I have been spending a lot of time in the Rio Puerco Valley lately. One of the big attractions (for me anyway) is the ghost town of Guadalupe, NM. The main road through the valley, County Road 279, runs right through the middle of it. Guadalupe is not much at first glance: a number of ruined adobe houses, one of them a large two story, and what’s left of a church. Oh, and an outhouse right on the side of the road.
But, if you stop and explore the place, you begin to notice the little things that give some clues about the people who lived here when it was a thriving ranching community back in the early part of the last century: niches in the crudely plastered adobe walls, candles, crosses on the walls. In one house, there is an eerie scene: a bed with the covers turned down, a shirt and hat hanging on the wall as if the occupants just stepped out to tend the sheep. I suspect that whomever these things belonged to was a more recent resident of Guadalupe, perhaps someone who was just squatting here and then vanished like those who came before.
When I stand amidst the ruins and look around at the horizon (which is broken by volcanic cones), and the broad swath of the Rio Puerco, I wonder what it was that drew these people to such a harsh land. I know that it was overgrazing which caused them to eventually abandon the place. Places such as this are fragile. Anyone who attempts to make a living off the land must do so in a measured way, or they will likely be driven out leaving small clues to their presence for some future wandering photographer to ponder.
In keeping with my fascination with our connection to, and impact on the natural world, I have been making road images. There was a time not too long ago when I would go to great lengths to keep anything that smacked of the human hand out of my photographs. But, I have come to realize that it’s not really necessary to hide the things that we have “contributed” to the landscape. An open road in a remote location can create a powerful resonance in the human psyche, and so I hope that this realization can contribute to my ongoing, and (hopefully) never-ending growth as an artist.
This first image was made on US 64 west of Taos, NM, a few miles beyond the Taos Gorge Bridge. The atmospheric conditions were incredibly dramatic and that long stretch of empty highway was looking like the road to infinity. I love the possibilities that are implied by that vanishing point!.
Here is another photograph that suggests the same hope (or fear) as the first image. Sandoval County Road 279 runs south off NM 44 about eighteen miles north of San Ysidro. For nine miles or so it is paved. A short distance beyond the village of San Luis, it turns to dirt and continues past the ghost town of Cabezon and through the Rio Puerco Valley. This is a desolate part of the world, but in such places my spirit is renewed.
And finally here is an image of BLM Road 1103 which splits off County Road 279 close to Cabezon. From this point, it crosses the Rio Puerco and continues on past Cerro Santa Clara and Cerro Guadalupe, and then farther south along the eastern edge of the Rio Puerco. These roads whether paved or dirt give us access to the places that quench our thirst for wilderness, and for all those unknown destinations we have seen only in our dreams.
In my last post, I commented on how we, as a species, are responsible for the degradation of our environment, and how we are the only species that has the capability to affect such an assault. That being said, I would also like to acknowledge our status as a part of the natural world in which we live. We need only accept our place to begin a process by which we become more attuned to the ebb and flow of the cycles that are a necessary part of life on our wondrous planet.
It occurs to me that since we really are one with the world around us, why should I as a photographer of nature be reluctant to include the human element in my images. After all, I have photographed people in natural settings for environmental portraits. So, it is a short leap to accept the subjects of those portraits as elements of the landscape they inhabit, rather than taking the opposite view that the scene is just a backdrop for the portrait.
This first image is one that I made several years ago. I was photographing a friend of mine who wanted some photos for her website. Halli is a yoga instructor, so I immediately visualized what became this image of her in a half lotus pose with this wonderful waterfall behind her. The waterfall, the whole environment, is certainly more than just a backdrop here. It is an integral part of the image; it suggests the power inherent in our connection to the natural world, if we can just be receptive. The technical challenge here was to have Halli remain still through the long exposure required to render the moving water as a silky curtain. Luckily, due to her training, she had no problem remaining focused and still while the shutter was open.
This image was made at Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu, NM. Robin and I were out exploring the area and she disappeared into this cabin. I noticed her moving around inside and asked her to pose in the window. The missing pane served as a frame and the glass in the remaining panes reflected the surrounding landscape. The result is a portrait that not only captures her essence, but also reveals the source of her tranquility in this moment.
The Cabezon Wilderness Study Area is a wild and beautiful place in north-central New Mexico. There are endless vistas dominated by volcanic plugs; there are deep cut channels of the Rio Puerco and its many tributaries; there are ruins of a long deserted Chacoan outlier; and there are roadside dumps where someone, at some time, decided that he or she could improve on the scenery by leaving what they no longer treasured to bake in the sun.
I assume that some of the trash that has been left here was discarded by former residents of the area–there are numerous small ranches and ruins of many more that are now slowly making their way back to the earth. The ruins will probably disappear long before the abandoned refrigerators, stoves, culverts, and other artifacts of human habitation that litter the landscape. Maybe we should just learn to accept it. After all it’s human nature to defile the only home we have. No other species has the means, the desire, or the audacity to deface and pollute the earth.
We already have become accustomed to such degradation-and perhaps we even expect it-in the cities and towns where we gather and live in great numbers, but is it really necessary to leave traces of our arrogance in the wild places where our presence is, or should be, but a whisper?
On Sunday, June 26th I was at the Valle Grande Staging Area of the Valles Caldera National Preserve. I had taken a seasonal position working for the preserve. It was pretty much like any other day, except for the wind, the relentless wind, which was gusting up to 60 mph. A little after one o’clock, one of my co-workers rushed into the visitor’s center to announce that a fire had broken out at the Las Conchas Trailhead. Las Conchas is a popular spot; the East Fork of the Jemez River flows into a narrow slot before it continues on through high country meadows and finally plunges through a series of pools in a steep canyon. The natural thing was to suspect that someone had disregarded the closure of the Santa Fe National Forest-due to extreme fire danger, and had left a campfire unattended, or tossed a cigarette into the dry grass. It wouldn’t have been the first time (investigators would later discover that the fire was the result of an aspen tree, blown over by the wind, falling on a power line).
We all went out onto the porch to see what we could see. Las Conchas is about three miles west of the Valle Grande and, sure enough, there was a telltale plume of white smoke. Maybe I was being naive, or maybe I just didn’t want to believe it, whatever the reason, I told myself it was nothing to worry about–they would jump on it and it would be out before it had a chance to do any real damage. But then we watched as the fire started up the side of Los Griegos (a prominent feature on the rim of the caldera) and suddenly moved across the mountain as if someone had painted the flames with a brush.
Seven hours later I stood on my friend Robin’s deck and made this image of the smoke and evaporation cloud of what was now being called the Las Conchas fire. Because of the extremely dry conditions after a winter and spring during which we had had no appreciable moisture, the fire grew from its source and by the time I took this photo, it had consumed four thousand acres. By the end of the day, that number would increase tenfold. Driven by the wind at first and then, later, by the collapse of a smoke plume which had risen thousands of feet into the air (imagine dust bunnies scattering after a book has been dropped flat on the floor), the fire grew in all directions, consuming everything in its path: timber, wildlife, homes…
By Friday the fire had grown to nearly one hundred thousand acres and had become an organic presence. I made this image from the road which leads to Redondo Meadow where the initial Incident Command Post was. The large smoke plume was the result of the fire spreading onto Cerro Santa Rosa and consuming a fresh fuel supply.
As the days went by the residents of the nearby communities became used to waking in the morning to a smoke shrouded sky. The sun shown red through the haze and, at times the fire seemed too close for comfort.
I made this image looking up San Diego Canyon north of Jemez Springs a little over a week after the Las Conchas fire burst into our home and our lives.
Yesterday I set out with with no particular destination in mind. As I turned north on 550, I thought I might try to get a good shot of Cabezon from the highway. When I got to that stretch of road the sky was overcast, the light flat, so I pushed on, and turned on the road to San Luis and Cabezon.
As I got closer, and the great neck of lava grew larger, I decided to go all the way to the parking area. I was driving my car which has very little clearance, so I wasn’t sure I could make it. Sure enough, the road began to get rougher, so when I saw this two track leading off to the left I stopped. I had to play a waiting game with the sun which was obscured by the overcast. As it got lower in the sky, the light began to soften. I made some exposures, and this image is the best of the lot.
Equipment: Nikon D700, Nikon 17–35 mm 2.8 zoom lens, circular polarizer, Bogen tripod.
Camera Settings: f22, 1/15th sec., ISO 100
Okay, Okay, I know it’s another fence photo. This was actually the first time I had consciously included a manmade object in an image in a long time. I was driving across the Valles Caldera one winter day; it was foggy and there was fresh snow on the ground. I noticed this fence line angling off into the distance, and it seemed as though it was floating. There was no discernible horizon; it was like watching a dream unfold.
This is another of those images that I visualized in B&W as I was setting up the shot. I knew I wanted simplicity, to the exclusion of everything but the lines, shapes and tonal values. Color would have been an overstatement.
Equipment: Nikon F100, Nikon 35–70 mm f 2.8 zoom lens, Fuji Velvia.
Processing: Nikon CoolscanV, Curves, and B&W conversion in Photoshop
Tumbleweeds (Russian Thistle) piled against a barbed wire fence, with a far–off horizon in the background. If it weren’t for that fence, who knows where those damn tumbleweeds would be by now!
There was a time when I would go out of my way to exclude a fence from an image, but fences are a part of the landscape, and sometimes they can evoke emotions. So, I guess in many ways they can be considered works of art.
This image was made on the same day as I made “County Road 5728”. It is a bit further up Hwy. 550 from Lybrook. I struggled with the color version of this for days, but was not satisfied with the results, so I did a B&W conversion, and I like this version much better.
Equipment: Nikon D200, Nikon 17–35mm f2.8 zoom lens, circular polarizer.
Processing: Exposure, contrast, clarity, and vibrance in Lightroom, Curves and B&W conversion in Photoshop.
I’ve felt this way a few times in my life: the loss of a loved one, a breakup with someone whom I loved (and probably still do), those melancholy moments when memories of an irretrievable past seem to burrow into my mind and won’t let go.
We were mountain biking on Cebollita Mesa. As we walked our bikes across a cattle guard, I saw this strand of barbed wire wrapped tightly around a fence post. The metaphor was obvious.
Equipment: Nikon F100, Nikon 105mm f2,8 macro lens, Fuji Velvia.
Processing: Nikon Coolscan V, curves, levels, color balance, and saturation adjustments in Photoshop
County Road 5872
One day I took a drive out Highway 550. As I passed through Lybrook, I saw a road off to my right, and on impulse I turned onto it. The sign read CR 5872, and after about a half mile the road turned to dirt. It had rained earlier, and the road was pretty slick, so I decided not to venture very far.
At the bottom of a small hill, there was a drainage with a culvert and a fence line. There was also a wide spot in the road, so I took the opportunity to turn my car around, and to get out to stretch a bit. Something about the road intrigued me: the way it ran off to the horizon. I grabbed my camera and made three exposures. This is the pick. I made adjustments in Lightroom, but it still wasn’t quite right. If all else fails, do a conversion to black and white. This is the result.