NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – A mobile portrait studio is making its way through northern New Mexico. Residents in areas like Raton, Espanola, and Taos will have the opportunity to have their portraits taken for free as part of E Pluribus Unum: El Norte. The traveling public exhibition will culminate in the collection of over 1,000 photographs that will be turned into a book and museum exhibit.
Matthew Chase-Daniel and Jerry Wellman have been operating as Axle Contemporary for 12 years. They describe it as a mobile exhibition space that makes projects like E Pluribus Unum: El Norte possible. They launched the first iteration of this project 10 years ago in Santa Fe, which ended up being a success. “It feels like an honor to photograph people like that, and in five years, twenty years, a hundred years, these photos and books will be records of people in the community in this present time,” Chase-Daniel said.
This year, they’ve taken the project to Albuquerque, the Navajo Nation, Alamogordo, Hobbs, Clovis, and various other places across the state’s southeastern part. They’re focusing on getting the project to those places north of Espanola. Over seven weeks, the duo will visit about 15 towns in northern New Mexico.
They set up at local businesses, schools, roadsides, and other community gathering places. Each person that is photographed holds a small object in the photo that holds significance to them. Two copies of each photograph are printed immediately in their solar-powered print studio. One is given to the participant and the other is pasted outside the mobile studio–a modified delivery truck.
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“There’s just so many aspects to what a New Mexican is, and in thinking about that, we thought of the motto of the United States at the very beginning that Jefferson and Franklin thought of, E Pluribus Unum, which means from many, one,” said Wellman.
The pair get to meet many people on their travels, many of whom provide a peak into their personal lives by what they choose to be photographed with. Chase-Daniel remembers meeting a woman a few weeks ago who was hesitant to have her portrait taken.
“When we handed it to her, she said, ‘You know, I’ve struggled with negative body image for most of my life, and seeing this and seeing myself in this photograph somehow feels healing, and I look beautiful in a way I didn’t think I did.’ So that’s as good as it gets,” Chase-Daniel said.
They’ve seen people bring a wide variety of pets like a goose, snapping turtles, goats, dogs, and a hairless cat, to very personal items like the ashes of a loved one inside a locket, photos of loved ones, and even newborn babies. The photographers say they love seeing what people choose to bring in and never judge what people choose to be photographed with.
“This is a project that Jerry and I make together, but we really make it with all of the community. It’s not something that’s really ours–we’re snapping the shutter and printing the photographs and arranging to get from town to town, but it’s really the people who come in and share of themselves their face, their special object, that makes the project what it is,” Chase-Daniel said.
The project is in its fifth week of operation and will continue through Oct. 10. An exhibition of the photographs will be presented at the Taos Center for the Arts Encore Gallery in the summer and fall of 2023. For more information, visit the Axle Contemporary website.