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photo-eye Book Reviews: Descendants

Descendants, Photographs by Norman Mauskopf.
Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2010.
Reviewed by Mary Anne Redding
Norman Mauskopf Descendants
Photographs by Norman Mauskopf
Twin Palms Publishers, Santa Fe, 2010. Hardbound. 96 pp., 60 duotone illustrations, 12x9".

How many books have only a black and white photograph on the front cover with no text overlay to introduce the contents? On the slender black spine is one word: Descendants, followed by the photographer's name: Norman Mauskopf, and on the bottom edge prances the proud white horse -- the publisher's instantly recognizable logo. The sequencing of the images in this book by Jack Woody, editor of TwelveTrees Press, is a work of art in and of itself -- there are no words or captions to distract from the haunting images that build a visual narrative interlaced like beads on a rosary. The poem, Singing at the Gates, at the end of the book by Jimmy Santiago Baca is a bilingual masterpiece.

Mauskopf is an outsider looking in, but accepted along with his cameras because he is a passionate observer. Everyone immediately senses this man will tell it as straight as he sees it -- no slant, no spin, no agenda -- just truth in the way Robert Frank told it so many years ago when no one in America was willing to believe that what was in front of his camera was true. Mauskopf shares a similar truth in vision with Frank. He received the prestigious W. Eugene Smith Award for his documentary work on this ten-year project; his images offer a rare glimpse by piercing Anglo eyes into the Hispanic culture of northern New Mexico.

Descendants, by Norman Mauskopf. Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2010.
The book begins with a timeless image -- serape costumed figures dancing in the black night illuminated only by firelight. This scene could have been depicted last year, 170 years ago, or even as long ago as when the first Spanish slowly snaked their way up the Camino Real from Mexico establishing numerous villages along the way to what is now northern New Mexico. It is a continuation of the ceremonies and rituals of these earliest conquistadors. What exists today of the Matachines dances has been handed down with slight variation from generation to generation to generation, across thousands of miles, across countries, across languages. 

Descendants, by Norman Mauskopf. Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2010.
First proudly decorating their Spanish horses, now painting their custom detailed lowriders that cruise across the paved high desert landscape, the Hispanic people still parade the Virgin on her satin cushioned throne, cutting through the Lotaburger parking lot. The artist records it all: life in the big cities and small towns -- connected by an ancient but still visible thread weaving together desire, religious conviction, adobe structures, horses and sheep, pit bulls and monster trucks, the drunk in front of the memorial painted on the side of Owl's Liquors, the white first communion dresses that morph into wedding dresses -- it's all part of the complex warp and weft of history and culture in this land. The bearded glaring Santero holds his latest bulto with a message that all generations, unfortunately, fail to head: "No War." Whether rival inner-city gangs made up of members with shared last names, the turf wars of cartels in Mexico, warring Shia and Sunni, Christians verses Jews -- local or global, we bear our tribal signs and forget that we are all connected. Mauskopf offers a rare and honest glimpse of old connections still living in northern New Mexico.

Descendants, by Norman Mauskopf. Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2010.
A portion of the proceeds from Descendants will be donated to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Fe.—Mary Anne Redding

Mary Anne Redding is the Curator of Photography at the Palace of the Governors/New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe.