Four hundred years before I began photographing Paso del Norte’s historic smelting landscape, conquistadors traversing it on horseback waded north across the Rio Grande where it cuts a gash through the Rocky Mountains. The lure was silver, gold, and pagan souls–all promising generous returns for the trouble. By the mid-nineteenth century, el Camino Real, joining Mexico City to Santa Fe through today’s El Paso, was well-worn. Its rutted parched landscape was infamous, first trod by Indigenous hunters and traders, then by Spanish soldiers, Catholic missionaries, and migrants. And after them, mining engineers, railroad surveyors, and captains of industry–hoping to claim the treasure the conquistadores had missed.
By the late 1800s, eastern speculators had reshaped the continent’s mountain spine from Alaska to southern Mexico, much of it along the historic Camino route. Wilderness morphed into industrial landscape, a network of mines and smelters linked by a grid of new railroads to deepwater ports and world markets. Controlling most of it, by either influence or outright ownership, were a half dozen Gilded Age icons–Clark, Hearst, Heinze, Huntington, Rockefeller, and Meyer Guggenheim, founder of M. Guggenheim Sons, and its American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO). That rowdy era was as much clad in copper as gilt in gold. Copper, its mining, smelting, refining, was at the heart of enormous new fortunes–primary among them, Guggenheim’s. The family name, after more than a century, remains a synonym for philanthropy, arts patronage and implausible wealth.
Learning that Guggenheim money had come, literally, from dirt and rock was news to me. In 2010, researching the El Paso ASARCO smelter, and photographing the first phases of its demolition, I wished I could channel the voices of its earliest workers, now long gone. I wanted to know these trabajadores, the smelter laborers and their compatriots, those who had worked the mines under Santa Eulalia in Mexico, and deep beneath Leadville in Colorado.
Artifacts, and the departed, don’t easily give up their stories. The best I can do is to photograph remnants of their ephemeral landscape: El Paso’s smelter site and workers’ cemetery, California Gulch in the Colorado Rockies, Santo Domingo in the desert canyon above Ciudad Chihuahua. The story, the vista, spans fifteen hundred miles. But nowhere to be seen, not even as mirages over the horizon, are Peggy Guggenheim’s Venetian palace, or el Museo Guggenheim Bilbao, or the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum in Manhattan:
Almost involuntarily, I see myself magically lifting and transporting it, Frank Lloyd Wright’s 5th Avenue spiral gem, two thousand miles south to carefully perch it on a tailings dump in Santa Eulalia. Then I invite the town’s mineros in to wander–to marvel at what they and their ancestors have built.
The question “To whom do we owe or wealth, and do we pay for it what we wholly owe?” drives this project. The photos here are mementos. Collectively they pay homage to a four century narrative, to the people who lived, worked and died here–and to the living landscape they leave behind.
–Martin Stupich, Albuquerque 2018