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Unexpected Beauty

Travel the back roads between Tucson and Ajo, and you'll find a landscape that seems unwelcoming at first glance. Miles of dusty roads and desert vegetation dominate the route. Small towns pop up along the way as a quick respite from the terrain.

Fine-art photographer Tom Kiefer has captured the landscape and architecture on this route in his Journey West: Tucson to Ajo exhibit. Black-and-white images invite the viewer to see the land through his eyes--focusing on the splendor instead of the austerity.

"When you are out there, it can be very bleak and harsh," he says. "I could have taken pictures of that bleak desperation. I chose not to represent that. I wanted these images to reflect a certain grace and beauty."

Journey West features 44 pieces, with 24 large images measuring 30 by 40 inches. Kiefer takes the viewer along the journey showcasing carnival fixtures, the sky and land, structures and vehicles, schools and churches.

His ability to capture beauty in the mundane shines in his photographs--including those of automobiles and structures. "Love Junkyard" shows three crushed automobiles stacked upon each other. This doesn't sound like an appealing photograph, but Kiefer takes the shot with an admiring eye and passes that on to the viewer.

"Bianca's Trailer" captures one side of an old trailer with a narrow door and tiny window. This trailer might not be something that anyone would turn his or her head twice to look at, but Kiefer takes a long look at it with appreciation.

Part of the appreciation for his subjects is mirrored in his photographic methods. Instead of a digital camera and color, he chooses a medium-format camera and black-and-white film.

"I shoot with film, because I like the rhythm and pace. I am respecting the thing I am shooting. I am honoring that this is not just a shot. It is something I give great thought to. ... Why I shoot in black and white? It is clearer and more direct."

Kiefer shoots mostly in the morning without a set agenda. "When I go out and shoot, I don't have any particular subject matter in mind. It will depend on the time of day, clouds, lack of clouds, light, shadows. I know it when I see it."

Kiefer began looking at artistic images when he studied graphic design and advertising at the University of Washington. "I moved to Los Angeles in the early '80s and worked in the graphic-design/advertising industry for the next 10 years. In 1991, I reached a point in my graphic-design career where I felt I wasn't growing as an artist."

This led to a major career change and a new business. Kiefer sold antique cast-iron beds for the next eight years. He later moved to Ajo in 2001--"a place where I could just concentrate on my art."

Since 2002, his work has been featured in group shows through Texas Tech University. Journey West is his first solo exhibition. And talking to the Tucson Weekly was one of Kiefer's first media interviews. He exudes a quick wit but maintains a sense of seriousness when speaking about his work. "I don't take any of this lightly," he says.

"Church and Palm Shadow" illustrates Kiefer's dedication. The shadow of a lone palm tree is shown on the face of a church. Its branches precisely frame a circular stained-glass window to one side. The top of the church is slightly cut off. Carefully composed, it represents the artist's view.

But not everyone will always agree with that. When the image appeared in an Ajo newspaper, a local gentleman asked Kiefer why the palm tree was there. And a friend asked why the top of the church was cut off. Kiefer shrugs off the critiques. "Most people expect a photograph to be perfectly squared, centered and nothing cut off."

That's not how Kiefer works. "Ocotillo Harvest" is a shot of a stack of ocotillo branches crisscrossed and not perfectly lined up. He explains that he sees beauty in this stack and that it's what you bring to the things around you that makes a difference.

Kiefer plans to continue capturing the "austere grace that is to be found" as he journeys between Tucson and Phoenix for his next collection. After that, he will travel between Phoenix and Ajo to end the series.

Time and circumstance help determine what Kiefer shoots during his travels. He doesn't follow a particular checklist. Whether he captures a cloud in a bright sky or an old building, Kiefer's philosophy is best summed up by his own words: "For a moment, as I looked through the lens, there was beauty."

Journey West: Tucson to Ajo is on display at the Tucson International Airport Gallery, 7250 S. Tucson Blvd., through Saturday, March 31. The gallery is open continuously and is located on the ticket level between the Delta and Southwest counters. Visit the exhibit online for information.

More by Irene Messina

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