Relics of the Mother Road
Along the route and at road’s end, the decay of man’s dreams and the simple elegance of the natural scene have been the premier attraction. The pattern of dunes, the color of sheet metal, the weathering of wood, and the changing sky are images that are as important to me as the ‘grand view’.
John Kiewit; from the preface to Gone to Sanctuary from the Sins of Confusion
As I mentioned in a previous entry, I have been travelling around the state making images of a decaying way of life. A project and a journey inspired by a book. I wish I could have known John Kiewit, I think we would have had a lot to talk about..
Cuervo, New Mexico straddles what is now Interstate 40. In Cuervo’s heyday, it was Route 66. This deteriorating frame house is in the section of the town that sits on the south side of the freeway. I was drawn to make this photograph by what remains of the cedar shake shingles on the roof. As with most of the photographs I have made for this project, I shot the subject straight on. I think of these images as a hybrid of objective documentary and subjective, expressive photographs.
The rusty, scavenged hulk of a car is as common in the rural New Mexican landscape as crumbling adobe. This one–I believe it’s from the 50s or early 60s– was parked near a small, completely abandoned village in Eastern New Mexico. There are many of these disappearing places and eroding vehicles along what was once “The Mother Road”.
I made this image in a small town that like many in that part of New Mexico is mostly a ghost town. The old picket and wire fence overgrown with weeds makes a perfect foreground for the faded pink wall and the glassless window. The rusted cans on the sill speak of former inhabitants, now long gone. I included just a little of the corrugated roof to provide contrast to the wall. As with most of my images, I made several versions, most of them wider views of the entire house, but I like the intimacy of this one.
I long ago outgrew the desire to use my camera as a Xerox machine. Standing amidst a throng of people with cameras on tripods to bag a “trophy shot” holds no attraction for me. That being said, when I saw a photograph by John Mulhouse of this quirky, timeworn truck parked in front of a now defunct resturant in Tucumcari, I knew I had to make my own photograph of it.
I love the mottled look of the adobe on this house. The rusty corrugated tin roof creates tension. The curtained windows led me to suspect inhabitants, but there were no other signs of anyone living there. I wandered through this town for more than an hour and talked with one resident, but he confirmed that most of the residents were gone elsewhere.
This steel suspension bridge over the Rio Puerco no longer carries traffic. I can remember crossing it while on a road trip with my young family back in the eighties and, further back, I probably rode over it as a hitchhiker in the late sixties. Now it stands playing an uncertain role between the freeway and the frontage road. It’s been disignated a historic bridge and is on the national registry; the small, dented, rusting sign on the western end of the bridge tells us so.
Early spring and the elms and cottonwoods were leafing out. I was on a part of old route 66 that still has a few towns that are relatively well populated. As I drove through this village, I spotted this shuttered service garage. It is right on the main drag, but no one was around to fill me in on its history. I stayed there for a while because it felt like someone could walk out the door at any second. My patience was not rewarded.
This sunlight reflecting off the broken windshield drew my attention to this old rusty chevy. It was parked back off the road between two buildings. I had to wait for the sun to move so the glare was off the glass. There is something poetic about these old vehicles, something almost natural about the rust and the paint and the shattered glass.
I was actually back off the highway several miles when I came across this old adobe ruin. The vigas still sit on the walls, but the roof has long since given way to decay and gravity. It’s a small dwelling that harkens back to a time when quality was more important than quantity. It’s fortunate that I made this photograph in early spring; the elm tree was still pretty bare which, I think, suits the image.
This is my first post in more than a year and a half, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy. In fact I travelled and photographed more in 2020 than in the previous three years combined. What has changed is my approach to my photography and the subject matter. First of all, I have commited the ultimate sin for a landscape/nature photographer: I have pretty much left my tripod at home; most of the photographs I have made in the past two years have been shot handheld using a Nikon Df along with an assortment of lenses. As for the subject matter, I have been attempting to capture the detritus of a disappearing culture in a way that makes it pleasing to the eye.
This first image is of a quirky fence in the village of Cerrillos. I liked the way the winter weeds contrast the hard edged outline of the fence slats and the way the fence itself mimics the Ortiz Mountains in the distance.
Nikon Df, Nikkor 24-120mm f4 F11 1/640 ISO 400
This roadside tableau caught my eye as I was driving along a two lane blacktop in northern New Mexico. Actually, I made the first version in the spring when the leaves were green and new, but the image didn’t have the feel I was looking for, so I returned in the fall and got it right.
Nikon Df Nikkor 24-120 f4 F8 1/100 ISO 800
Most small rural villages in New Mexico have more than their share of abandoned homes and buildings which are slowly melting into the landscape. The broken window and the off-kilter door draw the eye to the reflection of the dead tree.
Nikon Df Nikkor 24-120mm F7 1/160 ISO 400
The shirt hanging on a carved door in a crumbling adobe is a bit eerie and, at the same time gives this image a human touch. I have come across several scenes like this in my travels and they always make me wonder about the lives of the people who called those places home.
Nikon Df Nikkor 50mm f1.4 F4 1/500 ISO 800
This last photograph is one of my favorites. The missing window pane, the tattered curtain, the broken stucco are all given a sense of hope (and a splash of color) by the blooming trumpet vines.
Nikon Df Nikkor 24-120mm F8 1/80 ISO 400
2015’s Best Part 1
2015 was an exceptional year for me in terms of photography. Not just for the images, but for the experiences as well. I made an effort to be more adventurous, and spontaneous in my choice of subject matter. I also vowed to be more responsive to the images themselves when it came to post processing. In all, there are thirty-seven photographs, so I will present this post in two parts. I hope you enjoy viewing them as much as I enjoyed making them.
In late January we had a heavy snowfall which made it impossible for me to drive out of my driveway. So, I walked down to Soda Dam to photograph it in its winter splendor. This image seemed to be a black and white candidate from the start.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70 f2.8: 1.3 sec., f20, ISO 50
March took me to southern Arizona to photograph desert wildflowers. I didn’t find the showing I had hoped for, so I contented myself by pursuing Teddy Bear Chollas. When photographed in the right light, they have a luminous quality about them. I made this image at sunset in the Lost Dutchman State Park, east of Pheonix. The fabled Superstition Mountains lie on the horizon.
Nikon D800 with 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1.3 sec, f16, ISO 50
I’ve been to Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash many times over the years, but I seldom explore along the southern edge. In April I decided to change that; I made this image looking northwest from the top of the southern rim. This is the section I call the Yellow Badlands. It’s like taking a look back through time.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70 f2.8: 1⁄8 sec, f18, ISO 50
In May while exploring a part of Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash I had never been to before, I came across this incredible hoodoo hidden in a small ravine along the northern edge of the main wash. I stayed and worked the area for nearly two hours. This is the first of many compositions using what I call the Neural Hoodoo as the main subject.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄30 sec, f16, ISO 50
This black and white image was made from the opposite side of the Neural Hoodoo. If forced to choose a favorite, this would be it.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄25 sec, f16, ISO 50
This final image of the Neural Hoodoo was made from the same general location as the first, but I zoomed in to capture a more intimate portrait.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄15 sec, f16, ISO 50
At the same time I was exploring the far reaches of Ah Shi SlePah, I was discovering some of the amazing and convoluted drainages along the southern rim of the wash. I made this image on a stormy evening in late May. I could not have asked for more appropriate light for this scene.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄60 sec, f18, ISO 50
In early June I went out to the Bisti Wilderness. At the far reaches of the southern drainage, I made this image of a multi-colored grouping of hoodoos. I had photographed this same group several times in the past, but I think this is my favorite. The clouds seem to reflect the lines of the caprocks.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70 mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄40 sec, f16, ISO 50
One morning in late June I noticed the chollas around my house were blooming. I set out the next morning for the Rio Puerto Valley to capture the splashes of color in that dramatic landscape. I made the first image (above) in the ghost town of Guadalupe. The return of life to the desert seemed coincidental to the ongoing decay of the adobe buildings.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄6 sec, f16, ISO 50
In this image, a blossoming cholla stands at the head of a deep wash as a rain cloud passes over Cerro Cuate in the distance. Even the slightest precipitation sustains life in this environment.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄10 sec, f16, ISO 50
Early on the morning of July 4th, before the road was closed for the parade, I slipped out of town and drove out into the San Juan Basin. I didn’t really have a plan other than to visit the Burnham Badlands, which lies to the west of the Bisti Wilderness, and covers a relatively small area as badlands go (about one mile by two miles). This graceful hoodoo sits smack in the center of it.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄20 sec, f16, ISO 50
After completing my exploration of the Burnham Badlands, I drove west through the heart of the Navajo Reservation and arrived at Shiprock in the early evening. I drove one of the dirt roads that runs along the lava dike until I found a spot I liked. I set up my camera and tripod then waited for the light. Over the next two and a half hours, I made almost a hundred exposures as the light changed and the sun crept toward the horizon. This is my pick.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄6 sec, f16, ISO 50
Hidden in plain sight, just a few miles north of Ah Shi Sle Pah is the Fossil Forest. At the end of a low ridge which runs east to west, you can just make out the telltale signs from the county road: the striated color, and the deep cut drainages where geologic treasures lie exposed. I went there with an agenda: to find a fossilized tree stump. I’ve related the whole story in an earlier post, so I’ll just say here that we were able to locate the stump after some scrambling and sleuthing.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄25 sec, f16, ISO 100
In July, I made a trip to visit my daughter Lauren in Madison, Wisconsin. She accompanied me on the return trip. Early on the second morning, somewhere in central Kansas, she mentioned the large birds roosting on the fence. I had driven past and hadn’t noticed them, so I backtracked until we found them. The birds turned out to be a committee of turkey vultures sunning themselves and drying their wings. I was able to get pretty close to them without distressing them, and I managed to capture quite a few exposures. This is my favorite.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1⁄640 sec, f9, ISO 500
In August we set out on the high road to Taos. The way passes through many small villages: Chimayo, Truchas, Las Trampas, and Picuris Pueblo to name but a few. At Picuris, we visited the plaza, and there, I noticed the shapes and texture of the adobe walls of a small church. This is the result of my efforts there.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1⁄400 sec, f14, ISO 1600
Farther up the road, we took a fork to visit the village of Tres Ritos. There, in a meadow by the side of the road, was a spray of mountain asters with a small wetland full of cattails just beyond it. The dark foreboding sky intensified the saturation of the colors and was the perfect backdrop for the scene.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄640 sec, f16, ISO 1600
In late August on a trip to Denver, I drove up highway 285 instead of using the interstate. Late in the day, the clouds were hanging in tatters from the peaks of the Sangre de Cristos to the east. The grasses were just beginning to turn and the colors filled the spectrum. When I came across the trees, it all came together.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄5 sec, f11, ISO 50
On my return from Denver, I was driving across the Taos Plateau and the nearly full moon was climbing through the clouds above the Sangres. The Chamisa was in bloom and all I needed to do was find the right combination.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄500 sec, f13, ISO 800
Still on the Taos Plateau. The texture and colors in the grasses and sage, along with the rays of sunlight piercing the dark clouds caused me to pull over again (at this rate, I would never get home). The lonesome Ponderosa Pine anchors this image, but the thing that really ties it all together is the thin strip of light colored ground below the mountains.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄500 sec, f11, ISO 800
Jack London said: “You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a stick!”. My stick is solitude, or more precisely, a place where solitude is possible. Usually I am with one or more companions, whether they be clients on a tour, or a like minded friend, but the main ingredient, the thing that makes it possible for me to fly off to a world of my own lies not in the absence of company, but rather in the absence of barriers.
If I make an image that portrays the illusion, I have accomplished my goal. In fact, there are times that a human figure is essential to complete the composition. An inanimate object can also serve to convey the feeling of isolation by providing something for the viewer to empathize with:
A weathered fence post in the midst of multi-colored badlands…
or a horse skull perched on the edge of a labyrinthine wash. These anchors add a sense of scale to the image, and allow the viewer to immerse herself in the “splendid isolation” of the environment.
Sometimes the best thing about Autumn is the anticipation of the first snowfall, which often happens in early October. Well, no snow yet this year, but we have had some intense skies, and along with the falling temperatures, it sure looks and feels like we could have an early winter.
Fast forward a couple days and the temperature is back up in the 70s, normal for this time of year. I took a drive through Lake Fork Canyon to capture the aspens in their autumn coats. I made the second image at the entrance to Fogon Canyon which is a side canyon from Lake Fork. There is an old abandoned corral built up against the rock walls. I think the weathered wood compliments the color in the trees nicely.
As the sun sank lower in the sky, I reached the head of the canyon. There, on a small side road that winds through the aspen groves, I made this image of the setting sun shining through the red/yellow leaves creating a soft golden glow.
Autumn in the high country is a fleeting thing. Peak color only last for a day or two, but that’s one of the things that make it special.
The Evolution Of Vision
Artistic vision is not something that is easy to define, at least not in terms of individual style. It is something that is (or should) always be changing, evolving. When I look at the work that I was doing five years ago, I am struck by the difference from that which I am doing today. That’s as it should be. If I could see no discernible change, I would be worried that my creativity is stagnating.
Vision has to do not only with the subject matter you shoot, or the way you choose to capture it. It is also about how you take the image from the one in the camera to the one that hangs on the wall. So, post processing is just as important to expressing your vision as the initial capture, perhaps more important. This first image was made one January day on the edge of what was soon to become the Valles Caldera National Preserve and after many years of learning and evolving, both in my shooting style and in my processing technique, this is still one of my favorite photographs.
I tell my Beginning Digital Photography students that they should always be looking for new ways to present their subjects and of course this extends to the work they do in the digital darkroom. I made the above image in 2002. It is a close-up of burned tree bark that I took in the burn scar of the Lake Fire. This is pretty representative of the work I was doing at that time: close-up/macro/intimate landscapes.
The third image was made several years later and it is one of the very few I made during that time that included a hint of anything man-made. All of these photographs were made using film cameras. The first two were shot with a Nikon F3, the second, a Nikon F100. All three were made using Fuji Velvia transparency film.
Sometime around 2005, I began to feel that my strict adherence to shooting almost exclusively macro/close-ups was stifling my creativity and I began to broaden my horizons (both literally and figuratively). I had also purchased my first digital camera, a Nikon D200. Looking back, I think the new-found freedom of no longer being constrained by the cost of film played a major role in my ability to experiment with a new shooting style.
This black and white landscape was an early attempt to further break from my habit of excluding man-made elements from my images. I still hadn’t perfected my B&W conversion technique, but it was a step in the right direction.
When I was shooting mostly macro, I preferred diffuse lighting; no shadows means clearer details, but as I began to see the broad landscape, I began to take advantage of the multi-faceted nature of light. In the five images above, I make use of different kinds of lighting: overcast, early morning, evening, and mid-day with partial overcast. They each paint the landscape with a different brush and each portrays a different mood.
Lately, my work has come full circle, back to the subjects I was pursuing when I first started out all those years ago, which is to say–anything and everything. The difference is, I now have the expertise I lacked back then, so I am able to show my viewers what I saw in my mind’s eye before I released the shutter. That’s a good feeling, but it doesn’t mean that I feel I’ve reached some kind of photographer’s Nirvana; I am excited to see what kind of curve my vision will throw me next.
Give Me A Dramatic Sky
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.
The Rio Puerco Valley
The Rio Puerco begins its journey to the Rio Grande high in the Nacimiento Mountains of northwestern New Mexico. Its course wanders through San Pedro Parks and the Santa Fe National Forest before leaving public lands near the village of Cuba. From there it follows the western edge of the Jemez Mountains past the village of San Luis, the ghost town of Cabezon, and Cabeon Peak. This first image was made along County Road 279 between San Luis and Cabezon.
The Rio Puerco is an ephemeral flow; most of the time there is no moving water in the deep arroyo that has been carved out over the ages. When there is enough water to fill the stream, it is usually a muddy brown from the sediment being carried by the “ flood”. I made this image after heavy rains transformed the channel at the place where BLM road 1114 crosses the Rio Puerco west of Cabezon Peak. It is my first attempt at HDR imaging; it may be a little over the top for some tastes, but I still like the effect.
A little farther south from this point, the Rio Puerco meanders past Cerro Cuate, and turns to the south. It is here that the river begins its journey through the Cabezon Wilderness Area. As the road begins to drop down to the edge of the wash, there is an expansive view of the valley with Cabezon on the left, and several other mesas and lesser peaks in the distance.
From here the road crosses the Rio Puerco and continues south following the course of the streambed, which, in places is more than a mile across. Several miles beyond the river crossing is the ghost town of Guadalupe, which thrived as a farming and ranching community from the early 1900’s through the 1950s, but drought and overgrazing forced the inhabitants to leave the area. Now all that remains are some dilapidated adobe ruins and some weathered corrals.
About three miles beyond the town, high on a mesa are the Guadalupe Ruins. There are about twenty rooms and three kivas at a location which commands a broad view of the valley to the north and the south. This was an outlier of the Anasazi Chacoan complex which thrived in the area from around 900–1150 CE. Like the people who inhabited the town of Guadalupe, the Chacoan people were also driven out by drought and resource depletion.
If you choose to visit this remarkable place, remember to respect the land and the people who have lived here: take only photographs, leave only footprints.
Road To Cabezon
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
Valles Caldera Storm
This image was made at the Valles Caldera. The Valles is a large meadow created by the collapse of an ancient volcano. For years it was private land, a part of the 89,000 acre Baca ranch. In 2000 the federal government bought the ranch; it is now public land, protected from development, for now at least.
I made this image one day on my way home from Los Alamos. I have photographed this scene numerous times, but never with a more dramatic sky.
Equipment: Nikon D300, Nikon 17–35 mm f2.8 lens, circular polarizer, Bogen tripod
Camera Settings: f 14, 1/125th sec., ISO 400
Processing: Contrast, clarity, vibrance, and saturation adjustments in Adobe Lightroom, curves adjustments, and RAW conversion in Photoshop
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
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.