Art

Picturing Taos over five decades

Bill Davis' camera captured the hippie era, famous faces and lost landmarks

By Virginia L. Clark
tempo@taosnews.com
Posted 6/12/19

Stroll down a legendary lane with Taos photographer extraordinaire William "Bill" Davis and be regaled during his 50th anniversary photography exhibit, opening with a reception …

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Art

Picturing Taos over five decades

Bill Davis' camera captured the hippie era, famous faces and lost landmarks

Posted

Stroll down a legendary lane with Taos photographer extraordinaire William "Bill" Davis and be regaled during his 50th anniversary photography exhibit, opening with a reception Saturday (June 15), 5-7 p.m. at Magpie gallery in El Prado's Overland Ranch complex.

If you get to his gallery talk on June 23 from 2-4 p.m., you'll run into memes of modernism's late-greats populating Taos during the '70s and '80s, plus the likes of Taos cultural lions Carolyn and Ron Kalom, author John Nichols and, of course, actor Dennis Hopper, "who got to Taos by the exact same route I did," Davis said - the same year, 1969, and almost the same month.

"I told Georgia [Gersh] last year I wanted to do a 50th-year anniversary show and since then I've been going through years of film," Davis said last week at owner Gersh's Magpie gallery. "There's no digital work, just color and black-and-white. I didn't want to do a greatest-hits kind of show, because people have seen a lot of those images."

Choosing this show's imagery has expanded his own appreciation of the work he's done over the decades.

"When you're shooting and first developing it you ignore a lot of things," he said. "So you have a lot of images that have never been seen - images that have been lingering for a long time."

The 30 images are all new prints he made just this spring, covering work from the 1970s on up into the 2000s. Most have never been seen before.

"A lot of the meaning of photos depends on the context," Davis said, and then cited as an example a photography show he did called "Report from Uranus," a tongue-in-cheek written and visual exhibit about aliens and cattle mutilations and covert government ops involving Roswell and the like.

"I called it that because it was all a fart," he said with a glint in his eye. The photos he put in the show were different landscape shots he had done over time, but put in a different context, they took on a whole new meaning.

In 1972, he and wife Audrey Davis [Northern New Mexico folk violinist and mariachi maven] opened a gallery next to the Kaloms' House of Taos pizza place on Guadalupe Plaza, just west of Taos Plaza.

"House of Taos immediately became the hangout for all the new hippies in the '60s here in Taos, especially if they had children," Davis said. He met "Milagro Beanfield War" trilogy author Nichols there, which eventually led to their popular collaborative nonfiction photography book, "If Mountains Die."

"When I got here there was all this energy - new businesses were opening up. There were artists, some communes. The police force in those days was four people!" he said, wide-eyed.

The Kaloms let Davis turn the pizza shop's basement into a darkroom, which he used until he and Audrey bought the El Prado house. Sadly, Ron Kalom passed away May 23.

Despite being a college graduate and shooting film for a few years, Davis said he really discovered photography once he got to Taos, and it's been a mutually beneficial relationship ever since.

In "White Caps Over the Buffalo Pasture," shot from his backyard toward Pueblo Peak, he captured an amazing solid line of white rickracked clouds running across the upper third of the print - cloud behavior never before seen by this writers. And Davis admits that the rickrack disappeared almost as soon as he shot it - and he's never seen it again in the 50 years he's been here.

"I've been photographing those trees since 1987," the year he and Audrey moved to their house and studio to the edge of 134 acres of former dairy land bordering the Buffalo Pasture. This is the first time he's exhibited two prints of those trees he's been shooting for over three decades.

"Outhouse Outback" he calls "an abstract piece of sculpture," a portrait of a wooden two-seater bog in a field, a richly sunlit, beautifully decrepit shell, surely long gone now since Davis shot it. "Cows are very destructive because they like to rub against things. They tromped all over it."

Given the choice, he says he'd rather be lucky than good, as seen in "Holy Ghost Cloud," a print of Nuestra Señora de Dolores church.

"Just as I got out of the car, almost immediately this cloud mushroomed up behind it," he recaled, sounding amazed even now. Considering the white rickracked clouds in "White Caps Over the Buffalo Pasture" and this wonderful cloud spouting high behind the church, it seems Davis is more than lucky and good; he seems prescient - essentially being in the right place at the right time.

A shot of the 1970s' Sahds Grocery and Market reveals pork chops for 69 cents a pound and pinto beans at 55 cents for a four-pound bag, among other items that seem hilariously priced compared to today's economy. That whole building complex that used to stand along what is now Paseo del Pueblo Sur opposite Taos Plaza, Davis said was bulldozed down shortly thereafter by Saki Karavas, infamous La Fonda hotelier and real estate magnate of Taos, just a year after Davis arrived in Taos. Yet another "lucky" shot, where Davis preserved Taos history. Another print's view of Blueberry Hill without houses is equally eye-opening.

Davis' career is especially notable, given that until a decade or so ago, Taos was barely past Pony Express days of mail delivery, much less for anything more sophisticated than a stamped envelope - something the digital era has completely ramped up for Taos arts and businesses. He finally opted to drive to Santa Fe to get his prints, which had to be developed out of town and often out of state. It was much preferable, he said, to waiting until a delivery van had enough items to make the trip to Taos worthwhile for the company's drivers.

"William Davis: 50 Years of Photography" is a must for anyone who loves Taos, the arts and customs, old and new. "Everything from low-riders to landscapes," said Gersh. Daughter of equally iconic Taos artist "Wild Bill Gersh," she grew up during the Taos arts heyday of the 1970s and '80s and deeply appreciates all that Davis has accomplished.

The show runs through June. For more information, visit magpie/facebook and magpietaos.com.

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