What the Camera Reveals
Photographer Wes Naman explores New Mexico's identity through portraiture
The plastic display units creak as idle tourists spin them, searching for their names on miniature New Mexico license plate keychains. They examine oversized mugs with “Albuquerque” printed in giant, block letters, hot air balloons staggered across their white porcelain landscapes. The kiosks and gift shops that travelers are faced with as they snake toward the departure gates at Albuquerque’s Sunport seem a strange place to be struck with a vision, but that's what happened to photographer Wes Naman. “It's hard to pinpoint the genesis of this project,” he said, “but I had been traveling a lot and would always stop at the shops at the airport to pick up green chile to take to my friends and family back east. Once, while the lady behind the register was wrapping up my purchases, I was looking at all the books about Albuquerque and New Mexico and everything was so stereotypical—
And there amid the prickly pear jam and zia emblazoned t-shirts (two for $20), (505) Faces was born. While the project's name highlights northwestern and central New Mexico, the collection of photographs and personal profiles spans the entire state of New Mexico. During the fall and winter of 2013 Naman amassed a small crew of photographers and writers that included Steve Westman, Dan Mayfield, Hakim Bellamy, Justin De La Rosa, Joy Godfrey and Gwyneth Doland. Their objective was to capture the spirit of New Mexico through the distinct stories and faces of the people who have made their homes here. By May of 2014 they were on the road in a 40-foot RV. The crew spent one month traveling the state, during which Naman shot almost 500 portraits. From Farmington to Las Cruces, Clovis to Gallup—“basically every major city in New Mexico,” as Naman described it.
The resulting portraits are all shot in black and white, with the frame reduced to nothing but the individual, creating very tight photos with little distance between the subject and the viewer. Naman originally intended to shoot the portraits outside the RV with a white background, but on the first day of shooting in Gallup the winds were about 40mph. “I had to change the aesthetic of the book from the very first day,” Naman said. As an alternative he created a studio inside the RV, “I believe it was for the best. I could better control the light and create some very intimate portraits.”
That intimacy is a mainstay of portrait photography. Innate to the medium is the vulnerability of the subject. For (505) Faces, Naman photographed everyone who came to his RV, and largely, he let them present themselves as they wished. “It was very loose,” Naman described, “I just let people be themselves.” Their clothing, expressions and body language were self-selected and reflect the performance of the portrait—a declaration of who you are and who you aspire to be. In that way, each stand-alone portrait is a study of image and identity, just as the book as a whole seeks to present an encompassing representation of New Mexico. The ultimate control, however, in both the representation of individuals and the state, lies with the photographer. When I asked Naman about the responsibility that comes with leading a project that seeks to epitomize the different communities across a whole state he replied “it's a responsibility that I took upon myself. Everyone involved with this project holds that responsibility close and we tried to honor it. I think that respect shows in the stories and especially the images.”
Richard Avedon once said, “Photography is a sad art. It's gone but it remains.” A mixture of selection, perception and chance, the tug-o-war between likeness and interpretation; the aim of these photos is to allow individuals to live in front of the camera instead of merely posing. The images of (505) Faces are further brought to life by the inclusion of the subjects' personal histories and their expressed connections to New Mexico in text. Poets, journalists and travel writers were all on hand to listen to the hundreds of individuals who showed up to have their portrait taken and dutifully record their stories, giving context and weight to each face.
The project, and the book that will take shape from it, also reflects the story of Naman himself. “I wanted to do something that took me back to my roots as a photographer of black and white portraiture,” he said, “and also give back to the community that's helped me thrive as an artist. I wanted to learn more about the place I now call home.” Naman admits that his photography often expresses itself in compositions that are “weirder, darker” than a lot of modern portraiture, but the art community here has embraced his work despite—or because—of that. In his month of travel he gained insight into the state's history and the diversity of its landscapes and people. It was a process that revealed much to the artist himself and the collected photos and stories promise to be just as revealing to all who hold the book in their hands.