Roswell Angier and Susan Hawley, Gallup

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MIT Press (here). Hardback, 8 x 6 inches, 208 pages, with 81 monochrome photographs (by Angier) and 30 watercolors (by Hawley). Includes numerous journal excerpts by the authors and an afterword by Ramona Emerson. Design by Margarita Encomienda. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: There is a temptation to think of photo history as a linear procession, a collectively authored river flowing from point A to point B. Each generation builds on the shoulders of the past, accumulating progress over time. While there is some truth to that notion, it’s probably more accurate to think of the photo river proceeding in fits and starts. There are dams, still pools, and rapids.

And then there are historical oxbows like the new photobook Gallup. When Roswell Angier shot the series between 1979 and 1981, he fully intended to create a book. For various reasons that didn’t happen. Instead the pictures lingered in his archives, somewhat neglected and eventually superseded by other projects. 

When the art world shined a late career spotlight on Angier, most of the attention fell upon his best known series A Kind Of Life: Conversations in the Combat Zone. This was Angier’s book project from in the mid-1970s, exploring the culture of Boston strip clubs. A selection from Combat Zone was exhibited at New York’s Gitterman Gallery in 2005, receiving broad acclaim. Almost as an afterthought, that show included a handful of silver gelatin prints from Angier’s southwest travels, “documenting the lives of Native Americans in New Mexico and Arizona.” In broad terms, their milieu was similar to Combat Zone—gritty, raw, and streetwise—but the arid western scapes could hardly be less alike. Together the two bodies of work helped solidify Angier’s plebeian reputation, but it wasn’t until a subsequent Gitterman show in 2007 that New Mexico finally took center stage. That exhibition was devoted to Angier’s “work in the border towns surrounding the Navajo Nation.” Although the series had not yet galvanized around the town of Gallup, it was moving in that direction.

Fifteen years later, these many fits and starts have helped to set the stage for Gallup, co-authored by Angier and his wife Susan Hawley. With an expansive selection of Angier’s photographs, watercolors by Hawley, and contemporaneous journal experts from both artists, Angier’s final book—he died in May, just before publication—puts his stamp on the place once and for all. Gallup was the couple’s home off and on between 1979 and 1981, a western refuge from their base in Boston, where Angier taught at Tufts. It’s a small burg in the northwest corner of New Mexico, tucked along Route 66 near the Navajo nation and Four Corners. In its mid fifties heyday, Gallup was a popular set location for Hollywood westerns, and the town still harbors vestiges of John Wayne-style cowboy tropes. Rand McNally once named Gallup the “most patriotic small town in America.” Since the 1980s the population has held stable around 20K, with the altitude and crime rate both well elevated.   

For photographers, Gallup is probably best known for Robert Frank’s photo from The Americans taken inside a city bar. That murky hip shot—a man in a cowboy hat framed behind a lurking shadow—will never wind up in any how-to primer, but it’s a menacing force nonetheless. Before visiting Gallup in person, it was Angier’s only impression of the place. “The picture stayed with me,” he writes. “The place, which I drove through in 1962, did not. It seemed vacant and empty of appeal.” For a young Harvard grad on his way to study at Berkeley, he was far off the beaten trail. “At first glance, Gallup seemed like the edge of the world.”

One might ask, why did Angier and Hawley decide to settle there? Perhaps they needed a break from the intensity of Boston, or perhaps—like photographers Danny Lyon and Dennis Hopper—they were lured to New Mexico by countercultural undertones. Those were likely factors, but personal motivations also came into play. In a Boston Globe interview Angier recalled that “I decided to go there because of an exchange I had with my father in 1966… It was the Fourth of July. I remember some desultory conversation about the holiday, before my father…offered an opinion about our treatment of North American Indigenous people. My wife Susan – a painter – and I secured funding to produce some work. Thinking of my father and of Robert Frank’s Navajo cowboy, we chose to do so in Gallup.”  

Frank’s cowboy was just a single image captured in passing a quarter century before Angier. But its ghost seemed to haunt his explorations. Like Frank, Angier’s tool of choice was a small format camera and black-and-white film. His hand held photos are fleeting and grainy like The Americans. They portray a hardscrabble town of pavement, scrubby Art Deco, and distant horizons, with pockets of pedestrians lingering on corners or waiting for the bar to open. Gas stations, railroad tracks, and cattle fencing provide a loose framework. This is the city’s infrastructure, at least as depicted in broad strokes. When Angier came in closer, as he did with regularity, the view occasionally confronted Frank directly. A picture of a counseling session at the Gallup Indian Center, for example, features a hulking unfocused shadow on the right side of the frame, facing a background figure with a morose expression. Frank’s bar scene has a twin, it seems. 

Of course Frank was a temporary interloper. In contrast, Angier and Hawley lived in Gallup. They enmeshed in the community, and Angier befriended several locals. Judging by his photos, most were Native American. Perhaps his father’s words still whispered in his ear? In any case he found companionship, and his buddies furnished a helpful baseline for his photographs. They were subjects in their own right, and also provided entrée to private gatherings. Through locals like Roscoe Anderson, Emerson Shorty, Bronco Martinez, and Roger Pablo—all photographed and written about with warm remembrance—Angier found his way through Gallup’s underbelly. By all appearances he was welcomed into the community, at least for a time. Like Frank, he was hassled by police on occasion. But whereas Frank was essentially a stranger wherever he traveled, Angier’s view is that of an insider looking out.  

If Hawley’s paintings feel less personal than Angier’s pictures, that might just be nature of the medium. Photographs capture expressions and faces with ease, whereas Hawley’s watercolors are abstract and non-indexical. Interspersed with Angier’s photos, they’re a pleasing contrast with his monochromes, but it’s Angier’s pictures which describe the day-to-day. View from car interiors, hotel rooms, parade venues, revivals, and just strolling main street, they blend documentary reporting and personal revelation. One memorable picture shows jailbirds drying out near a grungy toilet in the city pen. How did he gain such access? Who knows, but his picture penetrate. Accompanied by journal excerpts, Gallup might be the visual equivalent of 1970s New Journalism.  

It was probably inevitable that the city would wear thin. “I’m sick of Gallup,” Angier wrote in August of 1980. “Sick of drunks. Weary of this one-room bunker of an apartment where I process film in a dusty bathroom with a towel jammed under the door to keep the light out. I’m fatigued by my picture, by the way the camera frame constantly finds tension between its edges or corners. Tired of seeing large out-of-focus faces looming toward me as I look through the viewfinder. I wish I could take a few simple pictures.” Ouch. Poor Gallup, although some of Angier’s exhaustion seems transferred. Perhaps the photographer had merely reached a mid-life artistic reckoning? In any case, a shift was in the works. Hawley too had reached a breaking point. “I had had it with his constant picture-taking,” she grumbles to her journal. 

Any photographer spouse can relate to that sentiment, and Hawley’s case might’ve been more extreme than most. Judging by this book Angier shot obsessively, at all hours and locations. He hung with friends, in bars, cars, and at events. Surely he must have come home at times, but if so he left no pictures. Spirits flagging, the couple eventually decamped to Boston and academia. With the book Gallup finally published, we can see their time there had been fruitful. It might be a smallish monograph, but it’s densely packed with photos, paintings, and impressions. A small oxbow in photo history has now gratefully been pulled into the main current.

Collector’s POV: Roswell Angier’s photographs are represented by Gitterman Gallery in New York (here). His photographs have little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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