Nancy Hunter Warren had the sort of luck most photographers only dream about.
Like the moment she caught a Jicarilla Apache woman chortling at a community picnic — an action that lasted just seconds. And the child powwow dancer from Dulce who, unaware of the camera perhaps, looks bored with the proceedings. And the rancher from Mora, his face lined like a Western landscape, flashing the hint of a warm smile, as if to say, somehow, he’ll be all right.
But what really paid off for the longtime Santa Fe resident, whose photo documentary works captured a fast-disappearing way of life in the New Mexico of the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, was the sense of trust she earned among her subjects.
“She would just go out long enough for people to get used to her until they forgot she was there,” said Warren’s daughter, Janet Worne Mansfield. “She was tenacious. She kept going back and bringing them copies of her photos. And she always asked permission.”
Warren, 87, died of natural causes at an assisted-living facility in Santa Fe on Nov. 23. Though she had been blind for years, she continued to attend lectures, shop and volunteer at the Santa Fe Animal Shelter and Humane Society.
She authored a number of photo books on New Mexico’s architecture and cultural traditions, including New Mexico Style: A Sourcebook of Traditional Architectural Details (1986), Villages of Hispanic New Mexico (1987) and The Jicarilla Apache: A Portrait (2006).
In those works, she captured the structures, people, animals and heritage of the region in the days before progress enveloped and sometimes overwhelmed them.
“She was very fortune to take these pictures because not everyone can do that anymore,” said longtime friend and caregiver Judy Jones. “And a lot of that is gone. You don’t see that way of life anymore. Times have changed.”
Warren, whose work has been displayed in New Mexico museums and galleries and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, worked for years at the former Museum of New Mexico’s Laboratory of Archaeology after arriving in New Mexico in the early 1970s.
Her acceptance in the often tight-knit environments of rural communities was even more surprising given that she came in as an outsider from the East Coast — a self-taught photographer and divorcee with two kids in tow.
She was born Nancy Laura Hunter on Jan. 10, 1932, in Buffalo, N.Y. She married Robert Bruce Warren in 1951 and the couple had four children. The marriage lasted nearly 20 years before Nancy got an urge to head out on her own and go west.
Her desire to visit New Mexico was sparked in large part by classes she took in anthropology and archaeology at the University of Delaware and her research on San Ildefonso Pueblo artist Maria Martinez, renowned for her black-on-black pottery.
In her self-published autobiography, Memories of a Blind Photographer, Warren reflected on her first memory of Santa Fe in 1972. Arriving in Albuquerque by plane, she rented a car and drove north, noticing how the landscape changed from “somewhat empty and barren” to “interesting and exciting.”
Santa Fe, she wrote, “seemed small and brown but the majestic Sangre de Cristos rose upon behind it and it seemed wonderful. I’d never seen mountains like this. To me it seemed like a dream come true. I had read so much about this place and now it was true.”
The next day, according to her memoirs, she drove to San Ildefonso, where the children paid no attention to her as she began clicking away with her camera.
“I was so excited,” she wrote. “I was in a new place where things seemed more basic… and slower. I knew I had come home and I knew this is where I wanted to spend the rest of my life.”
And she did, immediately placing a down payment on a house in downtown Santa Fe, and building a legacy as a photographer and social maven.
Granddaughter Kathrine Warren recalled her grandmother cooking green chile stew, taking her and other grandchildren to the local pueblos and insisting on play time with the dogs.
“She was an East Coast girl but New Mexico stole her heart,” she said.
Longtime friend Bobby Byrnes, who introduced Warren to many of the small Northern New Mexico communities during road trips, recalled an experience that spoke to her success as a photographer.
She was shooting photos of the lay New Mexican Catholic religious order Los Hermanos Penitentes in Mora County when she overheard one of her subjects call her a garrapata.
“What does that mean?” she asked Byrnes, who spoke Spanish.
“It’s a tick and it has a lot of legs and it finds a place on a human’s body to stick to and it buries itself into the human flesh. It gets under your skin,” he said.
She was very proud of that, he said.
Nancy Hunter Warren is survived by four children and a sister as well as many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The family plans a memorial service for her on her birthday, Jan. 10, at St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in Santa Fe.