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  Featured Artist

Joe Cabaza

Joe Cabaza, fine art photographer Photo credit: Oli Robbins

c. Joe Cabaza

Kitchen Table, Las Golondrinas, NM, photograph, by Joe Cabaza

c. Joe Cabaza

Penitente Morada, Peña Blanca, NM, photograph, by Joe Cabaza
Oli Robbins, photo by Joe Cabaza

One shot:
The poetic photography of Joe Cabaza

—Oli Robbins
Photography is often regarded as an art of multiples—due to both the reproducible images it creates as well as the fact that most photographers take several shots of the same subject in an attempt to ensure they get the “right” image. But Placitas photographer Joe Cabaza gives himself, quite literally, only one shot. Not only does he eschew the now-ubiquitous digital camera for 19th-century, large-format cameras, he only allows himself one chance to capture a place, form, or figure. Because he still works with film, he doesn’t have the luxury of choosing the best of dozens of shots. His process resembles that of a painter who critically conceives of, and pieces together, a scene.

Says Cabaza, “It’s gotten to the point where I go out and see something I want to photograph, and I study it, compose it, visualize it, and I just take one shot.” He assured me that, of course, sometimes the result looks different than he had imagined: “I’ll blow shots, like anybody, but I figure if I can’t do it in one shot, it wasn’t good enough that day.”

In his black and white, often lyrical photographs, Cabaza turns the banal into the monumental, transforming a pair of worn work boots or an old typewriter into objects of timeless beauty. He tends toward places and objects that are rich in stories, but is not attached to conveying something specific to the viewer. “The viewer can go where he wants to go,” says Cabaza. “I’m not into writing what is what.”

Cabaza does write, though, and can no longer be called just a photographer. His recent series, “Words and Photographs,” presents eight-by-ten inch photographs alongside poems that articulate the story behind, or a feeling conveyed by, the photograph. Oftentimes his photographs inspire poems, but it also works the other way—Cabaza will take an already-written poem and create a photograph that gives it pictorial form. Cabaza started writing in 1991 when living in Boston. He, along with two editor-friends, set out to write a book that would integrate photography and poetry. That book was never completed, but shortly after, he wrote and published another poetry book, which sold successfully. When asked what type of poetry he gravitates towards, the artist smiled and responded, “I love haiku. God, I love haiku.”

While his father worked on the infamous Manhattan Project of the 1940s, Cabaza spent his early childhood years in Santa Fe—a time he remembers fondly for the stories his elders would tell him. Says Cabaza, “You know the movie Bless Me, Ultima? I can relate to that. That’s how I grew up.” Cabaza feels that the movie accurately represents aspects of Hispanic lifestyle in the 1940s. “I always heard about how simple things used to be, how people lived back then.”

To this day, he has an affinity for the simple; he loves Placitas for the peace and quiet it offers, and his photographs are candid and tranquil, never convoluted or seemingly difficult to comprehend.

Cabaza admits that he didn’t grow up making art or knowing he wanted to  be an artist, but instead spent much of his time in athletics. One day, in 1974, he “just wanted to get a camera.” His acquisition inspired him to read up on photography, so he studied one Ansel Adams book after another. Cabaza is a totally self-taught photographer, having learned technique, printing, and developing from such books.

After burying himself in Adams’ imagery and instructions, and subsequently experimenting with large-format photography, Cabaza became introduced to the photography of Edward Weston, to which he felt intensely compelled. Says Cabaza, “His work just blows me away. A friend of mine has a Weston print and, god, I have dreams about that print—the contrast and tonality. That’s what large-format is all about.” Large-format cameras enable Cabaza to achieve Weston-like tonality, and they also provide a wider range of composition possibilities. He explains, “I like the adjustments. I can set it up and raise the lens, or I can swing it around for perspective control. That’s what I like about them—they correct distortion.”

Cabaza processes his negatives in his own make-shift darkroom. He then scans the negatives and tweaks them with Photoshop. Since he visually analyzes and fashions his arrangements with such care, once he shoots, there are few modifications left to be done. He gives primacy to the moment of creation, not to the potential edits that follow. “I don’t do a lot of manipulation to the negative,” says Cabaza. “If the negative isn’t there, it won’t matter what you do.”

While I always enjoy viewing the impressive work produced by fine artists, I certainly don’t expect to be offered a piece, much less become part of one. As Cabaza and I were wrapping up our interview, he asked if he might photograph me. Not only did our interview give rise to a photograph, the photograph in turn prompted a “Words and Photographs” poem. Here I thought I was the one conducting an interview when, unbeknownst to me, Cabaza was the one hard at work composing. Perhaps a true artist is always creating.

Cabaza’s work can be seen at Arte de Placitas, or by appointment with the artist. For further information, visit his website at:

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