STILL LIFE OF SONORA: A young First Communicant dressed in white gown and veil wanders through a dusty graveyard in the company of family and friends. A lusty cowboy grabs his laughing gal while his horse waits patiently among the dry weeds. A small tribe of children pick at their plates of food in a threadbare room, while in the adjoining chamber a dead relative--grandfather? mother?--lies in a closed coffin.
These evocative images from the changing state of Sonora leap out from La Vida Norteña, a new collection of some 53 black-and-white photographs documenting life in Arizona's neighbor to the south. Their maker, Tucson photographer David Burckhalter, has been journeying through Sonora some 25 years off and on, his camera in hand.
A new one-person exhibition of the pictures opens with a reception from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, March 20, at the Tucson Museum of Art's Goodman Pavilion, 140 N. Main Ave.
The traditional life of the rural Sonorenses is what interests Burckhalter the most: the peasant man trudging along a dirt road beneath some spectacular mountains, a bundle of firewood on his back; a couple lugging buckets of water to their home up a hill so dry it seems a miracle that the scrub bushes cling to it.
And if his camera compassionately records their hard labors, it also relishes the heady festivals that offer both spiritual enlightenment and raucous diversion. "Blessing the Images of San Isidro, Los Bajíos," 1995, depicts a solemn assemblage of children on bended knee, each clutching a picture of the saint. Then there are the more secular pleasures, such as the cowboy "rooster pull" in honor of San Juan's Day, wherein the galloping vaqueros try to pull off the head of the half-buried fowl; and the antics of the oddly gender-bending "Pharisees," all dressed up for an Easter fiesta.
The pictures don't give too many overt hints that this way of life, so grounded in a particular landscape, may well be in its last decades. There are images of rural despair. In "Cooperative Farmer and a Painting of Emiliano Zapata," a cowboy on a desolate ranch leans dejectedly against his peeling fence. The fence's optimistic painting of the revolutionary idealist becomes a sad irony: What happened to the brave new world of land reform?
An accompanying essay by Tucson naturalist and writer Gary Nabhan, "Sonora Querida," explicitly mourns the coming death of rural Sonoran culture, "a frugal yet fruitful way of life that may be vanishing as fast as the very desert and thorn scrub habitats on which it is based."
Enduring a 20-fold population increase in the last three decades, Sonora has been flooded by newcomers who know nothing of conservative desert ways, Nabhan says. They "chainsaw down the ancient ironwoods and mesquites as if they will grow back tomorrow," converting these irreplaceable natural treasures into charcoal chips destined to flavor nouvelle cuisine for moneyed elites. The traditional crafts work that Burckhalter depicts, performed by "tanners, bone setters, olla makers, chile stringers, lobster divers, bootleggers, herb gatherers or rattle carvers" will follow the disappearing trees and the region's vanishing languages into oblivion.
Thomas E. Sheridan, an anthropologist with the Arizona State Museum, writes a romantic description of the pleasures that Sonora nevertheless still offers a traveler of good heart and strong stomach for Tecate. In the essay "Another Country," he immerses himself in the memory of a long-ago college adventure at the San Francisco fiesta in Magdalena, hearing once again the scratchy violins of the conjuntos, tasting the tripas de leche, and most incongruously, singing a Kris Kristofferson song with a buddy to the delight of the jovial Sonorenses at a cockfight.
"You never forget those first encounters," he writes. "You remember when the landscape, like the lover, was so sensuous and mysterious you wanted to plunge into it and never leave."
La Vida Norteña: Photographs of Sonora, Mexico, by David Burckhalter, with essays by Gary Nabhan and Thomas E. Sheridan (University of New Mexico Press; paper, $19.95), is available in local bookstores.
Friday's opening reception will feature music, refreshments, and a booksigning with the photographer. Copies of the book will be available for purchase, with a 15-percent discount. The exhibition La Vida Norteña continues through May 24 at the TMA. For more information, call 624-2333.
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