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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

Desert Sentinels

Friday, November 11th, 2011

In the deserts and canyons of the southwest, water can be tough to come by; as a result, charismatic megafauna that rely on that water are often elusive and secretive.  The desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) is a widespread, but uncommon resident of the southwest.

They truly are sentinels of the desert; on any given afternoon in Joshua Tree National Park,  you might see one surveying the landscape from atop a granite boulder.  In southwest Utah, they return to the canyons from the high country when the temperature starts to fall.  In the desert communities around Palm Springs, they illustrate the interaction between man and nature very well; bighorns have taken to eating ornamental cactus and other plants, so large fences have been erected to keep them out (which is ironic, because some people would pay to see a sheep!).

Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) in Joshua Tree
Desert Sentinel
Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni), Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

The interaction between humans and bighorns isn’t a recent thing, though.  In fact, humans have been interacting with them since the southwest was first settled, probably thousands of years ago.  If you take any interest in rock art at all, you’ll quickly find that bighorns were a ubiquitous subject of prehistoric artists.  Indeed, I wonder if the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont peoples who lived with these animals found them just as captivating as we do today.

Fremont River petroglyphs, capitol reef national park, utah
Badly weather damaged petroglyphs depicting desert bighorn sheep
Wolfe Ranch Petroglyphs, Arches National Park, Utah

In some ways, the desert bighorn sheep embodies the spirit of the west: it is largely solitary, is resilient, and has shown a great ability to adapt to the desert environment.  Its a true steward of the ecosystems it thrives in.  The Desert Bighorn Council is a great resource to learn more about the biology and conservation of desert bighorn sheep (they list links to many local organizations as well).

Those who passed before me

Monday, January 24th, 2011

Have you ever imagined what the first people who walked into a place as grand as Yosemite Valley, or a beautiful remote canyon in Utah must have thought?  Unless they wrote their thoughts down, we can’t be sure, but I’d imagine it was something along the lines of “Holy Crap!”

Being the first person to see a place must give a grand sense of accomplishment.  But, similarly, seeing something grand for the first time–whether you’re the discoverer or not–can also be satisfying.  Perhaps you’re the first visitor of the season, knowing the canyon you’re in was left to the mountain lions, flash floods, and snowstorms for many months prior to your visit.  Or, maybe you’re witnessing your favorite peak after an epic summer storm being lit up by a fantastic atmospheric light show.  The sort of feelings and memories we take from experiences like this can easily leave us feeling like the most intrepid explorer.

As photographers, we try to make images of the places we visit as if we were the first to visit these locations.  We criticize an image if there are footprints in the dirt; I once saw another photographer carefully sweeping footprints out of the sand underneath an oft-visited arch in Utah.  Few photographers could claim theirs is the first image made at that spot (with the occasional very notable exception), but we want our image to look pristine, unvisited, wild just the same.

Alternatively, for me anyway, knowing I’m not the first person to pass through a place can be just as satisfying.  I made the images below at an intersection of two slot canyons in southern Utah recently.  (I think) the petroglyphs are from the Fremont period, from ~900-1300 AD (although if anyone could help me figure this out, I’d appreciate it); even if I’m wrong, these drawings have been on the wall of this canyon for many hundreds of years.  To me, being able to appreciate those who passed before me is just as satisfying as the idea of actually being the first to see an area.

This image may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and I understand that.  But, to me, its simple, telling, beautiful.  I hope you enjoy it.  Click on the image to see it big.

Petroglyphs located in Buckskin Gulch, Utah

Petroglyph Diptych, January 2011

House on Fire ruin–a vertical panorama

Monday, February 8th, 2010

In my last post, I discussed a few techniques that can be used to effectively shoot panoramas.  All of my examples were of grand landscapes, and they were all landscape-oriented panoramas.  I want to use this post to point out another time you can shoot panos to yield great results.

Last November, we visited the Cedar Mesa area near Blanding, Utah.  Since we were limited on time, we chose to visit a familiar and often photographed Ancestral Puebloan ruin that’s been nicknamed the “House on Fire” (also called the Flaming Roof ruin).  I blogged about that visit here, in November.  While at the ruin, I envisioned someday wanting to print it very large, and wished I had a medium format camera with me.  Additionally, I really wanted to emphasize the “flames” exiting the roof of the ruin.

So, I took 3 landscape-oriented images, but rather than putting them next to each other, I stacked them on top of one another,  thus producing a larger image.  If you click on the image, you’ll see a larger version–the detail is amazing!  That said, it would look even better printed on canvas over your couch 🙂

A view of an Ancestral Puebloan ruin near Cedar Mesa, Utah

"House on Fire" vertical panorama, Utah, November 2009

More images from Cedar Mesa

Friday, December 11th, 2009

I’d like to share a couple of more images from my recent trip to Cedar Mesa, in southeastern Utah.  The first one is an Anasazi, or Ancestral Puebloan, granary that’s immediately adjacent to the more famous Flaming Roof Ruin.  I love the way the doorway has “shaped” itself over the years into a unique symmetry, and you can still see the same patterns on the roof of the alcove, giving it a “flaming” appearance–maybe this is Flaming Roof Ruin II?

Anasazi Granary II, November 2009

Anasazi Granary II, November 2009

In addition to being impressed with the entire structure, the masonry work itself is also very interesting to look at, and I thought a detail of a granary wall would make an interesting photograph.  These structures were likely abandoned around 1300 AD (perhaps earlier), and they’ve managed to survive 700+ years in good shape.

Granary Wall, Detail, November 2009

Granary Wall, Detail, November 2009

Black Friday

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

While 1000s of people chose to get their post-Thanksgiving exercise by shopping the deals in our nation’s shopping malls, I escaped to southern Utah.  I recently shared a photo from the Ancestral Puebloan ruin I visited, but I was also able to visit a petroglyph panel known as the Procession Panel, which is located on Comb Ridge, west of the town of Bluff.

Procession Panel, November 2009

Procession Panel, November 2009

The panel, about 15 feet long, consists of multiple lines of people and animals “marching” towards a central point (visible below).  Two of the most interesting figures (above) are deer; the left-hand deer has an atlatl (basically a spear “thrower”) dart sticking out of its abdomen and the second one has a long tail that morphs into a snake ready to strike.  I wasn’t able to capture the entire tail in either of these photographs.  Archaeologists and Anthropologists who study the Anasazi culture have speculated on the meaning of this panel.  Was it a funeral procession?  Does it signify the event that caused the Ancestral Puebloans to leave the area abruptly?  Obviously we can never be really sure, but I’d like to suggest that it does NOT signify the people lining up outside of Wal-Mart for the best Black Friday deal on an LCD TV.

Procession Panel, November 2009

Procession Panel, November 2009

I’d also like to direct you to my new Cedar Mesa Page, showing all of the photos from my recent trip to Utah.  Enjoy!

Cedar Mesa, Utah

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

We just returned from my parents’ house in New Mexico, and in classic Topophiliac fashion, I made a quick day trip to the Cedar Mesa in southern Utah.  As a best estimate, it had been 9 years since I last visited this area, and returning only confirmed for me that it really is one of my favorite places to be.  Since I only had one day, the locations I visited were a little cliché and iconic, but it satiated my soul.  

I made my first visit to the ruin known as “Flaming Roof Ruin” or “House on Fire Ruin”.  It really is beautiful, and humbling, to be able to spend a couple of hours in such a historic location.  


Flaming Roof Ruin, November 2009

Flaming Roof Ruin, November 2009

I’ll have more posts from this amazing ruin, as well as other locations on my day trip in the next few days.  Getting to spend the day on Cedar Mesa with my Dad was one of the many things I was thankful for this last week.  I hope you were able to celebrate everything you’re thankful for this year…