Comanche Tipis from the film Comanche Moon. Near Abiquiú, New Mexico, 2006 © CRAIG VARJABEDIAN

Comanche Tipis from the film Comanche Moon. Near Abiquiú, New Mexico, 2006 © CRAIG VARJABEDIAN

Craig Varjabedian is a fine art photographer who captures the landscapes, people and culture of the American West at moments when light, shadow and composition come together in magical ways. He works primarily in black-and-white, although his latest project, The Great White Sands, is in color. His images are exhibited in galleries and museums around the country, and are owned by numerous collectors. His books, all published by University of New Mexico Press, include Four & Twenty Photographs (2007), Ghost Ranch & the Faraway Nearby (2009), and Landscape Dreams: A New Mexico Portrait (2012). His field photography workshops, presented through Eloquent Light Photography Workshops (www.eloquentlight.com), include White Sands Landscape, Photographing Faces of the American West and Photographing the California Coast from Monterey to Big Sur.

Varjabedian was born in Windsor, Ontario, Canada and came to the United States in 1970. At first he lived on the East Coast, but destiny pointed him toward New Mexico. In 1979, he drove out west to take a workshop from Ansel Adams in Carmel, California. Adams advised him to stop in New Mexico on his way home, where the master photographer had taken one of his most famous images, “Moonrise Over Hernandez.” He warned the young student that he probably wouldn’t believe what he saw. After visiting the spot, Varjabedian agreed that the scene was disappointing. What he found miraculous was “what a virtuoso Ansel Adams was, to create a print that captured what that moment must have been like.”

During the 1980s, Varjabedian was a graduate student at Rochester School of Technology (RIT) in New York. “That era predated digital imaging, and Kodak was in full swing,” he recalls. However, he had a hard time with the weather and was often ill. He approached the photography department chair, Richard Zakia, and explained the problem. When Zakia asked him how he wanted to continue his education, Varjabedian spontaneously said he wanted to go New Mexico. He had recently received letters from a friend who moved there, describing the incredible “Land of Enchantment.” Surprisingly, Zakia granted his wish. To stay accountable, Varjabedian was required to file reports and submit photographs as his work progressed.

Varjabedian had fallen in love with black-and-white photography early on. “I learned about it in high school and perfected my craft in graduate school,” he says. “I found that black-and-white had the ability to be pushed and pulled — not only the film, but the expression of the image.” RIT had a color lab, which enabled Varjabedian to explore color photography. However, he found color processing to be rather limiting. “In those days, silver-based color photography was difficult to control. The process would only allow you to work within a very narrow set of parameters. If you pushed or pulled your film, you would sometimes get strange color problems that were difficult to correct. Black-and-white gave me a huge amount of control over the process.”

Varjabedian’s initial goal was a college teaching position in photography. He intended to complete his graduate studies in New Mexico, put together a master’s degree exhibition of his work, and then leave. “However, people wanted to buy the pictures I was making,” he says. He asked his wife to help make a decision about staying there. As it turned out, she was offered a job in Los Alamos, so the couple chose to make northern New Mexico their home. Varjabedian has no regrets. “I get to make pictures, I get to teach others, I get to sell my work — and I get to live in an incredibly beautiful place.”

He feels strongly about needing to know …

Read More in Photographer’s Forum :: Winter 2015 / Vol. 38 / No. 1