The Light of Santa Fe

Without light, there is no visual experience. In the same way that a mood can color the emotional experience of your day, the quality of the light that allows you to see your world also helps to create it.

Santa Fe, New Mexico has amazing light.

This was not my first trip to the 400 year-old Southwestern city; nevertheless, I was caught off guard by my picturesque drive into it. As I approached Santa Fe from the southwestern part of New Mexico, I gradually ascended from the desert flats into piñon-juniper forest punctuated by stately ponderosa trees. In late afternoon their shadows were long and warm, seeming to coat the sandy soil in a layer of molasses, and the blue of the sky actually appeared to deepen.

The rolling hills and mountains surrounding Santa Fe are not nearly as red and dramatic as nearby Southern Utah’s, and I think this is part of what draws many people to them. Southern Utah’s cliffs and rock formations are strikingly alien, no matter what light and weather conditions you observe them in. Santa Fe’s landscape is more subtle. Depending on the hour of the day and the convergence of cloud patterns, you might be drawn in by rich orange hues, or you might experience a topography painted in monochromatic khaki. There are no dramatic peaks or stone arches, no breathtaking waterfalls or gorges. Instead, there is a softer charm, one that leaves much up to interpretation.

Interpretation of the visual world is the playground of artists, and it’s no coincidence that Santa Fe has long been a magnet for them. There are over 300 art galleries and nine art museums in this town of 70,000 people, and Santa Fe has been declared UNESCO Creative City in Design, Crafts, and Folk Art. One statistic states that 39% of the city’s income is related to arts and culture. The city has been very supportive of the arts, not only through infrastructural development but also through its “living wage ordinance” that sets the minimum wage at about $11 per hour. Back in 1912, the local government established very strict building codes to create Santa Fe’s architectural “look.” This look is recognizable anywhere, and structures are clearly built with the area’s Anasazi pueblo heritage in mind. There are lots of right angles, earth tones, adobe or terra cotta surfaces, and a preponderance of exposed wooden beams and lintels. The consistency of this style has helped to make Santa Fe the tourist mecca that it is today. For me, it gives the city a wonderful Latin flavor that no other American city can claim.

Any one of these factors might explain why artists have been drawn to reside and create beauty in this spot. But I think it’s the light that draws them. I know I was captivated by how it affected everything around me as I wandered the streets. I found myself taking hundreds of photographs – of flowerpots, rooflines, windowsills – mundane objects rendered otherworldly by the rays of the sun in which they were bathed. As my skin began to feel the intensity of the sun at Santa Fe’s 7000 foot elevation, I wondered if the thinner air somehow affected the quality of the light as well. It is rare to be at such a high altitude at a low latitude in the US. The dryness of the atmosphere might play a part in nature of the light, as might the notoriously high quality of the air in northern New Mexico.

Regardless of its source, the effects of Santa Fe light are unmistakable. As an artist myself, I could see the appeal of depicting daily life through the lens of a light that casts wonder wherever it hits. Many have done so before me, and judging from the vibrant gallery scene in town, many are deep in that process right now.


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