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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

  • This sculptured bowl and window grace Dyanna Taylor’s sleeping and meditation quarters.
    Photography By Lark Smothermon
  • This day bench receives a mix of light and shade and the kinetic energy of this mobile, created by Dyanna from objects she has found during her travels and on her property.
    Photography By Lark Smothermon
  • Not unlike her grandmother’s rustic kitchen in Steep Ravine, Dyanna’s is filled with all the essential tools of the trade, an earthy palace of utility in the middle of the cabin.
    Photography By Lark Smothermon
  • Dyanna’s cabin clings to its rocky perch over the Pecos River with a thick stone foundation. Wide planks, finished in whitewash, complete the flooring in this room.
    Photography By Lark Smothermon
  • A womb for sleeping? This bedroom, perched in an alcove, receives plenty of light, a sense of the spacious outside with an eastern view of the Pecos River, and still a snugness of enclosure within earthen walls.
    Photography By Lark Smothermon
  • The cabin was built in the late 1980s by Andrew Geer; Dyanna Taylor purchased it in 1998.
    Photography By Lark Smothermon
  • The adjacent adobe building has a domed roof and a skylight at its apex, creating a connection to the outside. Dyanna comes here to meditate and sleep, especially during the warm summer months.
    Photography By Lark Smothermon
  • A yoke to the heavens: Sculptor Gary Dryzmala fashioned “Vision,” this piece of art, reaching skyward.
    Photography By Lark Smothermon
  • Nestled in a rugged area near the Pecos River, the New Mexico home of Dyanna Taylor sits on twenty-four private acres.
    Photography By Lark Smothermon
  • A heavy door leads to the “pumphouse,” a storage building that supplies power to the bath house.
    Photography By Lark Smothermon
  • Through a dual set of doors, the desert air of the outside reaches the snug one-room adobe building adjacent to Dyanna’s main cabin.
    Photography By Lark Smothermon
  • Says Dyanna of her cabin: “This is where I like to hide.”
    Photography By Lark Smothermon
  • Dyanna created this altar in a niche. She observes, “Nature is always itself.”
    Photography By Lark Smothermon

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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