Old Man River
Photographer Artie Limmer talks about the challenges of shooting the mighty Rio Grande.
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texasmonthly.com: So tell us how the idea for this assignment come about, specifically, the idea behind driving the entire length of the Rio Grande?
Artie Limmer: Well, [Art Director] Scott Dadich and I had talked about it and he sent me the story and we realized that most of the story focused on the issues of the river in Texas, but it was also about the entire river. The story talks about irrigators in Colorado, the Elephant Butte Dam, places above, and in, El Paso. And we thought, you know, we could shoot this whole river if we worked really fast and just pushed it, trying to capture the feel of much more of the story as a whole. And you can see that in the photos. One of the shots I really liked was of an irrigation ditch all the way up in Colorado; something that’s talked about in the story and important part of why the river is the way it is today. You wouldn’t get that if you only shot in Texas.
texasmonthly.com: And so how did you guys organize your time? You had over a thousand miles to cover. Did you give yourselves a set amount of time at each location? Was there a lot of pressure on you to work quickly to get it all done in five days?
AL: I’ve never done something this big before. I met Scott in Albuquerque and then that night we drove up to Taos and just planned to go for it, get started early the next morning at first light. And our plan was simply to work as hard and as fast as we could. We’d see something or some place we liked, or thought was interesting, get out, unload, set up, and just shoot, shoot, shoot—black and white, color, panoramic—load it back up and then hit the road again. We didn’t stay in any one spot for more than thirty to forty minutes. We probably spent more time scouting and looking for shots than we did actually taking photos. The whole time we were conscious of capturing where we were at, capturing the feel of a New Mexico canyon or a bordertown in Texas. I guess the most difficult thing was that we didn’t have a lot of daylight to work with in November. First light was at around seven and then it was dark by five-thirty. Sometimes we had to plan to be at a certain place we really wanted to shoot at dusk, to get the best light, but that meant hurrying other shots along the way sometimes.
texasmonthly.com: You read the story before you set out, and it talks a lot about how the river is drying up and disappearing. However, you left after a season of heavy rains. I mean, it rained in the lower Valley for nearly two weeks straight, and the river was in pristine shape again. But I’m wondering, having spent such a large amount of time being so close to the river, what jumped out? Did the river still seem like it was dying in places?
AL: Oh yeah, we shot it after they had a lot of water, but I think that we definitely saw evidence that the river isn’t as healthy as it could be, especially considering how much rainfall had fallen just before we shot. The main place was the dam, Elephant Butte. They weren’t letting any water out of that thing and it was really hard to see that. And then to see what is talked about in the story, the “bathtub ring” where you can see how much water the lake once had when they built the dam, which was horrible. You can really see it clearly. But you’re right, we lucked out in that it had already snowed up in Colorado by the time we left, and much of that had already melted, and it had rained for nearly two weeks straight in southern Texas, so we saw a pretty healthy river much of the way. Which was fine with me. It didn’t really give a true account of what’s going on in the story, but we had much better photographs as a result (laughs). And one of my favorite spots was the Rio’s confluence with the Rio Conchos, where you can actually see the color of two kinds of waters merging. We might not have seen that if the water had been too low.
texasmonthly.com: Did you have any trouble down there with the Border Patrol or anywhere else?
AL: We were actually really lucky most of the time. The Border Patrol, once they found out what we were doing, most times was very helpful. There’s a certain amount of salesmanship involved I guess. You kind of have to know how to approach people. Both Scott and I are used to working a lot with the public. I do a lot of portrait photography which requires establishing a sort of rapport with the subject, and that’s something Scott has a lot of experience with as well. A lot of times this means you’re trying to convince strangers to do different things, and I think that helped us a lot on this trip. Around Presidio, when we told a couple of Border Patrol agents who we were and what we were trying to do, and the shots we were trying to capture, they offered to take us to certain spots, so we just followed them in their truck. And then they would just leave us alone to shoot, and wouldn’t bother us a bit, which was great.
texasmonthly.com: So how does shooting landscapes compare with doing portrait photography?
AL: Well, I do a lot of different stuff, and I don’t think I really like one kind of photography the best. I love it all, really, and mixing it up is what makes the job interesting to me. The great thing about this trip was that, we had only so much time, but I discovered a lot of places I want to go back to. We didn’t always have the best light to work with for shooting landscapes and just had to work with the light we had at that moment before getting back on the road. So there are places I’d like to go back to when I have more time and can get the shot I want.
texasmonthly.com: So do you have a favorite spot from the trip that you’d like to go back to?
AL: I guess I’d say my most favorite spot was the part through Big Bend, the part that winds through Santa Elena Canyon. I really want to go back there. That was just spectacular. But I also really loved the part of the Rio that flows through the Taos area, how it just carves through the earth. I shot most of that from up high, on the canyon rim, far above the river. But I’d love to go back there and go down into the canyon to get some photos from the level of the river and capture the canyon walls.