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Taoseños and Sojourners: The Photographs of Mildred Tolbert

September 24 - December 30, 2006

 

The Harwood Museum of Art of the University of New Mexico presents the exhibition Taoseños and Sojourners: The Photographs of Mildred Tolbert organized by Harwood curator Margaret Bullock and artist and scholar Charles Strong. The exhibition opens September 24 and will be on view through December 30, 2006. It includes over 25 photographs of Taos artists, prominent community members and visitors of note from the late 1940s through the early 1960s. 

Mildred Tolbert's black and white photographs range from portraits to documentary images of community events and private celebrations. This variety reflects her two career paths: as a commercial photographer and as an artist. Much of her work was shot using New Mexico's strong natural light giving her images unusual depth and tone and striking shadows. 

Tolbert was born in 1919 on a cattle ranch in the Texas Panhandle. She was given her first camera, a Brownie Box, at the age of 12, which she used to make snapshots of family and classmates. She received her first formal photographic training at the Texas State College for Women learning how to develop and print photographs and use a large-format camera. After studying journalism at West Texas State and Texas Tech, she decided to leave school and move to Taos, a place she had visited as a child. There she began working as an assistant at the Martin Shaffer photography studio, eventually taking over management of the business when Shaffer left to join the war. In the mid 1940s, after a brief stint in Denver working for a commercial photographer, she moved to New York and threw herself headlong into the art scene, taking painting classes, attending gallery openings and concerts and continuing to work on her photography. She returned to Taos for a period, then moved back to New York where she worked for Leco Photo Service, a photo printer connected with the photo agency, Magnum, which had recently been formed by David Seymour, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and George Rodger. Tolbert not only had the opportunity of studying and printing these photographers' work, but also meeting and mingling with them. 

In 1947, Tolbert returned to Taos where she set up as a freelance photographer. She made a specialty of images of artists and their works shot in natural sunlight, but also photographed portraits, weddings and other special events for commercial and private clients. She also continued to pursue her own artistic projects.  

The photographs in the Harwood Museum exhibition were taken primarily in the 1950s and early 1960s when Tolbert was working with a 3 1/4 x 4 1/4 Soho Reflex camera, and later a Leica. They are primarily posed portraits but some casual snapshots are also included. Tolbert particularly loved working with artists stating: "I'd always felt drawn to them, liked their honesty and lack of pretension, and was trying to understand the creative process. I kept my prices low and never wanted a studio because I enjoyed going to their homes, seeing how they lived and relating with them." This interest and rapport comes through in her portraits which are compelling, honest, and often unexpectedly revealing images.   

Taoseños and Sojourners: The Photographs of Mildred Tolbert opens Sunday, September 24 with a public reception from 3-5 pm.  Also opening concurrently are Melissa Zink: The Language of Enchantment and Retablo: Behind the Altar, A Collection of Paul LeBaron Thiebaud. A gallery talk is scheduled during the exhibition. 

 

(above: James, Rebecca Salsbury, ca. 1950s, gelatin silver photograph. Courtesy of the Artist and the Harwood Musuem of Art)

 

(above: Snead, Stella, ca. 1950s, gelatin silver photograph. Courtesy of the Artist and the Harwood Musuem of Art)

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