Contemplative Landscape

On display through Dec 30, 2012

After covering the lives of drug addicts and prostitutes in America and the struggle of Afghan rebels fighting the Soviets – including a stint as a prisoner of war – Santa Fe-based photojournalist Tony O’Brien turned to Christ in the Desert Monastery in Abiquiu, N.M., to restore his spirit. During the year he spent living with the Benedictine monks, they allowed him to document their daily activities and rituals, both contemplative and secular.

O’Brien’s work from that era now forms the heart of a new exhibition at the New Mexico History Museum, Contemplative Landscape, Oct. 23, 2011, through Dec. 30, 2012, exploring how photographers see the state’s meditative topography: the land, art, architecture, and people who build and populate the sacred.

Download high-resolution images from the exhibit by clicking on "Go to related images" at the bottom of this page.

Drawing on the extensive holdings of the Photo Archives, with the participation of contemporary photographers, Contemplative Landscape’s black-and-white photographs explore the emotional and ceremonial practices of people as varied as Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Sikhs, to name just a few of the diverse faith-based communities who call New Mexico home.

Throughout our time, creativity and spirituality have blended in ways as monumental and communal as the world’s great cathedrals and as small and personal as a roadside descanso marking another person’s passage from the earth.

“The idea is to think about the spiritual, however it manifests for the viewer personally,” said Mary Anne Redding, curator of the Photo Archives. “What is considered sacred or contemplative varies. What these places have in common is that they draw people to them either in the built or natural environment. Each is infused with an energy that collects over time as people come together or seek enlightenment. New Mexico encompasses and encourages radically different religious practices. Each of these communities adds a different perspective to the meaning of religion and contributes their practices to the diversity of spiritual belief.”

Contemplative Landscape shares its space and spirit with Illuminating the Word: Saint John’s Bible (Oct. 23, 2011, through December 30, 2012) in the museum’s second-floor Albert and Ethel Herzstein Gallery. As part of the exhibition design, visitors will be invited to enter a contemplative area to pray, meditate or simply sit in silence – opportunities too often lacking in the 21st-century world.

In addition to O’Brien, photographers represented in the exhibit include:

Wyatt Davis, Tyler Dingee, Ferenz Fedor, Miguel Gander, Laura Gilpin, Kirk Gittings, Cary Herz, Debora Hunter, William Henry Jackson, Ernest Knee, Paul Logsdon, Elliott McDowell, Teresa Neptune, Jesse L. Nusbaum, T. Harmon Parkhurst, Edward Ranney, David Robin, Janet Russek, Sharon Stewart, Don J. Usner, Adam Clark Vroman, Nancy Hunter Warren, George Ben Wittick.

The photographers have used their work to explore and renew their faith, even challenge their own and others’ beliefs. The result is an exhibit that marries an adobe morada abandoned by the Penitentes to processions of robe-clad monks carrying out the Stations of the Cross in desert canyons. For so many of these photographers, their images illuminate their personal quests.

Award-winning photographer Cary Herz, who died in 2008, was working on a project in the Las Vegas, N.M., Jewish Cemetery in 1985 when someone told her of other Jews in New Mexico – people who had practiced their faith in secret. As Herz began investigating, she found slides of grave markers that appeared to contain Jewish symbols, a discovery that led her to cover 10,000 miles documenting the lives of people in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona, the descendents of a secret history that has its roots in the Spanish and Portugese Inquisitions.

Another example is photographer Kirk Gittings, who was hired by New Mexico magazine to photograph the rapidly deteriorating historic churches of northern New Mexico. Through that work, he and writer Michael Miller won a National Endowment for the Arts grant that for four years allowed Gittings to immerse himself in Catholic spirituality. Given the keys to a church to photograph at his leisure, he would sit in the pews, breathe the scent of candlewax and reconnect with the saints. A few years later, he converted to Catholicism.

Of his own work, Edward Ranney says: “The petroglyphs associated with the ancient Pueblo sites in New Mexico’s Galisteo Basin give us an entry to the imaginative and religious world-view of these early Pueblo people. In addition, as Lucy Lippard has observed, they `focus space,’ and make visible the Pueblo people’s concerns and beliefs, and their relationship with their gods.”

And, says Teresa Neptune: “My camera serves as a tool for my own awareness; with it I challenge myself to constantly pay more attention and see the world in a more creative way. Every landscape, every street has the potential to be seen contemplatively. What a joy to share and celebrate this way of seeing in "Contemplative Landscape."

The Photo Archives at the Palace of the Governors recently acquired 20 of O’Brien’s images from his Monastery of Christ in the Desert portfolio. O’Brien’s experiences in the monastery are the subject of his new book with writer Christopher Merrill, Light in the Desert: Photographs from the Monastery of Christ in the Desert (Museum of New Mexico Press), debuting with the exhibition.

A New York City native, O’Brien began his photography career in 1973 at the Santa Fe New Mexican, the Santa Fe Reporter and the Albuquerque Journal North. His work has appeared in national and international publications, including Life magazine, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. He has also worked with the Ford Foundation on a land-use project on Zuni Pueblo, as well as a water-works project in the colonias along the Texas border for the Pew Foundation.

Among the places that have exhibited his work: the Museum of Our National Heritage, Massachusetts; the Southeast Museum of Photography, Florida; the Adham Center of Photography, Cairo, Egypt; The Newseum in New York and the Sag Harbor Picture Gallery. In 1990, O’Brien was awarded the first Eliot Porter Foundation Grant for his work in Afghanistan. He has taught documentary photography and was director of the Documentary Studies Program at the Santa University of Art and Design (formerly the College of Santa Fe), where he is on the faculty at the Narion Center of Photographic Arts.  

In 1989, while on assignment for Life magazine, he was taken prisoner in Afghanistan for six weeks, an experience that led to his 1994-95 sojourn at Christ in the Desert as a practicing member of the contemplative community.

“You sit in that chapel and the light dances throughout the day,” O’Brien said. “It can go from just plain to pure beauty. I began to look at things a little differently. I began to be more aware of what it was that I was looking at and really taking my time. And the willingness to let things go.”

Founded in the town of Abiquiu in 1964, the Monastery of Christ in the Desert follows the Benedictine life with no external apostolates. It maintains a guesthouse for private retreats where men and women can share the Divine Office and Mass in the Abbey Church with the monks. Set in the Chama Canyon, about 75 miles north of Santa Fe, the monastery is surrounded by miles of wilderness, assuring solitude and quiet.

Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible and Contemplative Landscape are generously supported by the New Mexico Humanities Council, the Scanlan Family Foundation, and the Museum of New Mexico Foundation.

Lectures, workshops and performances for Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible and Contemplative Landscape will be held in the History Museum Auditorium and are free with admission unless otherwise noted. The schedule:

Sunday, October 23, 2011, 2-4 pm: Opening reception in the museum’s second-floor Gathering Space. At 2 pm, join photographer Tony O’Brien and writer Christopher Merrill (Light in the Desert: Photographs from the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, MNM Press, 2011) for a lecture and book signing in the auditorium.

Sunday, November 6, 2011, 2 pm: “Lay Folk and the Psalms,” lecture by Carol Neel, medieval historian at Colorado College.

Monday, November 7, 2011, 6 pm, The Lensic Performing Arts Center: “Donald Jackson: Illuminating the Word,” a special evening with the lead artist and calligrapher of The Saint John’s Bible. $15. Private reception following, $50. Tickets at, or call (505) 988-1234.

Friday, November 18, 2011, 6 pm: “Calligraphic Trails,” lecture by artist and calligrapher Patricia R. Musick.

Saturday, November 19, 2011, 10 am-4 pm, NMHM Classroom: “Irish Manuscript Bookhand,” calligraphy workshop with Patricia R. Musick. Cost is $80. Limited seating; call (505) 476-5096 to register.

Sunday, December 4, 2011, 2 pm: Sacred choral music by Schola Cantorum of Santa Fe and the monks of Christ in the Desert Monastery.

Sunday, January 22, 2012, 2 pm: “On the Weight of Words,” lecture by renowned artists Barry Moser and John Benson.

Saturday, February 25, 2012, 10 am-4 pm, NMHM Classroom: “Oh My Gouache,” calligraphy workshop by Dianne Von Arx, special treatment artist for The Saint John’s Bible. Cost is $100. Limited seating; call (505) 476-5096 to register.

Sunday, February 26, 2012, 2 pm: “Special Treatment Illuminations for The Saint John’s Bible,” lecture by Dianne Von Arx.

NEW EVENT: Sunday, March 11, 2012, 2 pm: Schola Cantorum of Santa Fe and the monks of Christ in the Desert Monastery perform in the History Museum Lobby.

Sunday, March 25, 2012, 2 pm: “Endangered Texts: Preserving Ancient Books the Benedictine Way in the 21st Century,” lecture by Father Columba Stewart, executive director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John’s University in Minnesota.

Sunday, April 29, 2012, 2 pm: Contemplative Landscape photographers panel discussion; Kirk Gittings, Ed Ranney, Janet Russek, Sharon Stewart and Don Usner.

CANCELLED: Friday, June 1, 2012, 6 pm: “Fragile Faith,” lecture by Contemplative Landscape photographer David Robin.

Friday, June 8, 2012, 6 pm: “Landscape and Memory,” lecture by artist and calligrapher Laurie Doctor.

Saturday and Sunday, June 9 & 10, 2012, 10 am-4 pm, NMHM Classroom: “Landscape and Lettering: Before the Separation of Drawing and Writing,” calligraphy workshop with Laurie Doctor. Cost is $200. Limited seating; call (505) 476-5096 to register.

Friday, July 13, 2012, 6 pm: “Poetry & Photographs,” discussion and poetry reading with Contemplative Landscape photographer Teresa Neptune and poet Miriam Sagan.

Sunday, October 14,2012, 2 pm: “Ritualized Naming of the Landscape through Photography,” lecture by John Carter, photography curator at the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Sunday, November 4, 2012, 2 pm: Red as a Lotus: Letters to a Dead Trappist, poetry reading by Lisa Gill; and Compassion Rising, a film about Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama.

Sunday, December 2, 2012, 2 pm: Sacred choral music by Schola Cantorum of Santa Fe and the monks of Christ in the Desert Monastery.

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