On the way to Santa Fe

By Lynn Snowden, published in Photo/Design Magazine 
"I think most travel or destination oriented books are just deadly," remarked photographer Lisl Dennis, having just completed one herself. Entitled Santa Fe, Dennis' volume, to be published imminently by Herring Press, is emphatically not deadly.

"Travel books usually look like they're sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce." Dennis went on. "My whole teaching has been based on the single issue of the difference between descriptive photography, which is what most travel photography usually is, versus interpretive photography. That's why these travel books are so awful. It's like, 'Stand back and let's take a portrait of Big Ben.' And I've been trying for the last 18 years to elevate travel photography as a genre of photography, to try to expand the definition of travel photography."

Santa Fe challenges the format of a destination book. The text was written by Landt Dennis, Lisl's husband, and between the two of them they offer the reader a look at the town, with its adobe buildings and beautiful churches, along with all the obligatory tourist sites and events. But it also shows more. One chapter is comprised of environmental portraits of Santa Fe's artists. One is shown in the back of a pick-up truck with his collection of baying coyote sculptures, some perched on bales of hay. The Sangre de Cristo mountains are in the background, as is a small sliver of a moon. Another chapter, "Behind the Adobe Walls," is devoted to the much touted Santa Fe style and features the interiors of homes, not the sort of thing the casual tourist is privileged to see.

We are also treated to the interior of a low-rider car, with its blood-red, furry motif and traditional eight-inch-wide chain steering wheel. There are enough descriptive photographs to satisfy the reader's curiosity about the town, but there is also a considerable number of interpretive photographs in which Dennis' unique perspective is apparent. This is clearly a book by two people who have spent a considerable amount of time, creative energy and thought toward what comprises Santa Fe.

Lisl Dennis, successful travel and interior photographer, is a striking woman. Her thick shock of hair has long since grown out of her legendary crew cut and now dramatically drapes down over her forehead. Appearance aside, she proved to be an extremely articulate interviewee with a knack for the verbal as well as visual description. We met recently at the Harvard Club, where she and Landt are members, to discuss her working with Jerry Herring on the book. Seated under a trophy elephant's head, we began at the beginning.

"Landt and I started the Travel Photography Workshop in Santa Fe roughly eight years ago," Dennis said. "We realized that there wasn't a beautiful $35-$40 coffee-table book on Santa Fe, which to us was absolutely staggering. The Southwest is one of the most interesting parts of the country and Santa Fe is certainly one of the most interesting towns, both culturally and architecturally."

Dennis began photographing the town with a book in mind about four years after this realization. "We were down there mainly during the summer," she recalled, "and as time went on, I realized that I was missing the winter. And the lilac season, which is really spectacular, is in the spring. So I made a point of getting down there for all four seasons. People don't know that Santa Fe sits at 7,000 feet and has four seasons. They think it is like Scottsdale!" I confessed that, until I saw the book, I had pictured cactus and tumbleweed blowing around a few artists who were working under s bright sun.

"It became fairly evident that what we really needed was a good, strong regional publisher," Dennis continued. "The book ought to be the standard standard souvenir coffee-table book, so the long-term sales would be regional. Big city publishers, particularly in New York, tend to give a book six months and then its down the tubes. Jackie Onasis was interested in the book, she liked the idea, but she could not get Doubleday's distributors to understand what Santa Fe was about."

So what is Santa Fe about? "It's a very down and dirty kind of town, which emerged out of the mud," said Dennis with a little smile as if modestly describing a fascinating, if somewhat unacceptable, boyfriend. "The kind of people who visit are culture-seeking types. Thousands of them come every year for the opera and chamber-music festival. Santa Fe has the third biggest art revenue in the country, next to New York and L.A. And it's not cowboy art, it's contemporary art. It's a town of 50,000 people, most of whom are Hispanic. The second largest group is Native Americans. The smallest group is the Anglos."

The Dennis' search for a regional publisher went on for two years. "Getting a regional publisher presented a problem," Dennis said. "Our vision of the book was that is would be printed in Japan, in a large format, solid color, and would sell for $35. So it meant an investment knocking at $100,000. And you don't find regional publishers with that kind of cash flow."

Two years before she met Herring, Floyd Yearout —who was then with the New York Graphic Society — remarked to Dennis that she had to decide whether the book was about Santa Fe or Lisl Dennis. "That really woke me up," she admitted. "At one point I wanted the book to be sort of an egotistic vehicle for me. The I realized that the book was not finished and I had a long way to go. There's nothing wrong with a book being about the person who produces it, but the intent of this book is that it's a commercial product about Santa Fe. Then it can be about Lisl Dennis and the photography."

"By January 1986 I was at a low ebb," Dennis confessed. "we had talked to every regional published from Arizona to Texas that we knew about. No one had the money. Nothing was working out. Then I attended the ASMP Awards ceremony at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Joel Meyerowitz, whom I like very much, won the book award for A Summer's Day and gave a philosophical speech about the important role of books in society. It really inspired me. I went home that night and couldn't sleep, so I started reading Photo District News. I hit the book reviews and saw one for a book on the Transco Tower. The opening line was, 'Now here's a book that justifies the description coffee-table book! All it needs is four legs.' That grabbed me."

The book was Presence, The Transco Tower, published by Herring Press. "It went on to say a little bit about what Jerry was up to," Dennis continued. "I really knew that I had found the publisher. I'm not talking about wishful thinking. I'm talking about total revelation. The search was over as far as I was concerned." Dennis called Herring the next day and within a couple of months he had agreed to design and publish her book.

I asked Dennis what Jerry Herring was like. He answer did nothing to dispel my preconceptions. "He has the most relaxed way of dealing with the creative person," she said. "He invites cooperation. Jerry has a very low-key method of working with photographers, which diffuses any opportunity to get uptight. He's an extremely unthreatening person to work for." Dennis paused, then added, "He's very economical, both with words and design."

"Jerry's basic philosophy is that he wants the photographs to be the star of the book," Dennis said, "and he doesn't want design to interfere with that. The city of Santa Fe is full of ditsy little eagles, symbols and colors, which would be a whole other way to design a book. It wouldn't be necessarily wrong, but it wouldn't be Jerry Herring. He really does not want books to look like magazines, with all these tipped in pictures and colored lines."

"My career has been 99% editorial and I love anything to do with books and magazines," Dennis continued. "While I shoot I see cover possibilities, double-page spreads, and so on. Jerry met someone who had a reasonable idea of what the book should look like. Now, the book doesn't look anything like the way I thought it should look. That's just fine because, while I had plenty of ideas, it doesn't mean that my ideas were right."

"Sometimes Jerry would call and say something like, 'I'm thinking about using black in back of some of the photographs. What do you think?'" Dennis went on, providing  some details on the photographer/designer working relationship, which was conducted, in a large part, over the phone. "I'd say, 'Yes, I've seen that done and I like it.' A week or two later I'd call and ask him about it and he'd say that it was less and less likely he'd use the black. By that time I would have decided we shouldn't use the black, so we would have arrived at the same conclusion separately. There were a number of these kinds of discussions, sharing his creative process. I don't think that a lot of designers would allow that."

Dennis recalled how secure Herring was in inviting her to participate in the aspects of the book's design. "He sent me 12 boards of the cover with 12 typefaces," she said. "I finally picked one and called Jerry. He said, 'Yeah, that's the one I like best too.' Two thinks struck me there. One is that we agreed. The second is that he would even ask me when I am not schooled in design or type. Choosing a typeface is very tricky, and it is easy to goof up. We could have gotten very cute with a Navajo look, pointy jagged edges, and so on. The one we chose is bold, but not hard."

I checked with Herring about this particular creative approach, asking if there wasn't a danger in offering a photographer a choice as important as cover type. What would have happened if Dennis had picked the wrong one? "The choices were within a range that I would accept," he replied. "I was dealing with nuance rather that the whole palette."

Herring did occasionally insist on certain details. He left the pages facing the text blank, much to Dennis' consternation. "I thought it was a hopeless waste of real estate," she said with a smile. "Jerry said he wanted a plain background, no photos, because he couldn't think of what would pertain specifically to the text. May attitude was clouds, use a stack of adobe bricks, use something generic. But he said, 'Lisl, I've thought about this a lot. You're going to have to give me this one.' So I said 'Fine.'"

Last summer Herring joined Dennis in Santa Fe to hash over some ideas in person. "Our talks were constant questions and discussions," said of their meetings. "Should we have picture of just the sky? Half and hour later the answer was yes. And 45 minutes later we canned the idea. Should we have a chapter on churches? Yes. Then Jerry looked at what I had on downtown Santa Fe. 'We don't have that yet,' he said."

Dennis confessed that photographing downtown Santa Fe was the hardest part of the book. "The interpretive photographs of really colorful graphic details were easy," she reported. "That's what I'm really known for. I'm not a big landscape photographer, but even shooting the landscapes was easier. The environmental portraiture of the artists was easy. The chapter on interior design was easy. Shooting downtown Santa Fe was difficult because there are cars parked everywhere, there are telephone wires, it's grubby, and it is practically all brown. In 35mm, the pictures were all boring. One of the problems with Santa Fe is that it's long and low. With 35mm you get a lot of street, a lot of cars, a lot of sky, and just a strip of building. I could not make it surreal at all. It was just these recording snaps, which I hate."

"I told Jerry that I was having a hard time with downtown and that I'd been thinking of using a Wide-Lux camera," said Dennis of her idea for taking a visual shortcoming — Santa Fe's flatness — and turning it into a creative asset by emphasizing it via extra-wide format. "He said, 'Let's walk around.' So, we just took the viewfinder off the Wide-Lux and we spent three hours driving and walking around Santa Fe just looking." A list was made of the photos to be taken, and Dennis had but two weeks in which to do them. After some anxious moments over the weather and details such as a parked school bus that was blocking a view during the short time that the light was right, she wrapped up shooting for the book.

On completing the design, Herring sent Dennis a comp of the book. There were only four photos that she wanted out, and four others that she wanted in. "That's really pretty amazing," she admitted, explaining that the eight photos were eventually swapped. "Jerry has said on numerous occasions that he wants me to be happy with it," she said, clearly pleased, adding with a smile, "that it's my book."


Return tickets for wayfarers

By Shelby Hodge, published in The Houston Post, December 1987

Santa Fe, photography by Lisl Dennis, text by Land Dennis, design by Jerry Herring

Bright, bold, alluring — Lisl Dennis' interpretation of Santa Fe, as presented in this colorful photo essay, pops off the pages with an electricity that could have been too easily subdued.

Dennis shows us a glorious Santa Fe, not the brooding, desert face that is often portrayed. Long enamored of this country's seductive palette and rich textures, Dennis easily captures on film the lively spirit of the community.

Santa Fe displays in technicolor format not only the unique landscapes and architecture of Santa Fe but also the faces of its citizenry — artists, writers and common folk. Text by travel writer Landt Dennis (husband of the photographer) ties contemporary Santa Fe to its historic past, dwelling on the mystique that has long attracted visitors to the deserts' edge.

A special nod goes to Houstonian Jerry Herring, who served as designer for this appealing pictorial record of the Southwest's most intriguing city. If you know and appreciate Santa Fe, as many Texans do, the book will elicit warm memories. If you've never ventured into New Mexico, Santa Fe will reveal the riches of our neighboring state.