While I love traveling and have photographed in places far and wide, I am deeply attached to my Northern New Mexico home. As I wrote in Sabino’s Map, “From [the hills] the valley seems contained, cradled between the blue, rounded Jemez Mountains on the western horizon and the rugged, Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east. What more world could a soul need?”
Photo by Amadeus Leitner
Born in 1957 in Embudo, New Mexico, Don grew up in Los Alamos and Chimayó, New Mexico. He earned a B.A. in Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz and went on to manage an ecological reserve in Big Sur, California, where he and fellow Santa Cruz graduate Paul Henson co-authored The Natural History of Big Sur, published by the University of California Press, with photos by Don. Don returned to New Mexico in 1988 to complete an M.A. in Geography at the University of New Mexico, then wrote Sabino’s Map: Life in Chimayó’s Old Plaza, published in 1995 by the Museum of New Mexico Press. He has since written and provided photographs for several more books, including, most recently (with Kate Ware and Daniel Kosharek), ¡Órale! Lowrider: Custom Made in New Mexico, Museum of New Mexico Press, 2016; and Chasing Dichos through Chimayó (2014). Other books by Usner include, with William deBuys, Valles Caldera: A Vision for New Mexico’s National Preserve (1996) (winner of a Southwest Book Award in 1996; new edition in press for 2021); New Mexico Route 66 On Tour: Legendary Architecture from Glenrio to Gallup (2001); and Benigna’s Chimayó: Cuentos from the Old Plaza (2001). Don also contributed a chapter and photographs to The Plazas of New Mexico, San Antonio: Trinity University Press (2011) (winner of Southwest Book Award from the Border Regional Library Association).
Presently working as a photojournalist for Searchlight New Mexico, Don has published his photography with Searchlight’s online stories (searchlightnm.org), which have also been picked up by The Guardian, Rolling Stone and USA Today, as well as numerous local and regional news outlets. He has also written and provided photographs for regional magazines such as El Palacio, New Mexico Magazine, and Bienvenidos. Stories include “Machine Dreams: A Low, Slow Journey from Pachuco to Priceless” (El Palacio, Summer 2016); “Lowriders Riding High” (New Mexico magazine, July 2016); “Dropping Out and Tuning In” (New Mexico magazine, November 2015); “On the Mary and Joseph Trail” (New Mexico magazine, December 2014); “The Long and Winding Ditch,” in Bienvenidos, 2014; “Finding the Right Words,” in New Mexico magazine, January 2014; “Chimayó,” (a photo essay in the photography journal Lenswork); “Postcard from New Mexico,” in Photo Booth (an online blog of the New Yorker, July 16, 2012); “Lowriders Cruising El Norte,” Bienvenidos, Summer 2012; and “Don Victor Ortega: A Chimayó Patrón Goes to the Constitutional Convention,” in El Palacio, Spring 2012.
Don has taught photography at Santa Fe Preparatory School, Santa Fe University of Art and Design, and the College of Santa Fe, and cultural geography at Santa Fe Community College. He continues to cultivate his lifelong interest in cultural and natural history as he works as a writer and photographer in Santa Fe, where he lives with his wife, Deborah Harris. Don was named a New Mexico Luminaria by the New Mexico Community Foundation in 2013, an award given to New Mexicans who “motivate, inspire and support the dreams of others, promote diversity and equity, and build community strength through their leadership and vision.”