A Conversation with Craig Varjabedian

A Conversation with Craig Varjabedian

Red Sky and Dunes at Sunset, Autumn, White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Craig Varjabedian is an award-winning photographer of the American West based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He has published multiple books and won an Emmy award for his work with Karl Kernberger on the PBS documentary En Divina Luz: The Penitente Moradas of New Mexico. See more his biography here.

Tanysha With Flowers in Her Hair, Keres

How did you get started in photography?

I love the many varied stories that people tell about how they became photographers and I remember mine as if it were yesterday. It began at about the age of seven along the edge of the glacial waters of Lake Louise in my native Canada. My mother had pulled from the car her Kodak Duaflex camera and as we looked together down into the stove pipe viewfinder, I saw the incredible image of the lake, the glaciers all around and the clouds overhead. She showed me how to gently press the shutter button. She then handed me the camera and I framed up the picture I saw and when I pressed that shutter button for myself, I experienced a profound glory of that moment, and I knew instinctively that photography would always be a part of my life.

Tanysha With Flowers in Her Hair, Keres 


What was the first camera you ever owned? and what are you shooting with these days? Any reason? If you had to pick one lens could you? Which would it be?

 My first “serious” camera was a Yashica MAT 124G purchased at the suggestion of a weekend wedding photographer whose day job was selling cameras at the local K-mart. After many months studying camera reviews in Popular and Modern Photography magazines, my heart became set on purchasing a 35mm Minolta SRT-201. Yet after that salesman explained the advantages of the larger negative of the Yashica, I laid down hard-earned chore money and walked out into the world with my brand new Yashica and three rolls of Kodak Tri-X 120; a film that I still use.

 I now use a Nikon D850 camera with a host of lenses. Everyone has their favorite camera and I am certainly no different. I remember years later after buying that Yashica, falling in love with something magical that appeared to me in photographs made with Nikon cameras and lenses that I cannot put words to. For me the space within the image is beautifully defined; the images almost seems to breathe. While over the years I have had a few forays with other cameras, I seem to always gratefully return to Nikon. I like the look.

 As for a favorite lens, my “go to” optic is Nikon’s amazing Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens and I use it for much of my photographic work. The lens sees how I see and allows me to make the pictures that resonate with me as a photographer. Of course I use other lenses too when needs arise, like the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 and the Nikon14-24mm f/2.8 to name a few.

Craig uses Kiboko backpacks for his Nikon gear:

I am pleased to say that my Gura Gear Kiboko 22L and 30L bags both admirably care for my gear safely in the field without the fuss and frustration that some camera backpacks have had for me in the past. It’s the small and thoughtful details that make these backpacks simply the best."

Craig's Kiboko 22L packed with his Nikon camera kit

 ...the beauty of this backpack is in its design. I have worked hard for years to simplify the way I work and that includes not only the gear I choose but also how I pack and convey it into the field. Cameras and lenses need to be accessed quickly and easily, not hiding in difficult (sometimes impossible!) to find pockets and compartments. The Gura Gear Kiboko backpack does this admirably with the butterfly access to both main gear compartments. This allows getting to my lenses and cameras quickly so I don’t miss the rapidly fading light or an ever changing subject.

Sunset and Evening Storm, Cañoncito at Apache Canyon, New Mexico

Sunset and Evening Storm, Cañoncito at Apache Canyon, New Mexico

What are some of your favorite places to photograph and why?

I am fortunate to have found my way to New Mexico, answering a call I once heard in a dream from someone who spoke the words of the great newspaper man Horace Greeley, “Go West, young man!” And forty plus years later, I’m still here. There is something about the west that “infects” you in a wonderful way. It causes you to fall in love with the place so deeply that you are unable to leave and really don’t want to anyway. And so I am fortunate that I am able to photograph my home and the people who live here.

I really don’t have just one favorite place to photograph; there are so many. While I have travelled the back roads of the American West for years, making photographs in order to create a kind of extended portrait, I have left my home sometimes to mentally/visually reset myself, seeking out pictures in other places too like Montana, Utah, Vermont and even Iceland with its magical landscape. I am often reminded of something that the great photographer Alfred Stieglitz once wrote, “Wherever there is light, one can photograph.” For my work I follow the light and go where it takes me. And I work to photograph those places and people not only for their beauty but also to share a sense of what those places mean to me.


Who are some photographers that have inspired you and/or continue to?

There are so many. The masters like Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Irving Penn, Edward Curtis and many others have illuminated my path and inspired me. Of course there are many contemporary photographers too like Robert Adams and Elliot Erwitt who bring something amazing into the world through their photographs that also inspire me. A particular hero of mine is Paul Caponigro who inspires me with just about every image he makes. I’m drawn to the subtlety and a sense of the magical “other” he is somehow able to reveal in his photographs. I cannot get enough of his work.


Sparrow and Her Cowboy Richard, San Marcos, New Mexico

Sparrow and Her Cowboy Richard, San Marcos, New Mexico

What or where inspires you next?

There are so many places I would love to see, to experience and to photograph. I want to understand these places on a more subtle or perhaps profound level because I sense they have something to reveal and teach me. Right now, the Dales in Yorkshire England is a place that is calling me strongly. I want to photograph that gorgeous landscape and the faces of the people who live there. I sense something authentic there. As for the future, I don't know what it holds (does anyone?), though I will continue making photographs as long as I am called to.


What do you look for when creating a photograph? Do you go in any order like "light, subject, composition, action" or is it a different process?

For me, the process of making images is an organic one driven by a desire to grow and learn. Every photograph brings me a little bit closer and a little bit clearer to some deeper understanding, but as yet I am unable to see the whole picture. I don't really have a map, I just know it's somewhere over the next horizon.

Places call. I never knew, when I look back over my previous projects, that I'd go from making pictures of the meeting houses of the Penitente Brotherhood, an ages old extremely private religious organization found here in New Mexico, to the windswept landscape of Ghost Ranch, a place that inspired the painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Both subjects became award-winning books that were later published. If you'd asked me back in the ‘80s if I'd seen Ghost Ranch on the horizon, I probably would have said no. I had to wait ‘til I arrived at the next horizon—the place I was supposed to be to get a glimpse of it.

There have been a lot of horizons in my career. Moving into making photographs of Native Americans has been my most recent shift in work, and if the past is any indication, I'll get to the end of this and another horizon will present itself and I will travel toward that. My pictures and themes seem to miraculously find me.

How would you define your style of photography?

Tough question… I guess I would say that I am a photographer who is passionately drawn to places and people I want to discover, understand and photograph.

How does photography play into your daily life? Do you have any specific practices on taking breaks or compartmentalizing?

I photograph because I have to, it's my way of connecting with the world. It is a search for meaning and an attempt to connect with something much larger and maybe even more lasting. Being able to make pictures is a tremendous gift.

I'm always seeking, hoping to receive a glimpse of the truth; my truth, in whatever form it appears. There's a part of me that hopes to never really find an absolute truth, because the search itself is the gift and it brings me such joy. I've always had this insatiable desire to learn, because I want to deeply grow and live as a human being. I have this feeling that if I make another picture, I'll get closer to that something that keeps calling me to create. It's very purpose-driven. I can't even imagine what my life would be like if I wasn’t able do this.

I really don’t compartmentalize or separate my work from my life. Ansel Adams once wrote “You don't make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” A photograph for me is about living life fully and is influenced by all those crazy and miraculous things that are a part of living that life. And so I live my life to the best of my abilities and make photographs along the way.

A friend gave me a coin not too long ago, one that I carry in my pocket that reminds me, “Make a photograph today, for tomorrow is uncertain.” I like that.


Cottonwood Trees No. 5, Autumn, near La Cienega, New Mexico

 What are some of the most interesting changes in photography that you've observed over your career?

The way I am able to create and share photographs today is probably the most interesting and even significant change I have witnessed during my time behind the camera. I began making photographs shooting Kodak Tri-X film and developing and printing the images in a wet darkroom. The pictures I made with a digital camera a few days ago— photographs that will be processed in Photoshop in a digital darkroom (computer) and printed with an Epson P9570 printer— are a far cry from where I started. Yet in a very real sense, I am still dealing with the same issues of color, contrast and sharpness. I just work with them in different ways.


How far do you go to capture a truly unique moment? and what is the craziest thing you've done to capture a photograph?

I think that all good photographs require some kind of risk. In my case that has often been one of getting out of my own way and risking the comfort of simply duplicating something that I have successfully done before.

Certainly in the process of making photographs over the years there have been physical risks— I have been caught while unknowingly trespassing on someone’s land, the angry landowner and his son showing up in a truck with a rifle in hand, to being mugged and my wooden view camera and tripod thrown over a cliff, destroyed by people who beat me up for the five dollars I had in my pocket. Still I move on and make pictures. After all these years, I continue to hope that the fates are on my side and I will remain safe and be blessed with good light and the opportunity to make many more photographs.


Can you tell us about the project(s) you're currently working on?

I began making portraits of Native Americans because I found that my own family history resonated so deeply with theirs. I call the project Native Light. It is a collaborative one and seeks to make photographs of Indigenous people throughout the American West, chronicling their personal identities—illuminating their individuality, culture, and resilience through the photographs I am making and stories I am collecting. Gratefully the response to these pictures has been wonderfully positive and at times even a little overwhelming. Too it has brought many incredible and amazing people into my life.

Still the land calls to me and my camera. I sense there will be another place on the next horizon calling to make photographs.

Where can we find more of your work?

Web: craigvarjabedian.com

Web: nativelight.org

Instagram: craig_varjabedian_photo

Amazon Author Page: rb.gy/cs4cdw