One morning in June 1968, Taos photographer Dick Spas was drinking coffee in his Ledoux Street apartment when a friend dropped in and said, “They’re shooting a movie on the pueblo!” Spas grabbed his 35mm Exakta camera “with a Schneider lens and left-hand film crank” (he is right-handed) and jumped into his Karmann Ghia convertible to “go make some pictures.”
The dusty day unfolded the summer morning at Taos Pueblo with the film’s stars Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper standing around, “no security or bodyguards. I thought nothing about it, I didn’t know who Hopper was and recognized Peter only because of his famous father Henry. Jack had not yet filmed ‘Five Easy Pieces,’ so he was an unknown. It wasn’t until after the film was out that [Hopper] came back to Taos and bought the Mabel Dodge [Luhan] House. The average person in Taos didn’t know who they were. It was a small town in those days, everyone knew each other.”
The pueblo shoot lasted about an hour. Spas said he went home, made a contact sheet and “put it into my file drawer and thought nothing more of it, even after the movie came out.” He photographed Hopper again at an R.C. Gorman party and again “thought nothing more about that.” Regarding the “Easy Rider” prints, he said he thought, “Well, I’ll make some postcards. Here is a way to make a few bucks, I took my prints into Rick Smith at Brodsky’s bookstore and asked him which he thought would make a good print, he said the ‘Easy Rider’ ones.”
Spas arrived in Taos in January 1968, just six months before the “Easy Rider” shoot. He lived in a group house for a while and then moved into the old dark room of the Taos News headquarters on Ledoux Street. His rent was $75 a month. He was in his late 20s and enrolled in a photography class at the University of New Mexico taught by Cavalier Ketchum. Prior to enrolling in the art department he’d been an English and history major, got married and dropped out of school for two years.
The road to Taos started at Oklahoma Joe’s on Central Avenue in Albuquerque. “I was in Okie Joe’s on a Saturday night eating enchiladas. Karl Kernberger came in and told me about a photography project in southern New Mexico. I asked him if I could finish my enchiladas. We ended up going to Mexico on that trip.”
Kernberger was in Taos doing freelance photography. “He called me one Sunday afternoon with some commercial jobs and asked me to come up. I told him it would take several weeks. I had some logistics like a house to sell. After the call, it was 8 in the morning, in January. I was on my second cup of coffee. There was a knock at the door. Three young girls were standing there and said, ‘You have a nice place – do you know of any places to rent in the area?’ I left for Taos shortly after.”
Spas’ career includes photographing paintings for artists, portraits and “publicity things.” A jury accepted his work at the Stables Gallery in 1969, a first for photography, and his prints are in collections all over the world. On a Christmas break from UNM he visited Ansel Adams in California and began his printmaking education and a lifetime friendship with Adams, who visited the Southwest. Spas was drinking tea with photographer Laura Gilpin in her Santa Fe home the afternoon she took the career-altering call from The National Gallery ordering 10 photographs from her book “The Enduring Navajo.”
Spas’ portfolio of Taoseños include the famous and infamous, artists Louis Ribak, R.C. Gorman, Bea Mandelman and many others, including Horse Thief Shorty, “a Taos character given the name in 1969 by Mace McHorse when Mace had to get him out of jail for stealing the same horse twice in one day.”
Spas said he has no intention of going digital with his photography. “It’s the magic of seeing the print come up in the developer, I’ve never quite gotten over it. A designer in Santa Fe asked me to do a very large print of my ‘Easy Rider’ photograph. I told her for a print that size you may need to go digital. She insisted on a silver print. In the darkroom you can’t do the same print twice, there are too many variables. A timer, a split second here, a split second there, every print is different. With a computer, you can do the same print over and over a thousand times as long as your printer ink holds out.”
On the spring afternoon I spoke with Spas he was mixing darkroom chemicals to develop prints for a book – his autobiography, two years in the making called “Recuerdos,” Spanish for memories or remembrance. The prints he’s working on are from a trip to Bisbee, Arizona. I asked what keeps him in Taos. He said, “It’s the light. I notice the light on the mountain. This morning the snow on the fence post at the head of my driveway, the light on the snow, the shadows. I never tire.”
For more on Spas and his work, visit dickspasphotography.com.