Welcome to Double Scoop’s new series, New to Nevada!
Contributor Lucy Birmingham spent several years working as an arts writer in Tokyo. Now she lives on a ranch in Washoe County. Since Lucy is new to the state, she’s telling the stories of artists who are too.
just call myself a photographer,” explained Michael Plyler, with a humility that belies his 40-plus years of creating remarkable architectural and portrait work in locations across the globe. His equipment: a weighty, 4×5-inch, large format camera weighing up to 45 pounds. No small feat. His photographs of the Maya of Guatemala between 1982 and 2018 are just one example of his extensive work now showing at the Courthouse Gallery in Carson City.
“I’ve had many lives,” he said. “I was born in Japan, and left there with my family when I was two. My dad was in the Air Force. So between K and 12, I went to nine different schools.” Years later, working as a firefighter in Clark County, he was able to take his first paid vacation, in Guatemala. “Just after I got off the bus in Antigua, I saw a guy walking down the sidewalk who I had gone to college with, so I yelled out his name,” Plyler said. His former classmate, who was doing a stint in the Peace Corps, showed him around.
“I just kept going back,” said Plyler. “I loved the place.”
Plyler’s deep connection to the country remains, despite it’s cultural erosion. “Over these 36 years it’s been painful to witness,” he said. In the early 1980s the Guatemalan Civil War was still underway, and the country was too dangerous for tourists. “By the early 2000s when the internet came, I would run into Mayans who had cell phones but were living in an adobe house with a dirt floor, thatched roof, no running water, and perhaps no electricity,” he said.
When Plyler’s time with the fire department ended in 1985, he headed for Europe to photograph. “I’ve been to Italy twice and Spain five times,” he said. “A lot of that is my architectural work.”
He moved to Utah in 1991. “I had been living in Blue Diamond, Nevada, which is a town of 300 people, about 25 miles west of Las Vegas. And doing commercial photography, but I was not a happy camper.” He was offered a job with the Zion National Park and moved nearby to Springdale, Utah.
In 2002, the Zion National Park launched the Field Institute. The founding director hired Plyler to teach photographic workshops. In 2005, he was promoted to director and continued in the position for 16 years. “I would hire instructors and plan curriculum,” he said. “We did fee-based classes for visitors to the park. So, you could sign up for a one-day geology class of botany, archeology, photography, or we did some guided hikes.”
“I’ve been making landscape photographs before I was doing the portrait work,” he said. “And I think my best landscape work was all made in the last 10 years. Because I’m so familiar with [Zion], I knew exactly where to be at what time, including season and time of day.” However, the work for a landscape photographer can be challenging, he explained: “What if you go on a week’s trip to make great landscape photographs, and it rains? Or if you’re unfamilar with a place and don’t have the best vantage point? There’s so many things working against you in a short amount of time.”
In 2021, Plyler retired and moved to Carson City.
Plyler’s 4 x 5 camera requires real strength to carry, but its worth it, he explained. “The resolution that you get when you make a large print is unsurpassed. And so when I started teaching photo workshops in the ’80s, and in the mid-to-late ’90s when digital arrived, all these young whippersnappers in my workshops would tease me because I was a dinosaur using a wooden camera that was embedded over a hundred years ago,” he said. “But eventually they started to see the light as to what I was up to.” His commercial architecture photography ultimately became key to his work.
Until recently, Plyler wasn’t focusing on galleries. “I’ve been the type of guy who walks down a road, and a fork appears, and I go down it to see what happens” he said. “Galleries have their own agendas, and basically they think that my Maya work is not sellable because nobody wants a portrait of a Mayan Indian.” Ironically, his work has garnered great interest and significant sales. “Not long ago, I had a 56-piece show at the Southern Utah Museum of Art at Southern Utah University in Cedar City where I sold 12 pieces, more than I’ve ever sold before,” he said. “It was all the Guatemalan work. So this would seem to disprove the argument made by gallery owners that it isn’t sellable.”
Michael Plyler’s exhibition Selected Works: Maya of Guatemala and Western Landscapes, presented by Capital City Arts Initiative, is on view at the Courthouse Gallery in Carson City through March 24, with a reception today, Feb. 15, from 5-6:30.
You can see more of his work on his website.
Images courtesy of Michael Plyler and Capital City Arts Initiative.