Canyon Clarity: A Cinematographer Creates Her Dream Home in New Mexico

A renowned documentary filmmaker escapes into the healing balm of wilderness through her sweet adobe cabin set on forty-four acres overlooking the Pecos River.

| May/June 2003

Dyanna Taylor is thrice blessed. Her adventurous career as a cinematographer takes her to remote corners of the world; she is the granddaughter of environmentalist Paul S. Taylor and Dorothea Lange, whose black-and-white still photographs documented the angst of the Great Depression; and she possesses a deep, almost spiritual connection with the earth.

In her thirty-year career shooting films for PBS, HBO, National Geographic, and all the major television networks, Dyanna has earned a reputation as one of the great documentarians of our time. She credits her grandmother with a triple legacy: her natural gift for portraying human joy and earthly dignity, her first camera (Dorothea’s two-and-a-quarter Rolleiflex, given to Dyanna when she was fourteen), and her critical eye. “Dorothea taught me to look and then look again and to see,” Dyanna says.

Dorothea doted on her eleven grandchildren, giving them the gift of a Thoreau-like family cabin overlooking the rugged Pacific Coast north of San Francisco. In this mythic place Dyanna and her young cousins reveled in a free, simple life attuned to the tides and the moon, the hot springs and the sulfur, the animals and the plants. Dorothea dedicated her last years to her grandchildren, her work, and her simple shelter, called Steep Ravine. “To watch the natural growth of the children there, and to see them so happy and free there, is the joy of Grandma Dorrie,” she wrote in a 1961 Christmas letter later published in her book To a Cabin (Viking Press, 1973).

This childhood freedom gave Dyanna her deep joy in simplicity, her sense of place in the universe, and an awareness of her body’s limitations. “It was an incredible gift, this freedom to find my body, to be in the grass, to be in the sea, to climb on rocks. To tumble, to run, to make as much noise as I wanted. To build, to create, to hide. To play. To watch the natural world. My grandparents didn’t coddle or inhibit us. So what if we skinned a knee, cut a chin, or even broke an arm? Everything was a lesson in nature and how we fit into it,” Dyanna says.

After Dorothea’s death, Dyanna went back to Steep Ravine to live for a year and a half, an anguished hermit in search of a path. The blessing of being Dorothea Lange’s granddaughter had become a curse, a great internal pressure. Using her grandmother’s Rolleiflex and a single-lens reflex camera her grandfather bought for her, Dyanna ran through reams of film, always unhappy with the mediocrity of her work, always comparing it to Dorothea’s more profound images. Then she stumbled across filmmaking. “Working with moving images was liberating somehow,” she says. “I wasn’t forced to work in that frozen image. I could be in photography and not have the rules Dorothea was bound by.”

Dyanna made her first film when she was nineteen and has been making films ever since. Her 2001 film Winter Dreams, chronicling the life of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, won a Peabody Award for its lyrical, inventive images. In 1998 New York Women in Film honored her with a lifetime achievement award.

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