In Search of Winogrand's 'New Mexico, 1957'
There’s a photograph that has intrigued me since I first saw it. The image is black and white, portraying a late-1950’s tract home, desert scrub and mountains in the distance, with an upturned kid’s tricycle in the driveway, and a young toddler standing near the shade of the carport, sporting a quizzical look. Stormy thunderclouds can be seen looming over the distant mountain peak, at the base of which the letter “U” can be seen inscribed on the side of a foothill. On one column of the carport can be seen the house numbers “208.”
The image is titled “New Mexico, 1957” – the year of my birth – and was made by the famed documentary photographer Garry Winogrand. Seeing this photograph for the first time, years ago, brought an immediate sense of recognition; I knew those mountains, that letter “U” at it’s base, those scrub-infested desert foothills; even the style of architecture of the house was familiar. It is what was the eastern edge of the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the place of my birth and present domicile.
The year 1957 was not only the year of my birth, but was also at the height of the cold war tensions between the world’s two super-powers. Gigantic H-bombs were being brought into the US stockpile for the first time, many of them stored in underground bunkers carved into the hard granite of another mountain just a few miles south of – to the right of – the little kid, in diapers, standing in the barren, sloping driveway. My Dad worked at that secret base when Winogrand captured this photo with his Leica.
The city of Albuquerque was undergoing explosive growth in the 1950s, and this now forgotten tract home, lost somewhere in the midst of a mature metropolis, was back then on the very edge of town, tentatively tethered to civilization by the tenuous threads of barely paved roads and utilities stretched thin.
Three years after this image was taken, my family moved up to the east edge of town, in another tract home planted in the dry desert, only a few miles north of where Winogrand made this photo – at least by my estimation – based on the size and position of certain features of the ridgeline of the Sandia Mountains, in relation to the house in the photo.
There’s a certain sense of fear and uncertainty in the child’s pose that seems to foretell future tragedy. Oddly, the child’s unkempt curly hair resembles that of my two brothers and me at a similar age; we, too, have old black and white photos where we look almost identical to this anonymous child.
The storm brewing over the mountain seems to forebode of future events: five years later would come the Cuban Missile Crisis; a year later – actually, only a few months later – our own Mother would die, leaving three young boys motherless. Does the face of the anonymous toddler in the driveway seem to foretell this, like a distant vision on the horizon? It’s ridiculous; mere speculation; artistic symbolism at best. Yet in my delusional speculation I cannot help but to notice that Winogrand’s photograph serves as a document of a unique time and place, when what would become the northeast heights of Albuquerque was being carved out of seemingly endless wastes of yucca and sage and thistle, formerly just rangeland for cattle, now the heart of a teeming metropolis.
Our house was on the very edge of town, about two miles from the foothills of the Sandias. After windstorms, tumbleweeds would be piled up along the east side of our house, all the way up to the roofline; Dad would drag them away from the house with a rake and burn them. We would play in the dirt backyard, and finding “horned toads” was a common occurrence. Did the little kid in our photo also play with horned toads? Did tumbleweeds inundate its house, too? We can only speculate.
In the lower right corner of Winogrand’s image is a little stub of landscaping, a mere shrub, planted as if a flag proclaiming the desert to now be conquered in the name of the city that would soon arrive. This knee-high shrub foretells the future, too; were one to attempt to relocate this house, that mere shrub would either be a mature tree, or perhaps long cut down.
This is what I set about to do on a sunny, quiet Sunday afternoon in the late summer of 2009: to relocate that long-lost setting in its present context. The only clues I had to go by were: 1) the position of the house relative to the Sandia Mountains, and 2) the street number of the house, visible in the photo.
The position of the house relative to the mountain is problematic; from street level one can rarely glimpse the Sandia’s ridgeline, due to the close proximity of neighboring houses and mature trees. But I do know that the house was located on the east side of a north-south street; the house number ending in an even number, a convention common in Albuquerque, reinforces this. Chronologically, the proximity of the house to the mountain determines when it was built; the newer neighborhoods were built closer to the mountain, as the city grew eastward. Yet, too old of a neighborhood would locate the house too far distant from the foothills of the mountain for them to be seen at the size evident in the photo.
The street number is interesting. It is hard to tell if there is a fourth digit in the shadow of the carport, making the “208” into a “1208”, or perhaps a “2208”; this is crucial to determining the north-south position of the house within the city, whose numbering convention starts to the south, on Central Avenue – the old Route 66 – and increases northward. The question is whether neighborhoods in the 200 block north of Central were close enough to the specific features evident in the Sandia Mountain’s ridgeline for them to be somewhat south of (to the right of, in the photo) the house.
Driving around on this Sunday, it appears that the house is most likely numbered “1208”, after having investigated the further possibilities of “2208”, which appear to be too far north for the dip in the ridgeline’s curve to be just to the south of the house’s location; and “208” appears to be too far south. This is reinforced by later study of the photographic image found online, where deep in the shadows of the carport the leading digit “1” can be seen above the “208.” It’s “1208" for certain.
There’s also the matter of the house’s architectural style. A slightly pitched roof, with an edging of wooden trim; a carport with a one-car garage that’s recessed back from the front of the house, on the house’s right (south) side; the front windows divided into three sections vertically; and the sloping driveway. Of course, the possibility is very likely that after fifty-two years, considerable remodeling could have taken place, enough to perhaps entirely obscure the house’s identity.
Still, I was able to locate a neighborhood in the correct part of town for the mountain’s distinctive features to be visible in the correct orientation and size, with a style of architecture very similar to that in the picture, of an age approximately accurate for the date of the photo. And I located four houses with a house number of “1208”, which have, or once had, carports on their south side, and which were located along the east side of a north-south residential street. Of these four, one in particular seems to be the most likely candidate, located at 1208 Muriel.
I don’t know if our house in question is one of these for certain. There is a bit of uncertainty here, because in the early 1960s the right-of-way of Interstate 40 was cut through parts of northeast Albuquerque nearby, and many houses were leveled to make room for the highway; our house in question could have been removed along with all the others.
So, the look of fear and uncertainty continues to follow that little child in the driveway. The mystery remains; which is only fitting for all true mysteries. Perhaps I’ll never know the exact location of Winogrand’s photograph that continues to symbolize, as least for me, early childhood years in the growing American southwest.
Since I’ve located the house made famous in Garry Winogrand’s “New Mexico, 1957,” I took the opportunity to make a closer photographic study of the structure, and to inquire of its present inhabitants as to any further back-story that they may possess.
Monday morning, a cool, late summer’s day, not yet 9am. I slung my camera across my neck and bicycled down Morris, a 30mph neighborhood feeder street, south toward the Bellamah subdivision, where the Winogrand house was located. Whereas yesterday there were two cars in the driveway, this morning there was only one. The sun was just peering through the branches of the large trees on the lot, planted much later than the photograph’s date of 1957, so I knew the lighting would be much different than that in the famous image.
I snapped a few images with my Lumix G1, thinking consciously of how Winogrand would have worked, and which lens he would have had on his Leica. Knowing that he used various lenses, including 28, 35 and 50mm, I set the focal length on the Lumix 14-45mm kit lens to the equivalent of all three of these settings, (since the G1 is a micro-4/3rd’s camera, whose angle of view is equivalent to ½ that of a full-frame 35mm camera at the same focal length), and with a reference print in hand adjusted my standing position at the base of the driveway while making various exposures at each equivalent focal length. Of the images I made, the one that comes closest to resembling the image created by Winogrand appears to have been made with a 35mm lens on the Leica; although I’m not entirely certain, because in the Winogrand image the lower half of the driveway appears to protrude further down in the picture than it does in my image; perhaps he used a 50mm lens and stood further away from the house, serving to collapse the perspective flatter. I probably failed to stand back far enough when shooting at the G1 lenses’ 50mm equivalent angle of view (that would be 25mm on the Lumix lens), a reminder that I must go back and retry capturing this image. He may have also crouched down, further heightening the sloping effect of the driveway.
I tentatively approached the front door, which cannot be seen in Winogrand’s image, but is under the carport to the left, on the south side of the house, essentially directly behind, and to the left of, the diaper-clad toddler. I immediately noticed that the support column for the carport lacks the metal house numbers so easily visible in the image. I rang the doorbell and waited; through the storm door I could see a neat, orderly and homely domain, obviously attended to with much care. The TV was on, some morning news program; the Albuquerque Isotopes had clinched their division’s season championship.
She came to the door, wearing a colorful housecoat. An older, friendly lady, we stood at the door and chatted a while, had a most pleasant conversation. Her and her husband had moved into the house a bit over five years ago, having moved from California, but they had lived in Albuquerque years ago. The real estate company had mentioned that the house was made famous on someone’s photograph, but the lady had not heard of Garry Winogrand until this morning. I had to repeatedly spell it for her; she seemed intent on remembering the name, as her son, who lives in Colorado, was an aspiring landscape photographer.
She indicated that the house was pretty much unchanged, just a bit of remodeling. When they first moved in, the little shrub, seen in the lower right corner of Winogrand’s image, was a huge bush, obscuring parts of the driveway and sidewalk, and had to be removed. The three-tier brick coping, seen along the bottom edge of the house on the left, has been removed, and the house undoubtedly has been restuccoed several times, having served for years as a rental property; the garage door has also recently been replaced. The house-numbers so visible in the photograph have long since been removed, but visible through the layers of paint on the column are still the mounting holes for the metal numbers, like scars from an accident long ago.
We talked about photography and neighborhoods and how areas grow and change over the years, like people; some maturing with grace, others obviously having lived a harder life. The neighborhood where the house sits is aging gracefully, the house having been one of the first to be built in the neighborhood, in the late 1950s.
About five years ago, a man came to her door. He said he was the little toddler in the picture, and that he was famous. She thought him a bit full of himself, but neither did she know the name or reputation of Garry Winogrand.
Just behind her house, one block away, is the busy street of Juan Tabo; there’s a large retail building obscuring the view of the foothills that are so visible in Winogrand’s image from long ago, and the once-empty lot next door, just like the entire neighborhood, now sports other near-identical houses, with mature landscaping. It would never be possible now to recreate with exact precision the moment captured in time on Winogrand’s Leica; but that is okay, for photographs serve as totems within which we impart the power of memory with that of the image made visible.
As we end our conversation, she departs into the recesses of the house, and I finish snapping a few more pictures. I notice, holding the handgrip of the G1 in my right hand, a scar on my thumb, from long ago, seventh grade, when in art class I sliced my thumb open with a razor knife while attempting linoleum block printing. The scar is still visible all these years later, although my body has changed considerably. It’s like a remnant of an earlier age, a reminder, etched in flesh, of a time long ago. That is what I think when I stand in front of 1208 Muriel with a printout of Winogrand’s image in hand. It has been a good morning.