The Rio Puerco Valley is an arid place. The colors are usually limited to browns and sparse, muted greens. But, in a good year, when there are generous spring rains and a healthy monsoon, the desert comes alive; late spring, and early summer will see an abundance of colorful blossoms on the cacti, and the shrubs that grow and cover the landscape as far as the eye can see.
Since we are currently experiencing those very conditions here in the high desert of northern New Mexico, I was excited to see a cane cholla covered with reddish-purple blossoms as I was driving home a few days ago. The next day I packed my gear and headed into the expanse of the Rio Puerco Valley, certain that I would find it full of blooming chollas.
My expectations were confirmed as soon as I turned onto the county road that leads into the valley. The rolling plains on both sides of the road were covered with cane chollas and flowering plants in bloom. As I made my way through the small village of San Luis and deeper into the broad valley, my excitement grew. Everywhere I looked, it seemed, were colorful blossoms–mostly reddish/purple or yellow.
The day was pregnant with possibilities; the weather was stormy, and as I watched from deep in the wilderness, a cloud opened and began dropping virga over the landscape. Virga is an observable precipitation that drops from a cloud, but evaporates before it reaches the ground. I managed to make several good images that contained the event before it dissipated.
By the time I reached the ghost town of Guadalupe, I had already made over two hundred images and there was still plenty more to do. I parked the car and walked through the familiar landscape. I had photographed in Guadalupe many times before, but never with the desert in bloom the way it was now. This was a remarkable contraposition between the hope of prolific reproduction and the disappointment of broken dreams.
When you have photographed an area as much as I have photographed Guadalupe, it can be difficult to remain fresh, to create something new, but the chollas, which I usually see as just another part of the landscape, were now transformed into something more. I was able to see and use them as elements of counterpoint in my compositions. I think that made a big difference in how I saw the scene, and created the images.
One image in particular required that I step out of the box. There is a section of wall that remains standing while totally separated from the rest of the building it had been part of. Several years ago, I made an image of the wall with a crumbling two-storey building visible through the door opening. Being a creature of habit, it tried (unsuccessfully) to frame both the building and a blooming cholla in the opening. I finally gave up, and as I was walking away, I turned and saw what became the above image. I love it when failure leads to success.
After spending several hours working the location, I decided to pack up and head home. I made one last photograph before getting to the car to the drive back to the highway. But, before leaving I decided that I had to see inside an abandoned dwelling that I had (again) photographed several years previously. I wanted to see if any of the things that made the scene seem melancholy to me were still intact. The place had since been boarded up, but one of the doors was still ajar, and sure enough there was the shirt and hat hanging on the pegs above the turned down bed in the ruined bedroom of a two room shack. It made the setting seem, somehow, even more wistful than it had been when Robin and I first stumbled upon it.
So, I drove back toward the paved road promising myself that I would return again soon to photograph this place that I have come to love as much for the associations that it has as for the scenery. As anyone who knows me will tell you there is no such thing as a last photograph. Just south of San Luis I saw this image right along the edge of the road. For me, this says it all, while beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder, I can’t imagine anyone seeing a sight like this and not being filled at least to a small degree with awe .
I killed two birds with one stone the other evening: I did some “blue hour” photography, and I made some panorama images. I have been wanting, for some time now, to get out and photograph the “blue hour”. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, it refers to the hour before sun-up or after sundown when the light from the setting sun is reflected in the upper atmosphere. The more common name for this time is twilight, and it is divided into three distinct phases: civil, nautical, and astronomical. The duration of twilight changes depending on the time of year, and the latitude from which it is being observed. The blue reference has to do with the color of the light which has a wonderful bluish cast to it and is diffuse without any harsh shadows. So, I finally made myself go out into the diminishing day and drive to the Rio Puerco Valley. The prospect was sweetened by the full moon which would be rising about half an hour after sunset.
I arrived at my destination two hours before moonrise and set about scouting the area for a good location to photograph the event. Since I am quite familiar with the place, it didn’t take me very long to find what I was looking for. I set up my camera on a tripod and began making test images to determine the correct exposure. As the sun went down and the light softened, I began taking several series of vertical photographs which would later be stitched together in Photoshop to create the final panorama. The first image was made about thirty minutes after sunset and about twenty minutes before moonrise.
The second photograph was actually made earlier than the first, but it was more of a test to get the feel for shooting the panorama and I didn’t expect to take it any further. After all, it’s full of cattle, which I consider to be a blight on the landscape. But, in the spirit of expanding my horizons (thank you Robin), I processed the image and, as it turned out, I liked it.
From the information I had gathered from The Photographer’s Ephemeris, I expected the full moon to rise somewhere between Cabezon Peak (the volcanic plug in the distance) and Cerro Cuate (the more prominent double peaked mount). But as the horizon began to brighten I was somewhat dismayed to discover that the moon was not where it was supposed to be…well at least not where I expected it to be. I checked the app on my iPhone again and saw that my expectations were based on a location that was actually a couple miles east of where I was.
I had planned to include the moon with the two mountains in the composition; that wasn’t possible from the place where I was standing. Now I had to re-think my plans, knowing that my window of opportunity was small if I was going to capture the moon close to the horizon. I quickly packed everything into my car and drove to the new location, walked to a place which afforded a clear view of the scene, set up, and composed the last image. By now it was dark, I was shooting thirty second exposures, and I was having to focus manually–auto focus doesn’t work very well in the dark. This being my first attempt at photographing at this time of day, and making panoramas, I wasn’t really very hopeful about the outcome. As full dark descended, I pack up my gear by the light of my headlamp and headed home.
The next morning I set about uploading and processing my previous night’s work. Each panorama is composed of nine vertical images which are then stitched together in Photoshop. As the first panorama was rendered I knew I was hooked. Somehow, despite the comedy of errors I had experienced while making the images, I managed to walk away with some finished photographs that I was happy with. It’s always an exhilarating feeling to discover a new technique and this was no exception. I made a few mistakes; there are some things I will do differently in the future, but overall, I’m happy with the way things turned out. It was a good night’s work.
I am a photographer, I consider myself an artist. I don’t want to take pretty pictures. I strive to make moving images. A deep green reservoir and a late winter storm moving across distant mesas,
or a lone tree trapped in its winter slumber while light dances on a faraway butte, I had an emotional response to these encounters. As a photographer and an artist, I want to capture not just the way these things appear, but the way these things feel. For me, the making of an image does not stop after the shutter is released. I am not one of those photographers that proudly proclaim that they only strive to capture the image the way it was; total objectivity and nothing less.
Art is not objective. By its very nature, it must be more than that. The artist attempts to convey a certain feeling to those who view his work. This can only be achieved by making an image that is more than just a representation of a scene. To do this requires what some condescendingly call “manipulation”. I call it creating the image and I will make no apologies for that.
Imagine a watering hole miles from any village or human activity. Now imagine a bovine visitor that plods through the dry, cracked, yet still soft earth that lines the edges of the oasis. The sky is overcast and the light, while soft, still shapes the edges of the cracks and lends a beautiful glow to the surface of the moving water.
In order to make these things tangible within the constraints of a two dimensional photographic image, some work must be done beyond the framing, composition, and exposure that make up the original capture. There must be some intention to the final outcome
There are many circumstances where I am challenged to make an image that is different from those that came before. From an oft viewed roadside scene to a sudden ethereal display of atmospheric magnitude, the real challenge is not just to capture a technically acceptable representation of that scene or phenomena, or to use some cliche template to compose it, the challenge is to render it in a way that is unique to my vision.
By doing so, I hope to evoke some response to my work, to kindle in the viewer an appreciation of the world beyond the pavement where they may never have been, or where they may have been, but have never really seen.
In one of his contributions to Eliot Porter’s book “The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon On The Colorado”, Frank Waters wrote: “We measure minutes, the river ignores millennia.” And, although he was referring to the Colorado River, we can still make the same statement about any river. They carve and shape the lands they flow through not judging or playing favorites, and at times they provide a striking contrast to the arid environment that borders their banks.
The Rio Chama is such a river. It makes its way through north-central New Mexico flowing past some remote, but memorable scenery along the journey to its confluence with the Rio Grande. If you throw in just the right amount of foreboding skies and ethereal light, the scene becomes magical. It is my job to capture that magic and to cause those who view my image to be drawn in by it, to wonder what may lie beyond that bend. I hope I have succeeded.
What promised to be a day of amazing atmospheric conditions and light came with an unexpected bonus during a recent trip to the Rio Puerco Valley. Those of you who are familiar with my work know that this is one of my favorite locations.
We were looking for something a little different, but, after all, how often can you visit one place and expect to come up with something fresh? I made a turn onto a side road that I had driven past many times; it headed off across a low mesa toward the double peaked Cerro Cuate. Out of nowhere came a small herd of horses. We could see by their brands that they were not wild. Their gregarious nature confirmed it.
One horse in particular took to Robin and she was enchanted.
As we wandered around the fringes of the band, they went about their business. These three stuck together and moved a short distance away from the two more friendly members of the group. Although I am no expert on horses or their behavior, I’m pretty sure they are mares.
I was amazed by the relaxed, friendly demeanor of these gentle animals. They are obviously used to being around people. These two struck a familial pose for me.
With the volcanic neck of Cabezon as a backdrop, these two males (I didn’t get close enough to be able to tell if they are stallions or geldings) proceeded to play with each other as if they were showing off.
In all, we spent about forty-five minutes with our new-found friends working the horses as I would a model in a portrait shoot. I was looking for something as I photographed and when I saw this frame I realized that this was it.
I have been exploring the area in and around the Rio Puerco Valley for years and I think I’ve driven just about every road out there. But, there is one that had escaped me until recently. I had driven past it many times, but had always assumed that it was a private road leading to a ranch that could be seen in the distance.
That’s what I get for making assumptions. I recently had reason to study a map of the area for a totally unrelated reason, and discovered that the road in question continued on well past the ranch in a long loop that returned to the main road via a BLM road that I am familiar with.
So, this past Sunday we set out to explore what is identified on the map as the Empedrado Wilderness (it’s actually a Wilderness Study Area which means it is being considered for wilderness status). Well, one of the first things I realized is that for a wilderness, there sure is a lot of human impact, both abandoned and ongoing. Of course the former captured my attention.
This stone ruin is perched on the edge of Torreon Wash and if the steep banks continue to deteriorate, it will soon be a pile of rubble lying in the wash. There is something about these recent ruins that touches me. I see the abandoned hopes and dreams of people who were probably toiling here in my lifetime and who may still come to these places to watch those dreams decay.
A little farther along we found this water system that, at first, looked as though it could still be in working order, but upon closer inspection it was found to be, dried up, broken and rusting away.
Just around the next bend in the road is an old school bus that is filled with what could be mistaken for building materials. Most of the insulation has become nests for the pack-rats, and other small animals that have laid claim to the bus.
After the first five miles or so, the evidence of human endeavor began to dwindle and the place began to look more like a wilderness. We drove on for another ten miles making note of areas of interest for future exploration. Then, after turning on to the BLM road that leads back to our starting point, I stopped to make this image of an ephemeral New Mexico rain falling over Cabezon Peak.
If you’re a landscape photographer, there is nothing worse or more boring than a clear blue sky. Don’t get me wrong, I love a crisp autumn day with cerulean skies as well as the next person, but when I’m out making images, I want some drama from above.
Luckily, here in New Mexico, we get nearly as many days with stormy skies as we do with clear ones. I have always been deeply affected by the weather; when the barometer drops and the sky closes in, I get gooseflesh and I’m out the door with my camera and tripod.
The first two images were made in the Rio Puerco Valley which is quickly becoming one of my favorite places to photograph. There are over fifty volcanic plugs, wide vistas, and beautiful stormy skies. The color photograph above is of the Rio Puerco, a (mostly) dry river for which the Valley is named.
This last image was made near the small village of Torreon, NM. I had driven past these ruins many times, but on this day something told me to stop. The result was several good photographs, this being my favorite of the bunch.
So, the next time you see a storm brewing, grab your gear and head out to make some images. Oh, and you might want to bring a raincoat.
One of the nice things about living in a dry climate is: things are preserved. They are not washed back to the earth as quickly as they might be in a wetter climate. The desert southwest is famous for its ruins, not only those of the Anasazi, or Ancient Ones, but also of cultures that are more recent. I spend a lot of time making photographs in the desert where I come across a ruin on just about every trip. They may not be as famous as Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon, but they speak of the past nonetheless.
Usually these locations are single dwellings, the remnants of someone’s dream slowly being reclaimed by the earth, but sometimes they are entire villages or settlements that were thriving communities, but are now nothing more than abandoned piles of crumbling adobe and rotting wood. The first two images are of ruins in the Rio Puerco Valley in north-central New Mexico
Many of the more well known and much older sites are of Native American origin. Pueblo Pintado is an outlier of Chaco Canyon and was inhabited from around 900-1250 CE. The image below shows one of the kivas in the foreground and the Great House behind it. The people who lived here were the forebears of the modern day pueblo people
Whenever I am in one of these places, I am overcome by a feeling of kinship with the people who lived and died there. I find myself wondering who they were and what they did to sustain themselves. What were their names? Why did these places fail and fall prey to time and the weather? In many cases, such as the ranching communities in the Rio Puerco Valley, it was overgrazing that forced the inhabitants out. In places like Pueblo Pintado or Mesa Verde, it is thought that drought played a large part in their demise.
This last image is one of twenty-three kivas in the Cliff Palace which was the largest cliff dwelling in North America. It housed about one hundred people in 150 rooms. There are close to six hundred cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park.