Dennis Tedlock’s new book is titled An Archaeology of Architecture: Photowriting the Built Environment (University of New Mexico Press), and it is addictive. He pairs photographs of lots of different buildings and other things out there with texts describing what we see, and more. It reminds us of the fact that, when viewing a photograph, we so often have unanswered questions about objects in the picture or its background or other aspects. “It’s as if they think they’re guaranteeing the fine-art status of the picture by saying nothing about it,” Tedlock told Pasatiempo.
The variety of photographic subjects in the book is fascinating. In one regard, they posit a veritable travelogue. We see a restaurant in Manhattan; an old car in Punta de Agua, New Mexico; a mural in Berkeley; a church in Barcelona; and a silo in Moscow, Kansas.
Some are less easy to describe, such as Joseph Sutro’s Underworld, where we witness a detail of a decayed wall. In the accompanying essay, the author reveals this as belonging to the Sutro Baths facility built near San Francisco in 1896 and boasting six pools and 500 dressing rooms. It burned down in 1966. “At the time, local Satanists had been saying there were tunnels underneath the pavilion, providing access to the surface of the earth for malevolent beings who live in the underworld.”
Tedlock’s exposure to camera work began when he was a teenager. His parents moved to Albuquerque when he was 18 months old, and he grew up there and in Taos. In the Duke City, his mother and father had a photography studio at one time. He used some of the darkroom equipment when he was in high school, developing the black-and-white film he used in his camera and doing some contract printing.
He went on to a fruitful career as an archaeologist and ethnographer as well as an author. His books in those fields have included some of his photography — although architecture has always been his impulse when he has a camera in hand.
“I guess that started with the archaeology and being interested in habitations, first at Zuni and later in Guatemala. I never lost the archaeologist’s eye. You always have one eye on the ground: Look, there’s a potsherd, there’s a streak of charcoal — all the signs of what was.”
After a few seasons of working in the silent world of ruins, he started adding other activities to his work. One was sound recording. “It was mostly storytelling, some music sung. I have a book of Zuni stories. They’re scripted with all the tones of voice, pauses, loud, soft. I wasn’t satisfied with treating oral narrators’ performances as paragraphed prose, because that deletes all the dynamics, especially the timing.”
Tedlock was awarded the 1986 PEN Translation Prize for Popul Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life. His previous volumes include Breath on the Mirror: Mythic Voices and Visions of the Living Maya and Finding the Center: The Art of the Zuni Storyteller. He has received grants and fellowships from the Fulbright Commission, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and the School of American Research, to mention a few.
He is a Santa Fe resident when he’s not at school: Tedlock is a research professor of anthropology and distinguished professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He earned his doctorate in anthropology from Tulane University following his bachelor’s degree in anthropology and art history at the University of New Mexico. He studied with Cochiti artist Joe Herrera and at UNM with Kenneth M. Adams, Elaine de Kooning, and architectural historian Bainbridge Bunting.
“Bainbridge Bunting was really a very generous scholar who inspired a lot of students. I didn’t realize till later how much of what he was up to had to do with his relationship with the Historic American Buildings Survey.” That program, administered by the National Park Service, began in 1933 to document America’s architectural heritage.
In his introduction to An Archaeology of Architecture, Tedlock discusses dominant paradigms, such as that architects seem to have a predilection for photographs of freshly minted buildings with no people in them, and drawings that are basically “thin lines laid out on surfaces that are largely left blank, as if to avoid even the illusion of materiality.” A little later on, builders bring in the materials, and owners “set about making their own changes” to the once-pristine plans. Down the pike, what began as a design idea may evolve to abandonment, decrepitude, and ruin. Thus, Tedlock sees “archaeology in the making” when he views architecture.
Anthropologists typically relegate the study of useful buildings to ethnology and the study of ruins to archaeology. In either case, published examples rarely make good, full use of photography. Even when they do, much of what is shown in the photographs remains cryptic. This last point has also become something of a paradigm in fine-art photography. “I love really gorgeous fine-art photographs, but I don’t understand why a photographer claiming that kind of status has to be mute,” he said. “Ansel Adams, just to choose one, was very articulate.
“The flip side of this whole business of wanting as little text as possible to go with a fine-art photograph is that a canonizable literary text should not have illustrations of any kind. It’s really only since the Renaissance that this has been a problem. Even Renaissance pictures have text in them sometimes.”
Just two or three decades ago, the professional photographer occupied a fairly exclusive domain with his complicated cameras and darkroom equipment and chemical recipes for the perfect print. Today, photography and writing can be pursued virtually simultaneously. “The way is now open for what I call photowriting, the processing of photographs and words by the same person running software on the same equipment,” Tedlock writes. “Among the possibilities are montages like the ones I offer here, in which I intend the pictures and texts to query, complement, and enlarge one another.
“The reason I have said that what I’m doing in this book is the opposite of documentary photography is that I start from the picture. It’s not like I wonder if a particular picture will fit the story I’m trying to tell.”
The greatest part of An Archaeology of Architecture is its more than five dozen text-photograph pairings. And, again, the variety of places — the Luna Theater in Clayton, a houseboat in Copenhagen, a makeshift dwelling, complete with a Coca Cola-sign roof, under a sandstone cliff in Sandoval County. It’s a very cool progression of places, feelings, and colors.
“When you put together a photo book, unless it’s about Southwestern vernacular architecture or it’s a documentary telling someone’s story, it’s more like sticking together stanzas in a poem than stringing together a narrative,” Tedlock said.
The author enjoyed “slipping in” one image that, in Northern New Mexico, may be considered almost hackneyed at this point: the Santuario de Chimayó, which he titled Light From a Hole in the Earth.
“One of the things I’m sensitive to as a returned New Mexican is that the outside world knows a whole lot less about the Southwest than we think it does. I did broadsides that have these photos and texts and hung them at Meridian Gallery in San Francisco and no one knew what this one was. They had never seen the Santuario. They said, What’s that?”
There’s not a lot of overt order to the images in this book, but there is one series of windows and doorways. One is Houses in Hardened Ash, a close-up of some of the ancient cliff dwellings on the Pajarito Plateau. Another is Monument to Penitence, a shot of a well-known church ruin near Abiquiú. He could never figure out why would anyone would stick window frames and logs over an old, ruined nave, but he was told by a resident that a Penitente group throws a tarp over the logs for ceremonies held on the feast day of Santa Rosa de Lima.
Signs in the East Harbor is the title of an essay/photograph twofer of an Amsterdam scene. It’s a real mishmash of structures and objects, the dominant ones being a looming, ship-shaped building by the architect Renzo Piano, a full-size replica of a 1749 sailing ship, and a barge full of bleachers. In the text, Tedlock fills in some of the blanks about the other objects, including a wooden crate that has been tagged with graffiti, which appears to be the web address of a Dutch company that sells colorfully painted push brooms.
Before and After Katrina freezes in time a gloriously messy New Orleans bookshop with a creaky floor. A computer monitor is plastered with bumper stickers, including one that suggests, “Love in the ruins.”
Throughout, Tedlock offers slices of human life, quite well-explained. ◀
Dennis Tedlock signs “An Archaeology of Architecture: Photowriting the Built Environment” at 5 p.m. Friday, July 26, at Photo-eye Bookstore, 370 Garcia St., 988-5152.