Alex Traube to Exhibit a Portrait of Las Vegas from 1981

Two students from Robertson High School pose for a prom photo in 1981. The young woman has feathered hair and sits in a wicker peacock chair. The young man is wearing a white tux with a top hat and cane.

Two students from Robertson High School pose for a prom photo in 1981. Photo credit: Alex Traube

February 15, 2022

Alex Traube, a Santa Fe photographer who spent two years as an artist in residence at Robertson High School, in 1981 and 1982, will be presenting photographs taken in the early 1980s of Las Vegas in an exhibition at the Kennedy Gallery at New Mexico Highlands University. The exhibition will open March 1, 2022, with a formal opening reception on March 6, from 2 to 5 p.m. Traube will also be giving a public lecture at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, March 25, and a free community workshop at 10 a.m. on Saturday, March 26. Both the lecture and workshop will be held in the Highlands Trolley Building. Due to Covid-19 precautions, capacity in Kennedy Gallery will be limited to 70 people at a time, and the lecture can accommodate a maximum of 40 people.

The exhibition will feature two series of photographs, “Prom Night” and “Las Vegas, New Mexico: A Portrait.” The first series includes sepia toned prom photographs from Robertson High School, in 1981. The second series captures the town of Las Vegas in 1981 and 1982 in black-and-white panoramic photographs.

In one of the photographs in the “Prom Night” series, a young woman sits in an ornate wicker peacock chair. Her hair is a feathered, Farrah Fawcett style, and she wears a glittering strapless gown with a Hawaiian lei draped around her neck. Her date stands beside her in a white, three-piece tuxedo, complete with coattails, a ruffled tuxedo shirt, bow tie, a top hat, gloves, and a cane. The pair smiles at the camera, an image suspended across four decades and into a new century.

Residents of Las Vegas, New Mexico, might see little that has changed in Traube’s photographs of the town since 1981. Vehicle models have changed, and the old J.C. Penney building on Douglas Avenue no longer houses its namesake store, with child-sized mannequins in its windows, but the wide streets and buildings like the Serf and “Bedpost Manor” will be familiar even to viewers who were not alive or living in Las Vegas, in 1981.

Traube has been a photographer for fifty years and describes his photos of Las Vegas as a departure from his other narrative-driven work. He said that although he typically does not wander around with a camera around his neck, he walked around Las Vegas frequently while he lived there and took the photographs that appear in the exhibition.

“I just walked around town. I was proactive, but in another way, I was passive—I just took what was offered, so to speak. I didn’t consciously impose a point of view on either of these series,” said Traube. “I’ve never been in any place like Las Vegas. It’s probably one of the most authentic, if not the most authentic, small city in the state.”

A wide angle black-and-white photograph of the Las Vegas, NM plaza in 1981.

Las Vegas plaza in 1981. Photo credit: Alex Traube

Traube served as the artist in residence at Robertson High School while it was under the leadership of Sal DiDomenico as principal, Carmen Holguín as assistant principal, and Silas López superintendent of the East Las Vegas School District. In his role as artist in residence, Traube taught photography to Robertson students who were interested in the art of photography.

“We met in the Annex on Seventh Street in a lovely, Victorian building. At some point, the nuns used to live on the floor where we had our darkroom,” said Traube. “It was a nice little darkroom. The kids were great. You teach algebra to high school kids, and it’s an uphill fight, but with photography, it’s magic. We had a great time—and I felt very supported by the high school.”

When Robertson’s principal asked Traube to take photographs for prom night in 1981, he happily agreed.

“I had a friend who was a commercial photographer and he lent me the lighting setup and I had his camera that I loaded with color film,”

said Traube. “They had that peacock chair they probably borrowed from the theatre department, and I just told them to look at the lens of the camera.”

Traube said he took two photographs of the prom couples; one in color that he offered for sale to the couples and one with black and white film that he kept for himself.

“I find myself pretty moved by these because with the patina of age they’ve become artifacts.”

Traube’s photographs are in museum collections in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Europe, including the National Gallery of Canada, National Portrait Gallery, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, and Museum of New Mexico. He is a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow and a recipient of an Illinois Art Council grant. In 1997, Traube founded New Mexico CultureNet, a nonprofit that hired New Mexico New Mexico poets to work in middle schools and high schools statewide.

Traube’s public lecture, “Portraits, Images & Words and Stories from a Lifetime in Photography,” will be hosted by the Highlands University Media Arts & Technology in the McCaffrey Historic Trolley Building on Friday, March 25 at 5:30 p.m. His lecture will focus on the narrative impulse that has informed his work for five decades, as well as the style he implemented for his photos of Las Vegas. Additionally, he will talk about using family album photos as a springboard for unlocking memory.

In the community workshop, “Where I Come From: Family Photos, Memory and the Creative Process,” Traube will lead exercises in observation and active listening. Attendees will learn about “reading” a photograph and will take photographs of their own and pair them with text. All ages and experience levels are welcome; space is limited.

For more information about the exhibition or lecture contact Renée Buchanan at rbuchanan@nmhu.edu or at 505-426-2132.