Working for a short period of time, between 1962 until his early death in 1974, Irwin Klein produced a compelling body of work that captured the rich expressions of life and its social context. His famous series documenting the lives of settlers in New Mexico in the 1960s offers a stunning glimpse into the idealism of American counterculture.
After dropping out of college to pursue his lifelong passion for photography, Klein started travelling to New Mexico in the late 1960s, visiting his brother Alan who was living near the small community of El Rito and photographing the New Settlers, the term he coined for those who had immigrated to the region. He documented what he described as “dropouts, renegades and utopians” living alone, as couples, in families or as groups in rural towns in Taos, Rio Arriba and Mora counties. These children of the urban middle class and old beatniks sought an alternative to the consumerism of middle-class America, embracing an agrarian life that existed beyond the simplistic hippie notions of freedom.
During five visits lasting about three months in total, Klein attempted to capture the idea of innocence transformed into experience. Taken over a five-year period, his black-and-white photographs document the transition from an idealistic newcomer to experienced settler, as his subjects grappled with the realities of an agrarian setting. They show us all of the rewards and hardships of this life, from moments of joy, relaxation and spirited nonconformity to isolated landscapes, broken down-cars and back-breaking labor. In candid shots of sheer beauty, Klein captures hope, optimism and determination, providing a compelling record of this remarkable experience that he described as “part of a timeless movement, the perennial attempt of human beings to renew the pattern of their lives.”
Prior to his death in 1974, Klein organized his photos into a volume he entitled The New Settlers of New Mexico, Photographs, 1967-1971, but failed to find a publisher for his work. Over three decades later, his nephew, Benjamin, blended Klein’s unpublished work with essays from himself, Tim Hodgdon, Lois Rudnick and David Farber, creating a volume that contributes to interpreting the counterculture in the American Southwest and reinforces the photographer’s reputation as its astute observer.
Irwin Klein and the New Settlers: Photographs of Counterculture in New Mexico can be purchased from Bison Books for $29.95 in hardcover.
Photo credits: Wedding feast at Arroyo Hondo and Independence Day Celebration. Courtesy of the Irwin B. Klein Estate.