Today, St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Punta de Agua presents a stark face to travelers on Highway 55 in central New Mexico. It is striking for its absence of vegetation. The churchyard is fenced, paved over, clean and bare. No trees, no grass, and no flowers grow near the grave markers.
But 30 years ago, photographer Marilyn Conway caught the church on film and preserved quite a different version of the old adobe church. Standing before that photograph at the recent opening for her current exhibition, Conway learned the reason why the churchyard at Punta de Agua came to be paved—a caretaker once poisoned the land with an overdose of weedkiller and the community decided to pave the churchyard in order to protect people from contact with the herbicide. For Conway, this fact resonated because of her own exposure and sensitivity to harsh chemicals.
Conway is a fine art photographer who moved to New Mexico in the 1960s to pursue a Fine Arts Degree in Photography from the University of New Mexico. Armed with a Certificate of Graduation from Parsons New School of Design and a BFA from the UNM, Marilyn set out to “make photos of New Mexico like no one has seen before.”
For the next 25 years, she worked as a film photographer, documenting her world in Martineztown and the South Valley of Albuquerque as well as other parts on New Mexico. Her work is in museums, businesses, and galleries throughout New Mexico and the country, including the Museum of Fine Art in Santa Fe and The Museum of Albuquerque.
During those years, she perfected an alternative process for developing and finishing her prints that gives them an ethereal quality. She shot her photos with infrared film and a red filter that produced a surreal, grainy effect when she developed them in her darkroom.
After developing, she dipped each print into a sepia tone bath to give the print an aged look. Then, using cotton swabs and cotton balls, she painted the prints with Marshalls Oils, the same oils that were applied to black and white photos before the advent of colored film.
During these years, slowly and unbeknownst to her, Marilyn was developing a chemical sensitivity to her darkroom chemicals. Then, after the city of Albuquerque sprayed her South Valley neighborhood with insecticide, she developed the environmental illness and extreme chemical sensitivity that ended this phase of her career.
For awhile, she hired other people to print her photographs for her. She also experimented with pinhole photography using Polaroid film to avoid exposure to darkroom chemicals.
In the end, to avoid environmental pollutants, Marilyn left Albuquerque and built a house outside of Mountainair. She switched from film to digital photography and created a digital process that gives new photos a look and feel similar to her early work.
This month, you can see her pre-digital hand-painted work, including some of her pinhole photography at an exhibition at the Manzano Mountain Art Center in Mountainair. The exhibition, New Mexico in the 90s, features 20 of her hand-colored photographs from the early 1990s, many from well known places in Torrance County, including the land grant communities Tajique, Torreón, Manzano, and Punta de Agua.
For information, visit manzanomountainartcenter.org.