Almost two years ago, Kah Kit Yoong published two blog posts on, “Art Appreciation in the Digital Age,” and, “Photographing Art and Museums,” that have been poignant enough to stick in my mind all this time for a couple of reasons. First of all, he raises big picture questions in my mind like, “Why are we so drawn to art?” or “Why do photographers feel driven to make art from art?” However, I find it curious that even though a dusty canyon in the Southwest might feel like it’s a world away from the Louvre or the Met, in some ways it is closer than we think.
Photography of Native American rock art and architecture seems to be a niche that landscape photographers fill somewhat naturally. Perhaps it is because we are already in the field, and taking a photograph of a pictograph panel or ancient dwelling adds a nice element to the image. Or, maybe the reason is deeper. Maybe we can relate to the original artist’s feeling of connectedness to the landscape, allowing our imaginations to wander, trying to imagine what this canyon might have looked like 800 or 1,000 years ago.
I have written before about my early years in the outdoors, backpacking in the Cedar Mesa area, which is one of the most archaeologically-rich areas in the world. A Bureau of Land Management archaeologist once told me that there is an estimated 2,000 sites per square mile on Cedar Mesa and in the Grand Gulch drainage in southeastern Utah. Granted, my idea of a “site” is quite different from an archaeologist’s but there is no arguing that is an impressive number. When I was young I enjoyed pretending that I was the first person to discover these sites since the original tenants left. Today, I enjoy visiting because there is a peacefulness in these places; I feel humbled and placed when I visit them. My youthfulness still lives on, however, as I enjoy the “treasure hunt” involved with looking for a particular rock art panel or ruin.
Regardless of why they are photographed, there are some archaeological sites in the Southwest that are becoming part of the landscape photographer’s repertoire, such as the “House on Fire” ruin in southeastern Utah. If you don’t know it by name, you have surely seen an image of it (you have now, anyway). And for good reason–it’s very photogenic. Others are less well known, but with some research, can be found online or in guidebooks fairly easily. Still other sites are–quite honestly–damned hard to find.
As the interest in these places continues to grow, it brings up some ethical questions, especially regarding those locations that are difficult to find. For instance, how much information should a photographer share about the location of a site (see here and here for great discussions on this subject)? Much unlike the Mona Lisa, these works of art do not have the protections that would keep vandals, or even an ignorant visitor capable of unintentional damage, out.
Would we want those protections in place?
Being able to photograph and experience these sites untethered is one of the joys of visiting them. Even if a simple cord or chain were to form an artificial boundary, there is no one preventing a breach of that line. In some ways, it seems that keeping quiet about specific locations of these sites is the best way to protect them.
In the former of the two blog posts mentioned at the beginning of this post, Kah Kit Yoong says, “Now I’m aware that tourists are just enjoying themselves and it’s not hurting anyone. Nevertheless it is annoying to see masterpieces relegated to props for snapshots.” I agree. While part of me feels it’s important to appreciate our cultural history, the rest of me hates to see a ruin go unappreciated, or be part of a photographer’s Southwestern image harvest, with no real knowledge of the site.
I hope this doesn’t read like an elitist rant about visiting archaeological sites; I am by no means pulling the ladder up behind me saying that no one else can “come play” in these places. What I am suggesting is that photographers think about the value of an archaeological site to themselves, to science, as well as to the descendants of the people who once lived there. On my website, I purposely don’t give much information on the sites I have images of, but am always happy to talk one-on-one with other interested people about these places.
Whether you’re in the Louvre, the Musee Rodin, or the Colorado Plateau, works of art surround you. Do you think they all deserve the same respect and protection? Why do you think we enjoy visiting these places so much?