In my travels photographing the roots of my home state, I have travelled mostly the two lane blacktops, what William Least Heat Moon called blue highways because that was how they were shown on maps. The back roads of New Mexico often bring surprises, things that are unexpected, things that fire the imagination. I have included a few of these treasures here. There are countless others out there waiting to be rediscovered.
This road grader sits in a yard behind a gabien/rail fence. It was owned by a friend of mine who died several years ago. He was a good man, a hard working man who did not tolerate fools. When I saw it with the falling snow I made this image without much thought other than of the technical aspects.
The Ayers Family built this house from a kit sold by Sears in the 1920s. Now it sits slowly deteriorating near Estancia, NM. I wanted a somber, brooding sky to emphasize the haunted look of the place. The two dead trees complete the picture and the feel of decay. While making this image, I felt the ghosts of the place not far from the surface.
This building, an old neighborhood bar, sits on the edge of a small village in the Rio Grande Valley. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much. I was drawn to it because I noticed the tree growing inside, but I was not expecting the eye; it seemed so out of place. Looking closely, it appears as though it has been there for quite a while. Whatever its origin, it adds an eerie presence to the scene. I shot through the opening to frame the interior and to reflect the shape of the opening in the far wall. This also has the effect of preserving the secret hidden within.
In the early days of the Manhattan Project, a woman named Edith Warner was living in a small house along the Rio Grande where the one lane Otowi Bridge crossed the river giving access to the Pajarito Plateau and Los Alamos. She often hosted the scientists and dignitaries who worked at and visited the site. The house on the right was her residence and the small building on the left was the tea house where she served many people over the years including friends from nearby San Ildefonso Pueblo.
I was on a one lane dirt road near the Rio Grande Gorge when I came upon this 1940 something Chevy pickup buried to its wheel wells in the sandy earth. There was not a single soul that I had seen within a mile of the place. After I finished photographing, I had my lunch while sitting on the fender enjoying the solitude.
I photographed this church in Taiban, NM long before it became a destination for social media photographers. I looked for quite a while for the right composition and finally settled on this head-on perspective with the dead shrubs in the foreground. They seemed to fit the mood of the moment and the lonely desolation of the scene.
I was about as far off the beaten track as you can get, even for central New Mexico. The windmill lying by the side of the road seemed bigger that it would look in its accustomed place: high on a tripod along a single track ranch road. It was November, so the trees were in various stages of decline; I would not not have made this image in the spring or summer when the trees were leafed out.
A while back, I wrote a blog post about the Fallen Roof Ruin on Utah’s Cedar Mesa. I stumbled upon it while researching another, more well-known, ruin which is located close by.
House On Fire Ruin is situated in the south fork of Mule Canyon which runs roughly parallel to Utah Rte. 95 about twenty miles west of Blanding. It gets its name from the way the alcove in which it is located lights up as it catches the reflection of the morning sun from the opposite canyon wall. When this happens, the texture in the ceiling of the alcove causes it to resemble flames coming from the top of the ruins. This phenomenon occurs mid-morning between 9 and 11 o’clock depending on the time of year.
This first image is pretty representative of most of the images I have seen made at the House On Fire Ruin. It does a good job of showing the ruin and the overall effect of the light reflection. But, I like to have a little more depth in my images, to tell more of the story of the place.
To do this, I simply backed off a little and changed to a portrait orientation to enable me to capture some foreground. This version seems less pinched to me than the first; it shows the floor of the alcove, which lends some context to the scene, and allows for some visual flow.
This final image is a portrait of Robin and me sitting in front of the ruins. I am always a little awestruck when I stand in a place where the ancients stood before me. This setting was even more powerful because of the interaction of the rock with the light. I wonder if the inhabitants of these ruins were as moved by the spectacle as we were.
These images were made in the fall of 2016. I had begun the draft, but, for some reason, never completed it. So, I am publishing it now, more than five years later. A lot of water under the proverbial bridge since then.
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.
Doorways are often used as a metaphor for life: oopurtunities, events, seasons. They are usually spoken or written. But, in the context of this article, they are visual.
I made this photograph in 2012. At that time, I was spending a lot of my time exploring a particular area in northwestern New Mexico. My intent when I released the shutter was to say something about impermanence, more specifically the slow erosion of the adobe buildings which were built and inhabited by people whose way of life disappeared long ago. This doorway–which no longer exists–is an metaphor for that irrevocable past.
Nikon D700 Nikkor 16-35 f4 F22 1/10 ISO 100
At one time, this hall was full of children going about the business of aquiring an education. Now it is empty and decaying. While I was making this image, I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the bustle of its former life. I often do this while photographing abandoned buildings or ruins; it helps me to better understand my subject.
Nikon Df Nikkor 24-120mm f4 F10 1/60 ISO 400
Inevitably, the constructs of man give way to nature when left unattended. This adobe ruin with a tree growing in the entry is a good example. The colorful grafitti provides a visual as well as a metaphorical contrast to the scene.
Nikon Df Nikkor 24-120 f4 F8 1/320 ISO 400
While I was preparing to make this image I considered moving the tire out of the picture, but in the end, I left it in place. It serves as both a visual and a symbolic element. It is important to take the time to think about what you intend to say with a photograph if you want it to be more than just a representation of the scene.
Nikon Df Nikkor 50mm f1.4 F8 1/250 ISO 400
The back roads of northern New Mexico are a treasure trove for a photographer willing to spend the time and energy driving from one remote village to another. I happen to live in one of those villages, so for me, it’s like visiting the neighbors.
I’ve discovered I have a thing for windows. More to the point, I have a thing for old windows in old walls. This first image required several trips before I got it right. I wanted to get the frame just so; the weathered log post plays an important part in the composition and the elevation proved to be tricky–I finally returned with a ladder in order to capture a satisfactory version of the photograph.
Nikon Df Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 F8 1/80 ISO 400
These adobe walls are about worn to the nub and the window frames, along with the viga used for a header, will eventually join the pile of rubble. As I drove past, I noticed how the windows were aligned and that is what drew me to make a photograph. The sage in the foreground also provides a nice anchor for the scene.
Nikon Df Nikkor 24-70 f2.8 F11 1/500 ISO 800
This scene literally jumped out at me as I rounded a curve in the road just south of Taos. I spent quite a while shooting from different angles, and when I edited the images, I chose this version because I like the spatial relationship between the tree and the mailbox.
Nikon Df Nikkor 24-70mm F8 1/400 ISO 400
I saw a photograph of this bar in a book titled Gone to Sanctuary From the Sins of Confusion that my friend Robin had loaned me. The book is a compilation by photographer John Kiewit who traveled the west for three decades from the late sixties through the late nineties making images of the places he saw along the way. The book was published in 1997 and, sadly, John died a few years later. But I was so taken by his work and the subject matter that I started driving to the places from the book which were relatively close to me. It became akin to a pilgrimage. Unfortunately, most of the locations have changed so drastically they are no longer worth photographing. This scene, however, was virtually unchanged from the image John made all those years ago. This one photograph made the entire quest worthwhile.
Nikon Df Nikkor 24-120mm f4 F8 1/640 ISO 400
I wish I could have visited this bar in it’s heyday, I’m willing to bet it was a pretty rowdy place, like something out of The Milagro Beanfield War–just my style. But now it sits abandoned, nothing more than a curiosity for passers-by and wandering photographers. Viva el Norte.
Nikon Df Nikkor 24-70mm F8 1/160 ISO 400
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
The Peter Iredale ran aground in heavy fog while trying to enter the Columbia River channel in October of 1906. The wreckage is still there today just west of the small town of Warrenton. The day I showed up to photograph the wreck, the conditions were just right. The thick overcast created a somber setting; all I had to do was wait for low tide so I could position the breaking waves where I wanted them in the image and capture the reflection and wave patterns in the wet sand.
I used my Nikon D810 with a Nikkor 24-120 f4 lens mounted on a Bogen-Manfrotto tripod. Post processing was done in Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop. Black and white conversion was done in Silver Efex Pro.
Sometimes a cherished memory starts with a rumor. I had heard of several ruins lying not quite forgotten in the serpentine canyons of Cedar Mesa in southeastern Utah. It was while researching one of them that I discovered another, less well known, but no less visually compelling.
Fallen Roof Ruin,which is actually a group of granaries, is located in Road Canyon which meanders in a, more or less, easterly direction from it’s head, in the heart of Cedar Mesa, to it’s final destination in Comb Wash. The single element that sets it apart from the numerous other ruins in Road Canyon is the staining in the roof of the alcove in which the ruin is located. A large section of the ceiling has fallen, leaving exposed white stains–most likely from minerals in the groundwater which leeched from the mesa top–that are painted across the newly exposed strata.
The hike to the ruin is just under two miles. The trail crosses the mesa top for about a half-mile before dropping over the edge into the upper reaches of Road Canyon. The descent is about one-hundred-fifty feet, and then the trail follows the canyon bottom pretty much staying in it’s watercourse. There is some rock-hopping involved along with some route-finding in the places where the trail leaves the drainage to make it’s way around some of the bigger boulders in the path.
I was not quite prepared for the impact of being in that place. There is something about the essence of these ruins that set them apart from other ruins I have visited. So, as is the case with all of my photography, I attempted to reveal at least a part of the soul of this extraordinary place through my compositions and processing. The large slabs of stone scattered across the floor of the alcove serve to tell some of the story; they are also useful as compositional elements in the images.
One of the most poignant pieces of this nearly thousand-year-old tableau is the presence of several hand pictographs above the entry to one of the small granaries. These were probably made by placing a hand on the stone and then blowing a powdered dye through a reed. Hand pictographs are common in the ruins of the desert southwest, and are thought to be a way of saying: “I was here”.
My previous post: Roaming The San Juan Basin-Part 1, was about the first day of a two-day road trip through the expanse of a great bowl shaped depression in the middle of the Colorado Plateau in northwest New Mexico. I spent Saturday night in Farmington and awoke early on Sunday. I had planned to head straight home from there, but as I prepared to leave, I thought better of it and decided to do some more exploring. As I drove up the road that leads from Farmington to the edge of the basin, I began to formulate a plan. I decided that I would avoid any of my normal haunts: the Bisti Wilderness, Ah Shi Sle Pah, etc. and that I would try to stay on dirt or gravel roads as much as possible. With this blog post in mind, I also decided to take a photojournalistic approach to making my images as opposed to my usual process.
I left the paved road about forty miles south of Farmington and immersed myself in the rolling, broken landscape. The San Juan Basin has numerous drainages of all sizes that carve the washes and valleys that form the irregular surface and expose the long buried geological features. I turned south on a road I knew would take me past Ah Shi Sle Pah…forbidden territory on this trip. I noticed three abandoned dwellings off to the west. The walls were of rock; the roofs, non-existent or barely there. They had a melancholy look to them; it was as though they were being swallowed by the great expanse that surrounded them.
A few miles further along the road, I saw a band of horses; one group of seven animals, and a mare and foal off by themselves. I stopped the car and walked to the side of the road to set up my tripod and the larger cluster immediately moved farther away from me. I made a few exposures and decided I would try to get closer, but the horses ran to the edge of the wash while the closest one–a stallion and probably the alpha–stood his ground and began to snort and pound the ground with his hoof. From this behavior, I surmised that this was a wild band; the tame horses I have encountered are typically friendly and will even approach to within an arm’s length.
I took the hint and returned to the car. I didn’t want to alarm the animals any more than I already had. I didn’t make it more than a half mile further when I spotted a smaller group of three white horses on the south side of the road. These were more friendly, but still more stand-offish than usual. They continued their grazing, but were wary of my presence.
Now I dropped down into Kimbeto Wash, a key drainage for this part of the San Juan Basin. I came to a tee in the road; to the left, Ah Shi Sle Pah, to the right, unknown territory. I turned right and crossed Kimbeto Wash. Less than a quarter mile further along was a road to the left and a sign: Chaco Canyon miles. The mileage was illegible. Onward.
I was excited to find a back way into Chaco; connecting the dots on a map has always been satisfying for me. The road crossed a grassy plain with a low mesa on the southern horizon. The only other visible feature was a lone hogan about a hundred yards off the road to the west. After about ten miles there was a sharp left turn and the track dipped down and crossed Chaco Wash before continuing up to the top of a high plateau.
By now, I was firmly into a spontaneous wandering frame of mind; I took a turn onto a two-track that seemed to lead to the plateau’s edge, but the road curved back and dead-ended at an abandoned homestead, complete with old cars and trash burn barrels. I’ve seen hundreds of these forlorn dwellings scattered across the remote desert areas I frequent. They always put me in a pensive mood.
Back on the main road, I soon came to an intersection that put me on the main road into Chaco Canyon. I decided to make a quick tour of the loop.
One of the most interesting elements of the ancient pueblo culture for me is the kiva. There are different kinds of kivas: many were used as places for social gathering, but most of them were ceremonial in nature. These adjacent kivas at Chetro Ketl–the second largest pueblo complex in Chaco Canyon–were used for religious ceremonies. Standing near these centuries-old subterranean enclosures made me feel connected to the ones who contrived and built these amazing communities.
Chaco Canyon is actually comprised of many pueblo complexes which were built over a span of four centuries and housed thousands of permanent residents and visitors from outlying sites. Of these complexes, Pueblo Bonito is the largest with more than eight hundred rooms. Like most of the pueblos in Chaco Canyon, Pueblo Bonito is built close against the wall of the mesa.
A little further along the loop road from Pueblo Bonito is Pueblo del Arroyo. It is situated along the edge of Chaco Wash and had three hundred rooms; it is thought to have been built by residents of Pueblo Bonito who moved due to overcrowding in the larger site.
I had already spent more time at Chaco Canyon than I wanted to, so I made for the exit that brought me to Hwy 57 heading south. As I passed the boundary I stopped to make a photograph of Fajada Butte which rises 440 feet above the canyon floor and is home to the most famous of all the Chaco sites: The Sun Dagger site. Three slabs of rock are set up and arranged in such a way that shafts of sunlight shine through them and onto specific parts of a petroglyph carved on the rock wall of the butte on each of the solstices and eqinoxes. More proof that these early Americans were far more advanced than the “savages” they have been depicted to be.
So, with these thoughts bouncing around in my head, I left Chaco behind and continued my exploration of the San Juan Basin. New Mexico State Road 57 is not what you might expect from the designation. Soon after it starts at US 550 between Huerfano and Nageezi, it sheds its asphalt coat and becomes a dirt road in the truest sense of the word. A good rain will quickly turn it into a quagmire of greasy clay, the kind that will defeat even the most serious four-wheel drive vehicle.
So, although I truly enjoy a good thunderstorm, I couldn’t help but hope that the building thunderheads would hold their water at least until I made it to the pavement of Indian Rte. 9 twenty-five miles to the south. I was about half way between Chaco and the paved road when over a rise in the road came two beautiful horses. One of them, a mare, turned sideways in the road and seemed to be bowing to me. I was enchanted; I spent over half an hour with them and when I finally left them behind, it was with some reluctance.
The remainder of the drive on NM 57 was relatively uneventful. There were a few small clusters of hoodoos and several small herds of livestock and then, suddenly I was at the intersection with the paved road. I looked back the way I had come, again with some reluctance, and then turned onto Indian Rte. 9. Almost immediately I came across three horses drinking from a water barrel. The scene seemed to say a good deal about the nature of this remote area, so I made a photograph of it.
After its intersection with NM 57, Indian Rte. 9 climbs onto a low mesa and emerges at Pueblo Pintado, an outlier of the pueblos at Chaco Canyon. This area is still inhabited by the descendants of the anasazi people, but now they live in houses scattered across the mesa in the shadow of the ruin that was their ancestral home. Another thirty miles brought me to Torreon. It is here that IR 9 becomes New Mexico 197 and turns northeast towards Cuba, NM. I turned onto an un-numbered, but paved road that runs from Torreon to the small village of San Luis in the Rio Puerco Valley. I passed a rock ruin that I had photographed before, but I stopped to make several exposures before continuing on towards San Luis.
As I drew near San Luis and the Rio Puerco Valley, a heavy thunderstorm passed ahead of me, nearly obscuring the volcanic monolith of Cabezon Peak. It seemed a fitting end to my adventure. Even as I neared home my mind began wandering and wondering about another dirt road I had noticed meandering into the vastness of the San Juan Basin…
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 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.
This is a post about gear (particularly lenses) and why I chose it (them) to make a specific image. I teach a digital photography class at a nearby college and one of the things I cover in that class is the effect that the angle of view (the angle of coverage of the lens) can have on how the image is perceived by viewers. There are four categories: broad landscapes (wide angle), intimate landscapes (normal to short telephoto), compressed landscapes (mid-long telephotos) , and macro/close-ups (macro lens).
This image of a small wash full of water was made in the Rio Puerco Valley after a monsoon rain. It is an example of a broad landscape; the depth of the image from foreground to horizon is exaggerated. I used a wide angle zoom with an aperture of f 22 to give me the depth of field I needed to keep everything sharp.
Nikon D800, Nikkor 17-35mm f2.8 @ 17mm; 1/30sec, f22, ISO 100, tripod
I made this image in Blue Canyon on the Hopi Reservation in northern Arizona. It is an intimate landscape; the area covered, side to side and front to back, is relatively small compared to the broad landscape. There is a feeling of immediacy or closeness about the image, as if it could fit in your living room. I used a medium telephoto zoom set at an aperture of f 11.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 28-70mm f2.8 @ 35mm; 1/25sec, f11, ISO 100, tripod
Using a telephoto lens causes an image to compress, so distant objects seem closer. A telephoto lens does not exaggerate the depth of the image the way a wide angle lens does. Instead, it causes elements to flatten, making the distance from foreground to horizon appear shorter, and making the elements in between appear more closely grouped.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 @ 200mm; 1/25sec, f8, ISO 100, tripod
There is something about the the world that lies right at our feet that is compelling. Although it is normally common and quite ordinary, given a little attention and a skilled eye it can become extraordinary. This is the world of close-up or macro photography. There is no need to travel to exotic locales when there is an unending source of interesting subjects to be found in your own back yard.
Nikon D300, Nikkor 105mm f2.8 macro; 1/60sec, f8, ISO 200, tripod.
Wow! Another year fades into memory. I have spent the last couple weeks editing the images I’ve made in 2013 with the goal of culling my favorite dozen. Image editing for me is a labor of love; I have a connection to my work, so picking “the best” out of hundreds candidates is not an easy task.
I knew from the time I made this photo of a bull elk in my yard on January 3rd that I was setting a high standard for the rest of the year. Also, not only was it serendipitous, but the image was a departure from my usual wide angle landscapes. I had been feeling for some time that my work had been stagnating, so I resolved then and there to take it in a new direction.
In early February, I ventured into an area along US 550 that I had been looking at as a shooting location for some time. I was drawn by some red sandstone pinnacles that were visible from the highway. As I walked toward them, I came across this old section of road that is slowly eroding, being reclaimed by natural forces. The scene made me realize how impermanent our impact on nature really is. In the end, this is the image that stood out above the others I made that day. Again: serendipity.
As the year progressed, I found myself revisiting some places I had been before. The image of the church on San Ildefonso Pueblo (a scene I had driven past countless times before) is more about the light than the subject matter. It is also a more visually compressed image than is usual for me due to my use of a longer focal length lens.
Every year at the end of May–Memorial Day Weekend to be exact–the Pueblo of Jemez hosts the Starfeather Pow Wow. Hundreds of native dancers from across the country come to dance and compete. I made hundreds of images that weekend, but this portrait of two brothers stood out. They are dressed in “dog soldier” head-dresses, hair-pipe breastplates, and feather bustles, all made by their father. Just before I released the shutter, I told them to give me some attitude. I think they did a pretty good job.
Anyone who is familiar with my work, knows that I spend a great deal of time in the Rio Puerco Valley. It was near the middle of July and the rains had just started after several months of searing heat and cloudless skies when I made this image. There are many possible causes for this animal’s demise, but the location of its desiccated remains along a now rain-filled wash and the rain falling from a heavy sky tells an ironic story about the uncertainty of life in this harsh environment.
And speaking of harsh environments, the Bisti Wilderness in July can be a sobering place. The temperatures can soar to well over 100°F. I usually try to discourage clients from booking a photo tour during this time, but if the monsoons have started, it can be relatively pleasant and the cloudy skies lend a sense of drama to the scene. I made this image of one of my clients pondering the maze in the Brown Hoodoos section of the wilderness.
From a land of parched earth to a place where water is omni-present; my travels took me to Wisconsin in August. On a day-trip to Olbricht Botanical Gardens with my daughter, I made this image of the Thai Pagoda. Normally I steer clear of this kind of symmetry in a photograph, but the structure, and the entire environment seemed to demand it.
Autumn is the best time to be in the badlands, especially if the atmosphere cooperates. Even though the ground was soft and the washes were running from the rain, there were still cracks in the earth. It was as though the soil had a memory of the scorching it normally receives and refused to let go. After processing this image, I realized that it was best to convert it to black and white.
During the months of September and October I spent a great deal of time photographing the trains of the Cumbres-Toltec narrow-gauge railroad which runs from Chama, New Mexico to Antonito, Colorado. I spent every weekend for nearly a month chasing the trains and the fall colors. In the end, my favorite image had nothing to do with color and everything to do with the train, the track and the trestle.
To most people, in the US anyway, November means thanksgiving. For me it is my annual trip to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Over the years, I have come to relish my time with the cranes, herons, geese, and other waterfowl that call the Bosque home during the winter months. Even though I have thousands of images of the birds flying, taking wing, landing, wading, eating, and doing whatever else it is that they do, I still managed to make two of my favorites there in 2013.
This first is obvious and familiar: a crane in the process of taking off from one of the ponds to fly to the fields where he will spend the day foraging. The second is a departure from my normal Bosque images, but one that illustrates the reason that I keep returning year after year.
In December I travelled by train to visit my oldest daughter (an adventure I wrote about in my previous blog entry). Chicago’s Union Station was a surprise to me. I made several images inside the station and when I wandered out the doors to Canal Street, I found this scene. I was immediately drawn by the fact that while some of the elements had symmetry–there’s that word again–some didn’t. And of course the cherry-on-top: the wet pavement reflecting the lights and columns.
The doorways in the pueblo structures are probably the most photographed details of all the architectural features that can be found in Chaco Canyon. The first image was made in the rooms in the eastern wing of Pueblo Bonito, but I shot from the opposite end of the passages from where most people do. I like the vigas above the middle door that are visible from this perspective.
The next two images were made at Chetro Ketl which is the second largest pueblo in Chaco Canyon. The first is a view through a window on the north side of the long greathouse wall looking at what was once an interior doorway. Beyond that is another wall and then the plaza.
The second image is looking into the west wing of the pueblo. An exterior door and two interior doors are visible.
One of the amazing things about these structures is that they were planned from the start; they were built with expansion in mind, so the bearing walls were made strong enough to support the upper stories which, in some cases weren’t built until a hundred years later.
The last image is of a keyhole doorway which is also located in the east wing of Pueblo Bonito. I’ve researched this and have yet to find an explanation. If I had to guess, I would say that this may have been a window that was modified to connect two rooms after an addition, or perhaps it was built that way for some unknown religious or social purpose.
There is no shortage of adobe ruins in the American southwest and there is also no shortage of photographs of those ruins. This poses a dilemma for photographers who want to find fresh ways of capturing an image.
So, how many ways are there to photograph ruins? I decided to share some of my techniques for making eye catching images of an often photographed theme. In the first image, I asked myself: “What drew your attention to this scene in the first place?” The answer: the corrugated tin roof and the color and grain of the door. So, I made a selection of those elements, inverted the selection, converted it to B&W, and added a sepia tint.
I made the second image in the ghost town of Guadalupe, New Mexico in the Rio Puerco Valley. I had photographed the two storey ruin many times, but this time I was looking for something different. I was walking around the small village, in and out of various ruined buildings when I saw this image just waiting for me. By framing the larger building in the doorway, I managed to say more about the entire village while still making a fresh image of the subject.
Here is a more intimate scene. By de-saturating the adobe walls and warming the remaining color, I was able to create the effect of a glow from the inside of this old ruin.
This last image was taken from an overlook several hundred feet above and about an eighth of a mile from the Mummy Cave Ruin in Canyon del Muerto, a side canyon of Canyon de Chelly. I used my 80-200 f2.8 Nikkor lens at 200mm. I thought about putting on my 400mm lens to get a tighter shot, but then realized that this magnification was perfect: it allowed me to show the subject in context; including the towering rock face above the ruin says much more about it than if I would have zoomed in for a tighter crop.
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.
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.
I have been stuck in the Photographic Doldrums for the past couple of months, so I have been spending quite a bit of time searching my archived images. I’m not one to live in the past, but I’ve found that it can be rewarding to revisit my older work. I have rediscovered some of my best work rummaging around in old files. I have also found photographs that, for some reason didn’t make the cut when I first edited them, but over time, with my ever-changing vision and some changes in my workflow, they suddenly take on a new life.
This first image was taken in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. Mesa Arch is an iconic location for landscape photographers, but the shot almost everyone takes is of the sun rising behind the arch. Being a bit of a crank, and wanting to make an image that spoke of my vision and not some other photographer’s, I made this photograph in the late afternoon and used the arch to frame the incredible landscape that lies beyond it.
I made this image of Shiprock while driving to Utah a couple of years ago. I was drawn by the bright yellow rabbitbrush and I was also going through what I like to think of as my “fence phase”. These two elements made the perfect foreground for the great volcanic plug and brooding skies.
This is an image of the Virgin River in Zion National Park. The overcast settled lower and by the next morning, the rain was continuous, making my hike to the Subway impossible due to high water and flash flooding. But this moment, looking down canyon with the soft light penetrating the swollen sky is one of my best images from that trip.
Twilight at Chupadera Pond in Bosque del Apache NWR. These three cranes were hunting for their dinner. They had just flown back from a day of foraging in the farm fields at the northern end of the refuge and now they were continuing their seemingly endless search for food in the pond where they would spend the night. The color of the light in this image has not been altered. For one magical moment between sunset and the onset of night, the entire landscape was bathed in this golden-orange glow.
This final image of the Egg Garden in the Bisti Wilderness has gone through numerous iterations and I think I finally have it just where I want it. I know the composition goes against the venerable “Rule of Thirds”, but sometimes it’s good to break the rules, and sometimes it’s good to revisit the past.
Canyon de Chelly is unique in many ways. It is the only National Park that is contained entirely within a separate sovereign nation: the Navajo Reservation. It is administered by the Park Service, but access is controlled by the Navajo people. There have been people occupying Canyon de Chelly since the days of the Anasazi, making it one of the oldest, continuously inhabited settlements on the North American continent. Members of the Navajo Nation still live and farm the fertile canyon floor, but it has also been home to the ancient Puebloans, and the Hopis.
This first image was made from an overlook on the north rim. It is the point where Canyon del Muerto and Black Rock Canyon meet – Canyon de Chelly National Park is actually made up of several canyons, the two main ones being Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto.
There are many ruins within the Park, some are located right on the canyon floor like the Antelope House Ruins, which are located at the base of a towering sandstone wall that served as a huge heat sink in the winter. It was inhabited between about 850-1270 CE, and contains about 90 rooms. The remnants of several kivas can be seen in the bottom center of the image. They appear as distinct round structures.
Other ruins are situated high on the walls of the canyon. The Mummy Cave Ruins are located on a shelf which is nestled in a cave three hundred feet above the canyon floor. It is believed to have been continuously inhabited for over a thousand years. Its name comes from the many well preserved burials discovered at the site.
This last image is a view down Canyon del Muerto from the Massacre Cave Overlook. I realize that, visually, it is a bit confusing, but I was attempting to show the complex structure of the rock strata and this location seemed to be the best place to achieve that.
This was a drive-by shooting so to speak. anyone who is familiar with Canyon de Chelly will realize that these images were all taken from the North Rim. I plan to return soon to shoot the other side of the Park. So, look for Vol. 2 in the near future.
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.
Forty years ago when I purchased my first SLR camera-a Nikkormat FTN that I still have-I immersed myself in the world of black and white photography. Naturally, one of my heroes was, and still is, Ansel Adams. I learned how to develop film and make acceptable black and white prints from the negatives. I was hooked.
Fast forward to the present day: Photography has changed in ways no one could have imagined in that long gone time when a computer was still a large room-sized machine with unknown purpose and potential. Most of my work since switching from film to digital has been color landscapes. The portraits I have made are also (mostly) in color. Why? The answer is twofold: First, I lost that connection and, with it, the ability to visualize the scene and the image in the frame of my viewfinder in black and white. And, I just could not make a black and white print that matched those that slowly emerged from the developer under that red safelight. Granted, some of the shortcoming was due to my lack of expertise, but much of it had to do with the inability of the available technology to make an acceptable conversion
Recently, however, I have been re-connecting with that which I had lost in terms of visualizing my images in monochrome, and, with the ongoing development of new and better software, I find that I can once again produce a black and white or toned print that lives up to my expectations. Once again I can get excited about a black and white image the way I used to.
This image was made on a lonely highway in northern New Mexico. A storm was rapidly approaching from the south and the heavy clouds added to the feeling of desolation in the scene. The arrow-straight road with the mountains in the distance suggests a lack of any creature comforts. Even the rough texture of the road and the dark silhouette of the tree compound the sense of total isolation.
I did not pre-visualize this image as a black and white photograph. I like the way it looks in color, but I decided to experiment with it. I used Silver Efex Pro to do the conversion and I am very happy with the results. I think stripping the color adds even more to the bleakness of the scene. It lays bare the basic elements and structure of the image. Sometimes making a change in your pattern can help you to revitalize your passion and creativity. Even something as simple (or as complicated) as returning to your roots can breathe new life into your work.
This final image was made in the Mesa de Cuba badlands in the San Juan basin of northwestern New Mexico. It is a three image exposure fusion which I then converted to a sepia toned image in Silver Efex Pro. What caught my eye when I first happened upon this scene was the almost visceral appearance of the erosion channels. It had just snowed and the thirsty ground was sucking the moisture from the newly-fallen snow emphasizing the tonal contrast between the channels and the surrounding earth. At first I was concerned that it may be a little over the top in terms of the tonality, but I realized that I was merely presenting the scene as I had interpreted it. In the end, that’s what matters. Be true to your vision and you will evolve as an artist.
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.
The first time I visited Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, I was overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude. I felt such a connection to the people who built this amazing place, and I silently thanked them for building it strong enough to withstand the ravages of time so I could stand in awe of their craftsmanship a thousand years later. This first image was made at the southeast corner of the pueblo.
Pueblo Bonito is the largest of a number of Greathouses in Chaco Canyon built by the ancestors of the present-day pueblo people of northern New Mexico. At the time it was built, the Anasazi’s territory covered a large area which spanned the entire Four Corners region. Chaco Canyon contained several pueblos, and is thought to have been a gathering place for religious ceremony and trading. Pueblo Bonito may have been used to house visitors as well as a large population of the local people. It was four to five stories high in some places, contained nearly eight hundred rooms, and was capable of accommodating several thousand.
This is an image of one of the thirty seven kivas in Pueblo Bonito; two of them, the great kivas, were used for ceremony. The rest were used as gathering places, similar to our present-day family or living rooms. They were, for the most part, constructed underground –the word kiva means “world below”, and had roofs constructed of vigas, latillas, and mud. Access was by means of a ladder through an opening in the roof.
This image shows a section of the long, curving back wall of the complex. The builders who designed Pueblo Bonito used core and veneer architectural techniques, making the walls of the lower levels up to three feet thick. These massive walls were capable of supporting more levels above as the structure grew in size over the centuries.
This last image was made from the top of the mesa behind the pueblo; it shows the entire complex, and the semi-circular design of the structure. The center wall divided the whole into two symmetrical halves, and was a design element in many of the pueblos of this era.
Sometime around 1150 CE, the ancient people began to migrate away from the area. Their sudden disappearance is attributed to several factors, including: climate change, topsoil degradation, and pressure from other cultures.¹
1. Wikipedia contributors. “Ancient Pueblo Peoples.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 9 Mar. 2011. Web. 10 Mar. 2011.