Irwin Klein and the New Settlers: Photographs of Counterculture in New Mexico.
BENJAMIN KLEIN, EDITOR
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. 167 pp. ISBN 9780803285101 ($29.95 hardback).
Black and white photos move through time to show a progression from individual portraits to community events. These are meant to capture a particular time and place through the experiences of the mainly young, mainly white suburbanites of the 1960s who found their way to rural New Mexico. Initially, Irwin Klein put together a collection of his photos from the time he spent on and off in the Spanish-American towns of northern New Mexico. In an introductory essay he tells the readers, "I worked on this book from 1966-71 during five visits of about three months each to the country that stretches up from Santa Fe into the mountains as far north as Taos and as far east as Las Vegas, New Mexico" (39). That book, however, was not published.
While some of the photos have been previously used in other projects, his nephew, Ben Klein, a historian, put together this edited version along with essays tracing a range of issues from that era. The book's aim is straightforward: to combine the written with the visual to present a more complicated picture of the hippies, the rebels--an alternative image of what life was like for the young people who chose to live away from modernity through the landscapes, actions, and life choices of rough rural living.
The book opens with five short essays (including Klein's own introduction), followed by eighty black and white photos and a brief afterword. A series of sub-themes further divides the photos with attention to specific places and events. "The Valley-Settlement" starts the viewer off with a series of portraits, closeups of young fresh faces in their home spaces. The second section, "Independence Day Celebration-The Hog Farm Caravan," is a mix of portraits and group shots, which we learn from reading the initial essays were taken during a parade put on by the group of hog farmers who moved there from California and used the occasion to create a meet and greet with locals. "The Village-Settlement" goes back to portrait shots at home--individuals pose and two show small groups socializing in dirt yards. Next, "Five Star Commune" begins to show more context through people in surrounding landscapes. The viewer begins to get an idea of the larger picture of dry, relatively barren landscape. Section five, "Light and Dark," shows rundown buildings set in the rough outdoor landscape and some are of crumbling interiors. Next, "The Hills," begins to open up what people do there, chopping wood, fixing a fence, an outhouse, people working together. "The Farm" continues these themes with building projects, milking goats, carrying water. This section best provides a glimpse into the realities of hard living in the rural setting. A short section, "Visits," follows, going back to portraits at home. The concluding section is "Wedding Celebration New Buffalo Commune," which contains four photos. The afterword best describes this as the author asks, "Who could mistake the awkward, halfenticing, half-repelling tatters of dress, incongruous top hat, or sense of hope in a community celebration resembling a bread line?" (155). Klein mentions how the image of the self-reliant American evolves into a more communal living approach to share in the hard times as well as the celebrations. His photos attempt to reflect this with individuals at home in portrait with counter shots of people outside sharing work.
While the book can easily be read in any order, the written contributions are useful as they illuminate the historical context, provide some political background, and highlight some of the diversity of and trouble with the local population within this setting. Without this background information to provide overall coherence, the photos would not be as accessible to the viewer to showcase and communicate Klein's perspective. His writing aptly references William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience, also conceived of during an era of political and social change. Both focus on a people and a time in transition or in Klein's collection, image and word focus on living in the margins of modernity.
His "new settlers" follow the earlier traditions of those who came before to make a new life in the Spanish-American towns of northern New Mexico.
Irwin Klein and the New Settlers provides the reader with sensitively taken and beautifully printed images taken with Klein's practiced and capable eye. His background is from the "street photography" style he used in his New York and Minneapolis work. This capture-on-the-go style is evident here in several of the broader focused shots, but in many of his portraits and group settings we see that people are aware of the camera as they look straight into the lens. His focus tends to be more concerned with people than their activities; we don't find a particular daily living or communal rhythm being established. Instead, we have specific instances being shown rather than a step-by-step process. We are not privy to how or why. The pictures may be evocative of the time and place, but we are left with questions. How did these young people navigate the arid land (we see several rusted-out cars or partial vehicles), create a home, provide food and shelter, raise families? The photos suggest an attempt to answer these questions. The essays provide a broader context to frame them.
The essays touch on relations between longtime residents and newcomers, how the local residents did or did not accept the new settlers. The opening essays address some of the issues that drove people to the relatively inexpensive open lands, the opportunities to create alternative, earth-friendly ways of living that stood in contrast to the problems arising in urban centers. The photos show what their idealism had to face in order to live there. This is Irwin Klein's view of the people and the place as seen through his eye. We are shown hints of life, a peek at residential living arrangements, individual houses or a room within a house, rather than any overall household patterns or collection of housing. We do not see interactions with established towns and locals.
What do the photos of the lived experiences of the new settlers show? Hair, clothes, and faces in states of untidiness, not surprising images for rough living, but we do not know how people managed cleaning up. Rooms and houses are shown in varying states of disrepair, we don't see people fixing them up or building new. How important are children to the way of life? Several photos show them feeding goats or standing with an adult. Klein's own introductory notes rather than his images let us know that the initial idealism gave way to lessons learned through survival on the land. Questions of personhood or identity remain unanswered; perhaps instead they are questions raised but intentionally left open. The lived experiences of the New Settlers--the men, women, and children--remain captured in family settings, portrait shots as if from someone's album, yet documented with a professional eye. Still, the photographer who spent time living there was also keenly aware of what was selected to be shown as well as what was left out. In Klein's own words, "The New Settlers is part family album, part document and part myth. I consider it as such a collective expression as my own work" (40).
Florida Atlantic University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2018|
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