At the heart of Northern New Mexico’s legendary Ghost Ranch, a semicircular arc of red-orange cliffs catch and transmute the drama of New Mexico’s roiling skies in varied, often startling ways. Spreading beyond these Cliffs of Shining Stone in three directions, scrub-spotted plains and scattered remnants of the ranch’s fabled past turn dark or brilliant according to movements far above. Now bright, now overtaken by heavy gray thunderheads, now again sun-filled, the earth and sky maintain a constant interplay that seems fundamental to the place’s enduring mystique. And for photographer Craig Varjabedian, it is the serendipitous moments in which the potential in these interactions appears fully realized—“when I feel the play of light, shadow, and texture resolve into something wonderful,” he says—that he deftly captures in the 75 silver gelatin photographs comprising Ghost Ranch and the Faraway Nearby.

Opening July 12, 2009 at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, this exhibition of images taken at Ghost Ranch over a period of several years reaches beyond the familiar ideas associated with the place—including its renown as a site of rest and renewal, and as the longtime home of 20th-century painter Georgia O’Keeffe—into the artist’s unique vision of his subject’s relationship to the surrounding earth and its inhabitants. In Varjabedian’s photographs, the scenery of Ghost Ranch is additionally part of a fusion of time and timelessness. Through the light and form of his compositions, he points to the ephemeral nature of all things and provides a launching pad for larger inquiries: humanity’s need for connection with the earth, the West’s evolving regional identity, and the power of memory in shaping a sense of place. That Varjabedian’s photographs never seem preachy or overwrought, despite their grandeur and hints of the sublime, is a testament to the artist’s ability to keep his work firmly rooted in his own deeply personal relationship with one extraordinary place.

In nearly every image, the epic and the miniscule expand or contract, conflating ordinary spatial divisions and recalling O’Keeffe’s enigmatic phrase: “the faraway nearby.” Chimney Rock and Clearing Storm, for instance, captures the rounded knobs of one of Ghost Ranch’s most recognizable landmarks in stark sunlight, above a plain shaded by unseen clouds—suggesting another, equally epic scene hovering just outside the camera frame. In the extreme close-up composition of Oak Leaf and Cottonwood Leaves, a spray of fallen foliage in crisp detail, spotted with decay, appears larger than life in the way it seems to arc toward the viewer. And in Old Corral and Approaching Storm, time and distance collide where thick nimbus clouds cast broken shadows on an ancient, collapsing corral. Here the present moment still impacts the past—and vice versa.

Craig Varjabedian is widely acclaimed for his images capturing the people and places of the American West, taken over a photographic career spanning more than 35 years. While his work reveals a deep grasp of the technical aspects of the photographic process, his gift is his intuitive ability to make authentic and compelling images that illuminate the inseparable ties between identity, place, and the act of perceiving—the “landscape behind the landscape.” Varjabedian achieves this through a patient, painstaking approach that is intentionally receptive rather than constructive: he waits for the elements of a scene to come together to create moments of profound beauty. Or, as he says in the exhibition’s companion book, Ghost Ranch and the Faraway Nearby, “I wanted the land to tell me how to photograph it.”

Varjabedian is the director of the well-known Eloquent Light Photography Workshops in Santa Fe, with a Master of Fine Arts degree in photography from the prestigious Rochester Institute of Technology. Museums nationally have exhibited and collected his photographs, and his work has won an Emmy Award as well as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the McCune Charitable Foundation, and the New Mexico Humanities Council.

Ghost Ranch and the Faraway Nearby is made possible through the shared generosity of the New Mexico Humanities Council, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Albuquerque Museum of Art & History, The National Ghost Ranch Foundation, Bogen Imaging, Lowepro, Ilford/Harman Technology Limited and private donors.