IN THE SUMMER OF 1972, a 22-year-old kid with bright eyes and Gordon Lightfoot hair whipped his Volkswagen Squareback out of a Durham, North Carolina, driveway and drove west—west across the Mississippi River, west through the Texas Panhandle, west to Santa Fe, then up the spectacularly sinuous High Road and into the pocket-size village of Peñasco. The kid’s name was Alex Harris, and he was moving to Peñasco on assignment to take pictures of the village elders, or ancianos, for a book.
How could the kid, a fish-out-of-water gringo in a traditional Hispano town, have known that his days in northern New Mexico would turn into years? Or that the pictures he would make in Peñasco and a handful of nearby villages would end up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York; the Getty Center, in Los Angeles; and the New Mexico Museum of Art, in Santa Fe? How could he have known that his time living in the shadows of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains would shape the course of his life—job, family, the very way he looked at the world? And how could he possibly have guessed that exactly half a century later, after retiring as a professor of documentary photography at Duke University, he’d be asked to return to the old town, this time with a writer riding shotgun, to revisit his old haunts and flickering memories, and to take a few more pictures of this place he once knew so well?
CRUISING INTO PEÑASCO (population 474) on a clear blue morning this past spring, Alex’s eyes flick from the weathered buildings on one side of the road to those on the other. His hair is white now—he is the age of the “old ones” he once photographed—and the familiar landmarks and soft morning light send him to the past. “I have a lot of memories connected to this place. I made photos of the Wagon Wheel in 1973,” he tells me as we pass a long-closed watering hole with once-glorious hand-painted murals now fading into its stucco. A moment later: “That’s where I used to live,” he says, nodding to a two-story home right on the main drag. “It was a nice little adobe house. The rent was less than $100 a month.”
He went on to a career marked by prestigious fellowships (Guggenheim, Rockefeller) and accolades (Pulitzer Prize finalist). But back then? Back then he was a know-nothing greenhorn who, a couple of weeks after moving in, accidentally set that nice little adobe house on fire while trying to build a darkroom. (“My landlord was the fire chief. He was incredibly kind about it.”) Alex took a part-time job as a substitute teacher, but most days, he focused on making pictures of the ancianos. “I was extremely shy then and had to force myself out of bed in the morning to go meet people,” he remembers. “But during that first year in Peñasco, I really came of age as a photographer. And as a young man.”
For another photographer, gaining acceptance in a small, close-knit Hispanic and Native community might have been impossible. But Alex approached it with care, commitment, and a quiet humility. “At the time, there was some tension between the hippies living in the mountains, like the folks at Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm, and the traditional Hispanic community,” he told me. “To distinguish myself from the young hippies, I made the decision to cut my hair and spend my time in the Hispanic world.” But to the community, it was his mission that was important: Honoring the ancianos by making their portraits made all the sense in the world to the locals, who revered their elders as keepers of important cultural knowledge.
And so, slowly at first, Alex began to gain a measure of acceptance. When his book assignment wrapped after about a year, he decided to stay on in Peñasco. He was telling me this as we stood on a mesa, overlooking the village where, 50 years before, Alex had made a quietly dazzling picture of a summer fair at dusk.
“It was just such a beautiful place, and I kept seeing people, seeing homes, seeing landscapes, and thinking, How can I possibly photograph this place and the richness of living here the way I’m seeing it?” he says. “It just seemed like such an extraordinary world, and I’d fallen in love with it.”
The camera gave young Alex an excuse to enter this world, one generally closed to outsiders. He made the most of it. Among the many tender and memorable photos from that period: two old men wrestling in the street as they showed Alex how they used to goof around when they were kids; a group of teenage fiesta queens posing proudly in front of a morada; a baby pressed against the window of a home in the Picuris Pueblo while a sweet-faced 10-year-old named Emmett stares into the camera.
In 1975, Alex learned about an even smaller village, El Valle, just a few miles south of Peñasco. There, he rented a house “so safe I could leave it unlocked when I left town on assignment for months at a stretch.” He also struck up a friendship with his 75-year-old neighbor Jacobo Romero. When Jacobo’s horse died and he needed help on his farm, Alex showed up at the old man’s home ready to work. This went on nearly every morning for a few years. Jacobo taught the young gringo the old ways—how to clear acequias and irrigate a field—which Alex would do in addition to hauling wood, stacking hay bales, and mending cedar fences, while also making hundreds of photographs of Jacobo.
His pictures also began to evolve, becoming less formal portraits and more documentations of a man in relation to the place he was born and the land that sustained him. “As a neighbor, I valued my friendship with Jacobo,” Alex remembers. “As a photographer, I wanted to get inside a particular world in a way that other people might not choose to do.”
When Jacobo passed away in 1985, “I had expected to photograph the funeral,” Alex told me. “But his son Olivario asked me to give the eulogy. And that day, speaking at the graveside, I realized I’d become part of the story that I had been trying to tell.”
AS ALEX AND I DROVE along the High Road and its neural network of unpaved offshoots, we looked for the people and places he had photographed so many years ago. Buildings had been modernized, homes had weathered away, and people had passed away. But every once in a while, we’d come across a scene that time had ignored. Off the side of a road, Alex showed me a fragile-looking aqueduct made from hollowed-out logs that he’d photographed in the winter of 1979; it was still intact, still doing its job. Why, we wondered, does time have its way with some things and leap over others?
There was one person in particular we were trying to track down: Emmett, the sweet-faced boy from Alex’s 1972 picture. We drove into the nearby Picuris Pueblo, to a home we were told was his, and honked, as is the custom in the mountain villages. After a moment, the door opened and Emmett walked slowly toward the car. He was 60-something now, and his face showed signs of the passing years. But as he leaned into the passenger-side window, his dark eyes flashed instantly familiar, and when Alex reminded him of the pictures he’d made, Emmett lit up. He remembered those photos—Alex always gave prints to the people he photographed—as well as the day itself; it wasn’t every day that a young Anglo with a camera came to the pueblo and spent time with his family.
Sitting next to Alex as he came face-to-face with Emmett after all these years, I realized what I really wanted to do was see through Alex’s eyes: When he spoke to Emmett, was he seeing the face of an older man, or the boy’s face within the man? Did he glimpse the present or the past, or both? It was a question that had been rattling around in my head since we’d begun retracing Alex’s past.
At the start of our road trip, for instance, Alex took a picture in a room constructed of colorful bottles awash in dreamy New Mexico light that, to me, seemed a close cousin to a picture he had made in the summer of 1980 of a water glass, its yellow shadow spreading across the kitchen table of his neighbors Eleanor and Onésimo Pacheco. Likewise, at a gas station in Peñasco, Alex photographed a couple of longtime friends. The warmth between the men—one, shirtless and heavily tattooed, wraps his arm around the other—recalls Alex’s 1979 picture of two brothers under an apple tree, their arms similarly draped across each other’s shoulders. While the tableaux Alex captured decades ago appear as singular, ephemeral, and not reproducible, I was starting to notice visual echoes. These scenes were imbued with the essence of those earlier moments, almost as if these themes lived outside of time and, instead, existed somewhere deep in the land, in the air, waiting to be seen again.
And then we came upon Valentine Whettnall. After bumping and clanking our way along a deeply rutted road, we pulled up in front of the home where the Pachecos had lived—a home Alex had photographed many times and one that he wanted me to see. No one was there, but a hundred yards away, what looked like a scene from a fairy tale was unfolding: In a small, well-tilled plot of land, a woman in a yellowed straw hat and blue paisley shirt tended to rows of about-to-sprout vegetables. This was Whettnall. In a lilting French accent, she told us that she and her young family had moved to the area only about a year before. Alex and I watched as she sprinkled hay while her young daughter dribbled water onto the soil with a child-size watering can. Working the land, minding the children, thinking about water—here was the essence of the place expressing itself yet again. When Whettnall paused for a moment, resting on her wooden hoe, I recalled the picture Alex made 44 years prior. It’s of a smiling older woman in homemade clothes, tilling the arid earth the way generations had before her, the way generations would, hopefully, for years to come.
BY 1976, Alex had decided that northern New Mexico was home. He bought a parcel of Eden-like land a short drive from Peñasco; over time, he and his wife built a modest house on the side of a hill overlooking an impossibly green pasture and the shaded stream that ran through the property. Three years later, he accepted a much-sought-after job as a photography professor at Duke and moved back to North Carolina, but every summer and every sabbatical, the family decamped to the valley, where the kids would spend hours splashing in the stream. Today his son, Will, now 33, along with his partner and infant son, have moved into the old house. And the generational knowledge that Jacobo passed down to Alex has been passed down again, as Will uses the same methods to clear the acequia and irrigate the fields.
Before our trip, Alex hadn’t been back to the area in nearly five years—by far the most time he’d spent away since he nearly burned down his Peñasco rental. As much as the visual echoes remind him of the way things were, on this visit he saw plenty that felt startlingly new, like a recently built 25,000-square-foot skateboard park in Picuris Pueblo.
Now, as I sat with Alex in a small clearing above his old home, and watched the photographer watch his son hike up the hilly path toward us, that oft-quoted Thomas Wolfe line “You can’t go home again” came to mind. I asked Alex whether he believed it to be true. He looked at his son, then out over the green pasture and to the mountains of northern New Mexico in the distance. “Maybe,” he said. “But in so many ways, I never really left.”