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Photography and Public Lands, a continuation

Tuesday, December 13th, 2016

In my last blog post, I expressed a somewhat emotional response to the current threats facing our Western public lands. In this post, I’d like to provide a bit of context to some of the current threats, as well as the land transfer movement in general. It’s an especially complicated web of interactions and is really difficult to sum up in one blog post, so consider this an introduction. I believe that an understanding of these issues are something any Westerner should be aware of, as well as anyone working in the West (which includes landscape photographers, who have a vested interest in the preservation of wild space).

A look at our nation’s history

To understand what’s happening now in the West, we have to go back to 1862, and the passage of the first of the Homestead Acts. The Homestead Acts awarded 40-acre parcels of public land at little or no cost to homesteaders who were willing to improve it for agriculture for a period of 5 years.  Because most of the public land lied in the West, this basically amounted to the opening of the frontier, especially in the wake of the Civil War, when later Homestead Acts were passed.

As anyone who has spent any time in the West can attest, it’s a hardscrabble place with little rainfall, and it’s difficult to make a living here. So, it’s no surprise that many lands were left unclaimed because of the barriers the landscape presented. Combine this with the entry of two large Western states–Arizona and New Mexico–into the union in 1913, and the federal government was left with a huge amount of public land to manage. Although the soil may not have been conducive to farming, and (lack of) rainfall may not have made grazing easy, minerals and timber were abundant, so the government ultimately created the US Forest Service (1905) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM; 1946) to manage much of these resources, and to ease the burden on the Department of Interior, which oversees the National Park Service.

Let’s think about this for a moment. One of the things many Westerners identify with is a rugged individualism, the settling of the wild frontier. When the frontier opened during the nation’s reconstruction and the US government was basically giving parcels of land for free, Western culture laid down its roots. Within several decades, the US government, who was now in control of most public lands in the West (and still is, see the map below), needed a management plan. From the point of view of many homesteaders, this amounted to the government saying, “We gave you this land, and you settled it, but now we’re going to tell you how we want it managed.”

Map of public lands in the united states of america

Most of the nation’s public lands are in the West. Public Domain image downloaded from Wikipedia

As you can imagine, a homesteader who was suddenly being told how the land they had been mining, or grazing their cattle on might be a little bit upset. So, to some extent there’s always been some level of anti-government sentiment in the West, which has been compounded by people who move to the West for added seclusion and an increased sense of isolationism. Indeed, such high profile incidents as Ruby Ridge, and even the car bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 have either directly or indirectly been the result of rugged individualism clashing with government oversight.

Land transfer & the Sagebrush Rebellion

While private development is not usually allowed on public lands, grazing allotments can be leased, there are some mining claims, and of course recreation is allowed such as hiking, rock climbing, photography, and hunting and fishing, although specific rules vary somewhat depending on the management agency, etc. For instance, no hunting or fishing is allowed in national parks.

In 1932, the federal government did try to transfer land back to the states, but in post-Depression America, states were concerned about having the funds to manage the lands effectively, etc. As a result they stayed under federal control. Today, the federal government pays states for the land that cannot be developed, and as a result, taxed. These payments in lieu of taxes can be a significant revenue generator for certain counties that have a large proportion of public land.  Similarly, other sources of income like the ones resulting from the Taylor Grazing Act are important for certain counties (see reference below).

In 1976, in an effort to more explicitly regulate some of the above-mentioned activities on federal lands, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) that officially ended homesteading and formalized processes for regulating activities on federal lands, specifically those administered by the BLM. Within a year, the FLPMA had drawn enough ire from ranchers and miners that legislation was introduced into Congress that would transfer some land back to the states with the idea being that the land could be managed more directly for the sake of individual interests there.  This legislation–which was introduced twice but did not pass–was the birth of a movement known as the Sagebrush Rebellion.

Where are we now?

Since the late 1970s the Sagebrush Rebellion hasn’t really garnered much attention per se, although there have been some very high profile incidents that revolve around the federal government and disagreements with private citizens (The standoff at the Bundy Ranch in Nevada and the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon are two of the most well known). Despite the fact none of these incidents have resulted in major legislative changes, there is the argument that they really are counterproductive to their stated original intent (see here and here), driving wedges where they don’t really belong.

That ‘stated original intent’ is also a bit cloudy. When you dig into the web of what’s morphed from the Sagebrush Rebellion into the Land Transfer Movement, things get confusing fast. Ranchers aren’t the only concerned parties it seems, but militia members and “alt-right” conservatives also seem to have a vested interest in returning public land to the states or private parties. Similarly, members of Congress also have ties to groups like the American Lands Council (which has a misleading name but is the biggest proponent of the Land Transfer Movement).

Most recently, representative Rob Bishop from Utah introduced the Public Lands Initiative to Congress, which would have returned public lands in Utah to state control; fortunately it was not voted on before Congress ended their session in late 2016, effectively killing the bill.

Sunrise at Grandview Point, in the white mountains of eastern california

What’s the big deal, and what next?

With all of these failed attempts to return Western public lands to state control, why should you care? There are several reasons.  First, the vocal minority who are perpetrating the highest-profile standoffs with government officials are becoming increasingly violent. Threats to public lands employees are becoming more common. Second, while this legislation has failed in the past, it doesn’t mean it always will. Rob Bishop is the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, and advocates development of Utah’s wild places. Sooner or later, he’ll catch the ear of influential people who can make things happen. This is underscored by the fact that it’s becoming clearer that the Land Transfer Movement is incredibly well funded.

Lands transferred to state or private control do stand a higher chance of oil and gas or large scale mining development, among other things. This would make it more difficult to pass legislation fighting global warming, and thus would set heartbreaking precedents, and do irreversible damage to our Western landscapes. A common response I’ve seen to these threats on social media is, “It’ll never happen!” Maybe not, but the stakes are simply too high to sit back and assume it won’t happen.

There is hope, though. Although a vocal minority is favor of the transfer of Western public lands, the majority of Westerners are not. This was well illustrated just last month in Nevada’s general election as well as in the Montana governor’s race. As Westerners we all need to be educated, and see through the politics, and look for common ground together. Very few of us would disagree that there is room on public lands for everyone–grazing interests, hunters, photographers, backpackers, etc. None of us want these magnificent landscapes spoiled.

As photographers what can we do?  I have several ideas. First, you can donate your images to worthy nonprofit groups (e.g., the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance or Grand Canyon Trust). If that is financially prohibitive, consider donating a portion of your proceeds to these causes, or to the support of quality journalism. Second, tap into your local community. Learn what the land use issues are, and how your images can support groups advocating for your position. Similarly, take advantage of public comment periods on these issues (and use your images to support your comments).  Third, build bridges outside of your box. Hunters and anglers are equally as vested in the land as you are–how can your images help advocate for issues important to them?

This is just a start–feel free to offer more ideas in the comments.

sunrise on currant mountain, near ely nevada

References

Read the Homestead Act of 1862 here.

An in-depth history of in-lieu programs for western federal lands can be found here.

Read the Federal Land Policy and Management Act here.

Photography and our Public Lands

Friday, November 18th, 2016

Over the last several weeks, we have been reminded of very real threats–or at least dangerous precedents set–to the Western landscape, and to American public lands in general. First, all defendants in the 41-day standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon were found not guilty of charges of federal conspiracy and gun charges. Less than two weeks later, the United States presidential election resulted in a Republican-controlled presidency and congress, leaving federal public lands at greater risk for fossil fuel development, or even return to state control.

For anyone concerned with the preservation of wilderness, our cultural landscape, or simply the health of future generations, neither of these occurrences should set well.  Together, they’ve been keeping me up at night. Reconciling all of this news is no small task.

black and white image of the funeral mountains in death valley national park

“I want people to remember how photography works, the medium that depends on perfect darkness within the camera to capture the image, for an image of boundless light would be purely black, an exposure in perfect darkness would show just the white of unexposed paper. The visible world depends on both.” -Rebecca Solnit | Hugging the Shadows

Finding purple in a sea of blue and red

Last week, shortly after the election, I had a conversation on social media regarding the proposed Bears Ears National Monument (which I have written about before). Although I have some hesitation about the Bears Ears region being designated a National Monument, it really is the perfect candidate for protection under the Antiquities Act, although a longtime friend disagreed. While we had opposite opinions, our underlying concern for the region is the same: both of us would like to see it remain as pristine as possible. While our sedimentary layers may be different, we are standing on the same bedrock.

Looking at election maps from last week, there appears to be a deep divide in ideology between rural and urban areas, however I’d like to think we’re more purple than red vs. blue, and that the bedrock most of us are standing on is the same. Indeed, if you look at the role public lands played in western elections this season, it is clear we value our public lands.

Looking forward, I have questions.  Is it possible to search for common ground, while at the same time not compromising core values? Can we find a common currency for the value we attribute to public lands? Perhaps, more importantly, what can photographers do now?

winter storm and dark clouds over the salt playa in columbus valley nevada

Working locally, reconnecting to place

There are a few resources out there for having the conversations that are sure to happen more frequently in coming months (this is a great one). One thing they all seem to mention is to talk about feelings, rather than facts, at least to start with. As a scientist, I think, “but the facts are all that matter!” but as an artist, I get it. Art, including landscape photography, has the power to change the way people look at their world. There’s been some debate about whether artists can or should be activists or whether art should exist independently, but my gut is telling me now is the time for us all to be activists. Share your work with as many people as possible. Create content, be heard.

I’ve lamented before that as a people we are woefully detached from place, so perhaps it is the job of artists to bring us back to that. Share your work locally. Every local in every town has stories to share about their “backyard”–tap into those stories and work to reconnect people with what may have been lost.

If anything, recent news is a reminder that our public lands–and the places we love to photograph–are in danger of becoming not-so-public, and should be a good reminder to us all to educate ourselves on local politics, and think of ways to use our photography to shift the tide towards a secure future.

Sunset in western Nevada

Making Peace

Monday, December 7th, 2015

I normally try to not let politics mingle with my photography, mostly because I’m not that political of a person. However, last week’s shootings in California hit a little too close to home, and today I’m feeling the weight of it all.

Today, I’m thinking about this image, which I made back in 2010 in the cemetery at Manzanar National Historic Site. If you’ve spent any time in the eastern Sierra, you’ve surely driven by, maybe even stopped. Manzanar was one of the internment camps that the U.S. government established after the bombing of Pearl Harbor to house Japanese-American citizens. These internment camps were the result of the mass hysteria of not knowing who the enemy might be as the U.S. entered World War II.

Upon reflection, our view of Japanese-Americans was painted with the broad brushstrokes of fear–an entire ethnic group was characterized based on the actions of a government across the Pacific.

It’s been a rough month, with the Paris bombings, various attacks elsewhere, capped off by the largest mass shooting seen in the U.S. in two years. Of course no reasonable person wants to see these things happen, but at the same time, we struggle for someone to “blame”–perhaps knowing we can pin the blame on someone, or something, helps ease the sting a little bit, helps us make sense of it.

In making peace with these senseless deaths, history seems to be repeating itself, and many people are once again painting an entire religion with broad brushstrokes, based on the actions of a few. The growing hysteria and now-cyclical rhetoric is no doubt fueled by ongoing debates between presidential candidates, social media, and the conflation of this discussion with that of gun control.

I’ve only stopped at Manzanar once–it’s all I could handle. While the visitor center presents the role of internment camps in our history as best it can, there’s a certain melancholy that seems to have transcended the buildings and gardens, which are now gone. There’s the memory of good people being ripped from their homes and sent to places they didn’t want to go, simply because of their ethnicity. This was a low point in our country’s history; although it can’t be undone, it should be cause for serious self-reflection. The violence we face today is not a Muslim problem, a Christian problem, or an atheist problem. It’s a problem of angry people doing awful things. Stopping those awful things from happening is the topic of another blog post, which I’m not qualified to write.  However, if we are to move forward as a country and search out solutions, we can’t do it divided, scared of one another, labeling one another–it simply won’t work.

Okay, now that that’s off my chest, the year is wrapping up and I’m thinking about my “best of” blog post. I’ve had a varied, but productive year, and look forward to sharing some of those images soon.  Thanks for reading.

Manzanar cemetary, with Mt. Williamson

The nature of loss

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

I’ve often (somewhat seriously) joked that the only reason I’d want to be the President of the United States is because of the Antiquities Act.  This law enables the President–with the swipe of a pen–to protect our nation’s “antiquities” by declaring a national monument.  Theodore Roosevelt, who signed the bill into law, used the Antiquities Act to create Devils Postpile National Monument, as well as Grand Canyon National Monument, which would later become a national park.  Most boys want to be an astronaut when they grow up; I wanted to create national monuments.

Today is the 105th birthday of Utah’s first national monument: Natural Bridges.  The monument protects three large natural bridges, including the world’s second largest, all of which are carved out of beautiful, white, Cedar Mesa Sandstone.  Two relatively untamed canyons come together in Natural Bridges, and between the large arcs of stone, Ancestral Puebloan ruins are also protected, standing sentinel over these canyons as they have for hundreds of years.  Natural Bridges is out of the way and remote, located in one of the darkest nighttime areas of the United States, earning it the title of the world’s first International Dark Sky Park.

White Canyon, Natural Bridges National Monument

Perhaps it’s an ironic coincidence, but on the birthday of Utah’s first national monument, a group of congressmen–one of whom is from Utah–will begin a hearing in an attempt to undermine the framework of the Antiquities Act.  If passed, this body of legislation would require an act of Congress to declare a national monument as well as remove restrictions on land use within national monuments.  In Nevada, the Antiquities Act would become null and void (as it is in Wyoming currently).  My fear is that in today’s hyperpartisan congress, these changes would make it virtually impossible to use this law as it was intended.

What strikes me even more deeply is the fact that I see the world changing.  We are developing land and extracting natural resources at a rate which is simply unsustainable.  As a nation, we are slowly but surely abandoning wild places, which is opposite of the notion on which we built our country.  Wallace Stegner wrote in his now-famous wilderness letter, “We need wilderness preserved–as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds–because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed.  The reminder and reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it.

Much has been written on the value inherent in preserving these places and I can’t begin to reiterate all of it here.  You can read about clear cuts, pipelines, and mining all day.  However, I can’t help but think there’s something deeper happening which we must examine.  The material impact of our society on wilderness is obvious, but what about the impact of wilderness on us?  Does it no longer move us?  Are we no longer in awe of what’s “out there?”  Are we simply missing the bigger picture?

What’s the connection to photography?  Honestly, I’m still working on this.  As landscape photographers, we have the ability to inspire people, to make them want to see places that they might not otherwise see.  We have the ability to become an impassioned voice.  It’s worth considering, and it beats the alternative.  The loss of nature will eventually force us to examine the nature of loss one way or another.


If these mountains die, where will our imaginations wander?  If the far mesas are leveled, what will sustain us in our quest to be larger than life?  If the high valley is made mundane by self-seekers and careless users, where will we find another landscape so eager to nourish our love?  And if the long-time people of this wonderful country are carelessly squandered by Progress, who will guide us to a better world?  — John Nichols


When I was a boy I didn’t want to be an astronaut; I wanted to be in the wilderness.  I still do.

Armstrong Canyon, Natural Bridges National Monument

Potsherds

Monday, March 11th, 2013

I am writing this sitting at a desk that my dad made for my eleventh birthday. In the second drawer is an old pipe tobacco can–Captain Black–filled with Native American potsherds.

My family moved to the Four Corners region in northwestern New Mexico when I was six years old.  Many of my earliest memories of New Mexico involve the typical sight-seeing outings families do;  I remember going to Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde.  At that age, the significance of these world-class archaeological sites did not really mean much to me.  However, I started to draw connections to the ancient residents of this area one September day while deer hunting with my dad; we walked through an area filled with potsherds.  I was probably a little bored after several hours of hiking through the seemingly endless piñon-juniper pygmy forest, and the potsherds made for an exciting treasure hunt.  We picked up some of the nicer ones and brought them home.  Since then, they’ve largely lived inside of the pipe tobacco can inside my desk drawer.

I am not sure how old they are.  Some are really lovely bowl rims, with simple triangular black-on-white patterns painted on them.  Others are pieces of corrugated bowls.  Many of the archaeological sites in that area of New Mexico are Navajo–about 400-500 years old.  However, the areas we used to visit do not lie far from Salmon Ruins and the Great North Road.  So, it is entirely possible–probable even–that these pieces are much older Ancestral Puebloan potsherds.

Pueblo Bonito, Tse-biya hani ahi

Archaeologists say that we learn best about ancient cultures by leaving artifacts in their place, admired but untouched.  After all, they tell the stories of the peoples who came before us.   Indeed, much science is lost by looking at these pieces of pottery ex situ.  However, when I look at them, I think of the people who made them.  What were they thinking when they left them?  Did they walk away unflinchingly from their home, or did they take a longing look back, thinking they may someday return?

These fragmented pieces of pottery tell the story of a people who eeked a living off of the land, who knew the landscape and probably felt a deep sense of place here.


I looked down upon hillside after hillside of slopes clear-cut for their timber.  Traversed back and forth by logging roads, the hills were deeply scarred and patterened.  All I could think of were pottery designs.  Beginning there, the entire flight was an aerial Anasazi visual feast of basket weaves made of farmland plowing, river ways drawn out like rock art, and cloud patterns resembling rock forms.”  — Bruce Hucko, Cave to Cave–Canyon to Canyon

Flying from my home in southern California to Colorado at 30,000′, I can relate to Hucko’s evocative impressions of the Western landscape (Bruce Hucko was the photographer for the  Wetherill-Grand Gulch Research Project).  I see landscapes–monoliths, cliffs, and mesas–that are part of who I am, so much so that I can recognize them without having seen them on a map, or even visiting them, in years.  A floodplain in the Mojave desert, the Grand Canyon, the Vermillion Cliffs, Navajo Mountain, Cedar Mesa, Mesa Verde, the San Juans, the Sawatch, and finally we touch down in Denver.  Terra firma.

Mojave Desert

Two hours in the air filled with fragments of landscapes that conjure memories–in the same way those broken pieces of pottery tell the story of a people, these landscapes are my potsherds of the American Southwest.  This is where I have spent my life and I’ve had adventures with friends and family; these stories would fill a hundred books.


It has been over 25 years since my first visit to Chaco Canyon, but it feels like many more.  It’s a sunny and warm December afternoon, and many of the other tourists have left, leaving the halls of Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito quiet and a little lonely and the moon is rising over Fajada Butte.  I sit for a while, watching the reflected winter light bounce through the rooms, which are now open to the sky.   For what feels like the hundredth time, I find myself thinking about the journey of the people who lived here, and of their great road north toward my childhood home, near Salmon and Aztec ruins.  Potsherds lie across the high desert for nearly 100 miles; the stories of these travelers are being told in fragments.

So it is that we tell our own stories in broken, scattered pieces. Our own beautiful stories are being shared and discovered by the people in our lives, just as we discover our own pieces of others.  If we are lucky we find an entire, unbroken, pot now and then.

 Fajada Butte Moonrise

When it all comes together

Friday, October 5th, 2012

Sometimes in photography, as in life, things just come together perfectly.


I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days at the Valles Caldera National Preserve, located in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico.  The Preserve lies on one of the largest volcanic calderas in North America; this supervolcano (as it’s classified) has the capability of altering weather patterns to the point of causing a small ice age if it ever erupts.  Try to imagine 1,000 km³ of rock and debris spewing from the earth–1,000 km³–I can’t quite wrap my mind around that.

The land was acquired by the federal government in 2000 as a trust, with a board of trustees making decisions about its management.  Still a working cattle ranch, the Caldera is administered using a combination of those policies used in national forests, as well as in national parks.

The thing that strikes me the most is that any event on the Caldera–whether it is hiking, sightseeing, or even hunting–is kept very small.  The idea is to give the visitor a sense of solitude.  Quiet contemplation.  Can you imagine if only 25 people were allowed into Yosemite Valley at a time?  That’s a very novel idea indeed.


Visiting this historic place, I knew I wanted to come home with both memorable and meaningful images.  First of all, I knew I may never get to visit here again, and second, it was important to me to make images of my home state that carried a sense of belonging.  Not knowing exactly what to expect, I hoped for dramatic light, and the time to let the landscape present itself.  Great light is often caused by crummy weather.  Fortunately, I got it.

Arriving late in the afternoon, rain was already beginning to fall from the thunderheads that had been building strength all day.  After looking at the map, we decided on a small pond that looked like it could get good sunset light.  By the time we drove up the mountain to our location, the rain had turned to sleet, the ambient temperature was in the mid-30s, and it was indeed beginning to feel a bit like autumn.

The rest of that afternoon was spent watching the fog rolling through the trees, constantly evolving, moving, transforming the landscape.  I thought of Sigurd Olson as the fog galloped through the trees like a herd of white horses.  The hauntingly beautiful bugles of bull elk looking for a fight came out of the mist from all directions.

A feast for the senses.

Fog and trees, Valles Caldera National Preserve

White Horses, September 2012

As sunset neared, the clouds cleared just a bit, and as I’d hoped, the fog settled in on our little pond, our small corner of the world.  All ours…tonight anyway.  The sky lit up giving us a perfect sunset.  Few things could have made it better.

Sunset on a small pond at the Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico

New Mexico sunset, September 2012

So it went for the rest of the weekend: New Mexico autumn.  Wildlife abounded.  Rain brought a last bit of summer life to the forest before winter’s grip tightens.  Light danced at the perfect times.  And, of course, green chiles were on the menu.   Thank you, New Mexico, for the perfect start to my favorite season.

Rainbow and thunderstorm in northern New Mexico

Autumn Rainbow, September 2012

Grove of aspen trees (Populus tremuloides) in autumn

Aspen Grove, September 2012

Redondo Peak, Jemez Mountains, New Mexico

Redondo Peak, September 2012

Fog drifts through trees

Fog & Trees, September 2012

Climbing Mountains

Friday, August 10th, 2012

I recently did a solo backpack into southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains.  My primary goal was to climb San Gorgonio Mountain (11,503′), the tallest point in southern California; my secondary goal was to escape the searing heat in the valleys below.  On August 11, I’ll have lived in southern California for ten years (as a somewhat macabre coincidence, August 11 is also the ten-year anniversary of Galen & Barbara Rowell’s death), and I decided it was finally time to climb this formidable mountain.

Over the past decade or so, I have not really climbed mountains for the sake of climbing mountains.  In college, I used to drive down to Colorado and climb 14,000′ peaks a few times a year, but I seem to have gotten away from that.  I suppose the time period  that I stopped doing long hikes was also the time I got into photography.  In some ways, the two don’t really dovetail well–long hikes require early starts and the pace can be, “go go go” for hours on end; when you’re in the mountains, a 16-hour day isn’t uncommon.   Photography, on the other hand, calls for quiet contemplation.  It can be a tough balance.

San Gorgonio Mountain at sunrise

San Gorgonio Mountain, 11,503′, January 2011

This disconnect has bothered me, and like so many other insignificant problems, I’ve let it stay on my mind longer than it really should.  I’ve largely solved the problem by carrying with me a small point-and-shoot camera that can capture images in RAW format, still giving me the ability to edit them, but also giving me the flexibility to pursue more difficult and athletic outdoor pursuits.  There is, of course, the tradeoff of image quality when you use a point-and-shoot over a DSLR, but it is one I was willing to make.

When I was in college, I read Robert Pirsig’s, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I’m not sure I completely understood it, and even if I reread it today, I’m not sure I would.  It’s pretty far out there, and it’s deep.  However, the theme of the book–quality–has been on my mind since.  Every time I go into an outdoor store, I drool over all the sexy new gear, and sometimes I succumb to advertising, but I pride myself on my really old equipment.  For instance, I’ve been using the same backpack for over 20 years now, and it’s still going strong, after 1,000s of miles.  I used my nifty point-and-shoot camera to for some self-portraits to highlight the pack in action on my recent trip to San Gorgonio Mountain.  Despite my allegiance to my gear, the specter of consumerism hovers near me most of the time.

A backpacker in the San Gorgonio Wilderness of southern California

20 years old and still going strong, self-portrait, August 2012

(click on the diptych to see it full size)


“All that matters is that you spare yourself nothing, wear yourself out, risk everything to find something that seems true.”   –Tony Kushner


To summit San Gorgonio Mountain, I got up at 3:30am, and was on the trail by 3:45.  From my campsite, I was able to summit at 5:30am, just before the sun came up.  I used the self-timer on my camera for a few self portraits, and then headed back down to my campsite for a cup of tea before packing up and heading back to my car.  The morning was cool, and I forgot how long the Earth’s shadow and Belt of Venus seem to hang in the sky at this elevation.  Even though I could see the megalopolis of southern California stretching below me, I had this mountain completely to myself.

Predawn light on San Gorgonio Mountain

Predawn light, San Gorgonio Mountain, August 2012

On my hike down I thought about the physical act of climbing mountains as well as the mountains we climb within ourselves.  “Like those in the valley behind us,” wrote Robert Pirsig, “most people stand in sight of the spiritual mountains all their lives and never enter them, being content to listen to others who have been there and thus avoid the hardships.”   I thought about my point-and shoot camera, my 20-year-old backpack, people in my life, and the mountains we all find ourselves challenged by every day.

I am happy that I finally ventured into the San Bernardinos to climb San Gorgonio Mountain.

Mt. San Jacinto at dawn

Mt. San Jacinto as seen from San Gorgonio Mountain, August 2012

 

Sunrise on the flanks of San Gorgonio Mountain

Krummholz, Jepson Peak, and the Earth’s Shadow, August 2012

Ethics, Photography, and Archaeology

Monday, June 4th, 2012

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.

Ancestral Puebloan granary

House On Fire

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.

Pictograph on the San Rafael Swell in southern Utah

Ghostly Figures

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?

Ancestral Puebloan Dwelling