Craig Varjabedian's photographs of the American West would be the perfect illustrations to a Cormac McCarthy book. They have a surreal beauty and poetic emptiness that border on the fictional. It's as if this isn't the real West, but the West of tall tales and American dreams.
It's nice to think that there are still photographic mavericks out there, lugging around equipment of yore and carefully, slowly composing each frame. Varjabedian uses a large-format view camera, which heightens the romantic quality of his work. The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum thought so, too; it recently recognized his sixth and newest book, Ghost Ranch and the Faraway Nearby, with the Western Heritage Award for "Outstanding Photography Book" of 2009. An exhibition of the photos was recently at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and will continue to travel nationally to select museums.
The series was made on a vast stretch of territory called Ghost Ranch, located 13 miles northwest of Abiquiu, N.M. The land has a long history and has seen dinosaurs, Pueblo American Indians, the Navajo and Apache, colonial Spanish ranchers, American wranglers and the Presbyterian Church.
Today, the 21,000-acre, 32-square-mile spread is a center for outdoor education and spiritual retreat, run by the Presbyterian Church. It was opened as a guest ranch in 1935 and has been a popular site for Hollywood films and artistic residence — most famously the home of Georgia O'Keeffe. Later, under the direction of Arthur Pack, a pioneer of the conservation movement, it was treated as a working ranch but also a retreat that needed protection.
Varjabedian, a fine-art photographer of 35 years and director of Eloquent Light Photography Workshops, in Santa Fe, has been photographing the American West for some time. The Ghost Ranch (both the place and the series), with its evocative name and long history, encapsulates an ideal of the American West that is just as majestic on film as it is in fiction.
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