Robert Christensen's Diamonds in the Rough

The revelation of a decades-in-the-making portfolio of side-of-the-road portraiture has all the elements of a major event in the annals of New Mexico photography.

Locals didn’t always welcome the tall stranger with the camera. Odd enough that he slowed his car to a stop on their no-name two-lane roads. Odder still that he focused his lens on the things that used to be—the old gas station, the old coffee shop, the old bar.

In the mid-1990s, some 20 years after one of his “typical hit-and-run shots,” Robert Christensen returned to the Mora County village of Cleveland (population sub-200) to shoot Louie’s Gas Station. A fellow was working in the yard of a house next door, so Christensen asked him if he knew anything about the old building. Boy, did he. That fellow was Louie—Louie Casados—and he invited Christensen in for a chat.

Sitting on his couch, Casados spun a tale of how his father had proudly emblazoned his then-baby son’s name on his new business in 1949. Louie himself later tried to make a go of it before too few cars made it too much work for too little cash. In Christensen’s 1977 image, the screen door yawns before a wooden door locked tight. Faded promises of a cold Pepsi cling to buckled stucco.

All in all, it personifies Christensen’s idea of a perfect building to photograph.

“I would react to places that I felt were kind of looking back at me,” he said. “I saw them as portraits more than documentation. There’s almost faces in them.”

For nearly 40 years, Christensen has driven the state’s blue highways, a surreptitious photographer of handmade houses and businesses of the “we-don’t-need-no-stinkin’- blueprint” school of architecture. It was his private passion, known to only a few friends, his wife of 10 years, and folks encountered along the way, like Louie Casados.

But now, as he’s “counting down to 70,” Christensen suddenly finds himself in the spotlight. Through March 16, 2014, the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History features Vernacular Architecture of New Mexico: Photographs by Robert Christensen. The Palace of the Governors Photo Archives, in Santa Fe, has accepted his collection of nearly 300 images. He sees the possibility of out-of-state gallery shows, maybe even a book.

This measure of fame could have eluded him, as it did Vivian Maier, the Chicago street photographer whose 100,000 images were discovered in 2009, shortly before her death. Employed as a nanny for her entire career, Maier had likewise indulged a secret love for photography, focusing on historic landmarks, accidental portraits, and the rarely documented lives of down-and-outers. Since 2011, her work has appeared in international exhibitions, an outcome she couldn’t have predicted any more than Christensen could have foreseen his own newfound visibility.

“It’s all kind of avalanched on me,” he said. “I’m kind of surprised.”

Christensen’s photographic journey began unremarkably enough in 1970, after a stint in the Vietnam-era Army. Needing to clear his head, he said goodbye to his native Chicago and headed west, to be near his brother in Albuquerque. He loved the mild winters and hot chile, but what grabbed most of his heart was “the beguiling homespun architecture.” He took a job as a taxi driver, but an unexplainable urge told him to capture those quirky buildings. A 35-millimeter camera came by mail, and soon he was at the University of New Mexico, pursuing a master’s degree in fine-art photography—“you know, where the big bucks are,” he joked.

The best thing about college was becoming friends with B.G. Burr, a fellow photographer. Otherwise, Christensen’s UNM teachers felt so-so about his photos of campus buildings, which rarely included people. Christensen was similarly unmoved by the art theories of the era. Once his GI Bill ran out, he quit and moved on, to a string of odd jobs.

An early one saw him delivering produce all over New Mexico and Texas. Besides fruit and vegetables, he’d load the truck with camera gear, then meander from point A to point B—with stops at C, D, and E—hunting for buildings that lacked occupants but burst with character. The Spurs Saloon, in Vaughn. The Coffee Cup, in Carrizozo. A hippie house in La Joya.

Most notoriously, Christensen consumed more than four hours snailing his way from Las Cruces to El Paso, a trip that the Interstate rips out in 46 miles. His boss grew suspicious. He was followed. Then he got fired.

Christensen’s sallies along the back roads turned into an off-hours compulsion with repeat visits to favorite sites. He didn’t stop in every town, and a building had to be more than just old to earn a few frames.

“People say to me, ‘Oh, you’ve got to see this place,’” he said. “I go out, and it’s just a building, and I think, ‘Oh, they don’t get it.’”

For one of his work stints, Christensen logged time as a darkroom technician, perfecting skills that fellow photo-geeks still rave about. His college friend Burr, a photo archivist at the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts, once asked him to guest-teach a photography class at UNM–Valencia County.

“He showed the students a print, and they were all impressed with it,” Burr said. “Then he laid another beside it. It was noticeably better. They talked about how he brought out the details. Then he laid another one down. And another one. He did that 10 times. By the time he was finished, the students were speechless. I’ve never known anybody to print that well.”

By then, Christensen had settled in Belén, Burr in nearby Los Lunas. Sometimes, the two went out together on shooting jaunts. In 2001, Christensen fell for a coworker at a camera shop, and married her two years later. Debra Christensen joined him on some of his outings, shooting her own close-ups of nature. To Christensen, it was all a great hobby, like collecting baseball cards: “One photo would go up on the wall; another would come down.”

Burr kept telling him that his images compared well with the work of Walker Evans, a Farm Security Administration photographer whose Depression-era legacy included classics of the vernacular genre. A few years ago, the two spread out Christensen’s images on his coffee table, and it clicked.

“I’d never looked at it all together before,” he said. “I realized then that what B.G. said was true: I had a cohesive body of work.”

It took a while, but Christensen finally called Glenn Fye, photo archivist at the Albuquerque Museum. Once Fye got a glimpse, the dominoes tumbled.

“I thought they were little jewels,” Fye said. “They’re not pretentious, they’re not random snapshots. They’re character studies.” Best of all, he said, “They don’t have a ye-olde quality.”

“Bob’s not trying to tug at your heartstrings,” Albuquerque Museum of Art and History curator Andrew Connors said. “It’s a neutral statement and allows the viewer to apply their own meaning. He doesn’t care about trends, or what’s considered fashionable from an art perspective. He’s looking at what makes sense to him.”

What makes sense are buildings that reflect an era of do-it-yourself initiative, before the prefab sameness of national franchises turned every town into anytown.

Christensen doesn’t always know the stories behind his storefronts. Despite several drives south, he couldn’t divine why a onetime church north of El Paso had bones painted on its exterior. He can’t say what’s up with a windowless, flat-front building whose rooftop sign proclaims “cowboy jim’s.” “I only know that it’s in Santa Rosa,” he said.

Part of the info gap comes from the way people’s knees jerk the first time they see him.

“People don’t trust people with cameras,” he said. “So I go knocking on doors, and the first thing I say is, ‘I’m not from the government and I’m not selling anything.’ When they see a photograph I’ve taken of their place, they usually just open right up.”

Christensen treasures the times when the approach works and he can document a little tale. One of the sweetest sprang from a folk-art mural on a Belén auto-parts store with the initials “PC.” He met a Plácido Chavez there, an elderly man. They had a nice chat, but not much else. In the 1990s, Christensen got the Valencia News Bulletin to publish the image, asking folks to fill in the blanks. It turned out the mural painter was Plácido’s son, Florencio Chavez, a talented naïve artist who had decorated a number of buildings around town before dying young.

“The buildings were gone,” Christensen said. “His family had no record of his artwork, and they were thrilled to see my photo.”

In recent years, the master film printer has shot with a digital Nikon D300 and extols the charms of Adobe’s Photoshop software, particularly the consistency of a computer over a darkroom. He’s quick to acknowledge that he has yet to explore plenty of places in the state, but concedes that there may not be many more of his vernacular portraits to come.

“I got two good images this year, and they’re the first I’ve gotten for a couple of years,” he said. “It hurts to drive around now, physically.”

“We can’t go traipsing like we used to,” Debra Christensen said.

Still, the road calls, especially the little towns hugging the Río Grande and the Gila National Forest, Christensen’s happiest haunts. He hears it when looking at his favorite photo, of the Joy Drive In marquee near Anthony, the only memory of a moviegoing way station that fell into disuse, pecan trees finally growing up through and over the parking spots. How many more little jewels might be out there, settling a bit more each year into desert dust?

“They are becoming increasingly scarce,” he said in his artist statement for the exhibit, “but I still love to explore New Mexico, and I am always gratified when I chance upon just one more of these wizened old mugs looking back at me.”

Kate Nelson is the author of Helen Hardin: A Straight Line Curved (Little Standing Spruce Publishing, 2012). She reported on the renovation of La Fonda on the Plaza in the September issue.

NEED TO KNOW

Vernacular Architecture of New Mexico: Photographs by Robert Christensen is on display at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Sun., until March 16, 2014. (505) 243-7255;cabq.gov/culturalservices/albuquerque-museum