instructions in his pocket before hopping a train back to Chicago, where he was born and raised.

While there, Christensen took a basic photography class and ended up working as a part-time darkroom technician for the photographer. There he learned the wet work that is photo making.

He soon came back to Albuquerque, drawn to the state’s temperate climate and laid-back style. Thanks to the GI Bill, Christensen began working on a fine arts photography degree at the University of New Mexico, which he says was a whole new world.

“I learned a lot at UNM,” Christensen said. “My right brain never got much of a workout.”

The money from his GI Bill ran out, so Christensen left the university and picked up a job driving a produce delivery truck.

His route let him crisscross the state, seeing the back roads and small town vistas most people probably missed. In those little places, barely dots on the map, with names such as Cleveland, Hondo and Acme, Christensen found little gems.

Small houses, churches and general stores selling cold beer, soda pop, gloves and a good cup of coffee, some still in use, others long abandoned, drew Christensen like filings to a magnet.

For him, the goal was to make images — the history of the construct wasn’t even near the forefront of his mind.

“It was all about the images,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of concern about the history. It was the images that mattered, not the history.”

In the 1990s, Christensen went back to try and find the buildings again, to get a quick color snapshot and find some history. Sometimes he was successful, other times not.

And getting the images in the first place was a bit of a hit-or-miss enterprise, he said. Working on someone else’s dime, Christensen didn’t have the luxury of time to compose and frame the subject, waiting patiently for the light to shift.

“It was strictly shoot and run,” he remembers.

After shooting and running around most of the state in the late ’70s, Christen took the next 15 years or so off from photography to pursue other interests. One that caught his attention was sand-blasted, etched glass. Etching glass using high-speed sand is typically done in one of three ways: in a small cabinet set up in a studio, outside where the sand flies freely and messily or in an expensive, walk-in booth.

“I thought, there has to be a better way,” Christen said.

And so came the glass pass, a device that allowed an artist to pass a piece of glass through an enclosed cabinet a section at a time. It was small enough to set up in a studio yet large enough to handle up to a 4-foot by 8-foot sheet of glass.

Christensen built the units in his garage, selling them literally all over the world. He eventually sold the operation to a California company.

That was probably for the best, because whenever the light was just right — just before sunrise or after sunset, or when the sky was overcast and the blazing New Mexico sun was dimmed a bit — Christensen would abandon his garage, pick up his camera and go hunting for images.

Since he has been retired for the last couple years, he is dedicating his time to photography full time. Now he has time to visit a location multiple times to get the light how he wants it. And he still loves a good overcast day.

“The bright New Mexico sun doesn’t work well for color,” said Christensen.

His work is almost exclusively black and white.

“Black and white is much more engaging. People are inclined to take it more seriously.”

He makes a face that says he doesn’t take it all that seriously.

In a way, Christensen says he was lucky that his GI Bill didn’t last long enough to get a fine arts degree. He quickly found that taking pictures of the critique and aesthetic of others didn’t suit him at all.

“It was kind of a relief to be able to just take pictures for me,” he said.

And with all that taking of pictures for himself, Christensen amassed quite a collection of images of buildings around the state. And he thought he ought to do something with them.

“I though they might have a historic and cultural value,” he said. “I didn’t want them to end up in a Dumpster.”

So after making some inquiries, Christensen made a connection with the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History.

The exhibit of 52 of Christensen’s black and white photographs — depicting gas stations, garages, bars, sheds and shops around the state — will be open to the public through March 16. After that, the prints will stay at the museum, donated by Christensen.

He has also contributed more than 150 images to the state photo archives in Santa Fe.

Now that he is gaining success, would Christensen recommend young people become photographers?

“As an avocation, sure. If you’re doing it to make money …” He just ends that thought with a chuckle.

Christensen said he has always made pictures that made him happy. Now that his images are in a public display, he says he is grateful other people like them, too.

“It’s something of a compulsion to go out and get the images. It’s capturing that part that shows what I saw when I was standing there,” Christensen says.

“I don’t know what it is about these buildings — I look at them and they look back into me.”


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