Sunday, August 23, 2009

Lair of the Spider Woman

"Spider Rock" - Canyon de Chelly, AZ
This photo, in itself, is probably not my very best - although not my worst either:) - but the process of taking it definitely epitomizes what I love about the art of photography. This location is exactly 750 miles from where I live; I drove the whole way in one day, almost non-stop... and don't regret a minute of the effort it took me to get here, because unlike my experience a few days later at Monument Valley, I was able to appreciate this scene in an ideal way. I scouted the location earlier in the day and by the time I arrived again in the early evening, all the casual visitors were returning to their camping spots or motels, leaving me to select a nice perch on the rim of the canyon from which to observe the shadows climbing these fantastic spires as the sun slowly sank in the west. Only the occasional raven would stop by and sit in a nearby tree to see what I was up to... and I could hear coyotes calling clear as a bell from the canyon floor 1000 feet below. In a place like this, all alone in the warm evening light watching the shadows grow, you can imagine yourself observing the scene 100 or even 1000 years ago, and wonder at how similar it would have been.
Known as Spider Rock in Navajo lore, this 800 ft. tall formation is believed to be the home of Spider Woman, one of the most important figures in their mythology; a main character in the creation of the world and the one who taught them their most revered craft of weaving, which they still practice with great artistry today.
Would I make the same effort to be here if I wasn't so determined to capture the scene... and would I have learned about the Navajo traditions surrounding it?.. probably not. That kind of unexpected benefit is what makes this work rewarding on so many different levels. Producing a successful photograph is really just icing on the cake.
A short but interesting history of Navajo weaving
can be found here, with some good links that go deeper into the old tales and history should anyone be interested.

Photography appears to be an easy activity; in fact it is a varied and ambiguous process in which the only common denominator among its practitioners is in the instrument.
- Henri Cartier-Bresson

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Spanish Rock

Back to Canyon de Chelly and I hope you all can indulge my fascination with rock art for a few more posts...
This is probably my favorite of all the rock art sites I visited and was one of the main reasons for going in the first place.. I had previously heard about this one and wanted to see it for myself. This branch of the canyon is named "Canyon del Muerto"(Canyon of Death) for an incident related to the story depicted on this rock. The art is Navajo in origin and nowhere near as old as the last one I wrote about, dating back only to the 1800's. In fact it depicts an expedition by Spanish soldiers into the canyon in January 1805, led by Lt. Antonio Narbona, in which they cornered a group of Navajos at their hiding place in the rocks and massacred everyone, including women, children and elderly. That spot is now a ruin known as "Massacre Cave" and is quite a bit further up the canyon from this spot where the artwork is found.
As Spanish, Mexican and eventually American settlers began to invade the traditional Native American territories, they (the Navajo and others) understandably felt justified in raiding and pillaging the intruders, but that in turn prompted retribution from the armies of the various governments involved, which of course were destined to prevail due to their size and resources. After many years of back and forth raids, in 1863, a force led by Kit Carson, under orders to subdue Indian unrest in the area, entered the canyon from the upper end and drove all the remaining residents from this last refuge, destroying their homes and crops and forced them into "The Long Walk".. the infamous 300 mile forced march eastward to the Fort Sumner internment camp in New Mexico. Hundreds died on the 18 day trek. Once there, they were forced to live together with other tribes with which they had historical disputes, (kind of like the racial divides in modern day prisons), creating lots of new problems, but eventually in 1868 they were allowed to return to their traditional homeland.
I love the way the artists used the natural formation in the rock wall to create a ground for the riding characters, as well as the way the intricate textures and colors highlight the scene. Notice the robe and cross depicting a Spanish priest riding along with the soldiers and the detail of the horses.
The photographer’s most important and likewise most difficult task is not learning to manage his camera, or to develop, or to print. It is learning to see photographically – that is, learning to see his subject matter in terms of the capacities of his tools and processes, so that he can instantaneously translate the elements and values in a scene before him into the photograph he wants to make.
- Edward Weston, The Art of Photography

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Skywatch - A Painted Desert

This shot is an early favorite of mine from a new crop of images taken around NE Arizona, this one obviously at Monument Valley. Kind of a surprise that I caught so many successful images here, because to be honest, I was in a very bad mood the whole day... after the relative peacefulness of Canyon de Chelly, the heat was brutal and it was totally over run with tourists buzzing about in their rented cars, spewing up dust on the deliberately horrible road that winds through the park... and which you are not allowed to leave, so I was nearly at the point to give up and leave. I planned to camp in the area, but it was just too hot and crowded with zero shade to be had anywhere... and all the services belong to one company with no competition, so it's just a total rip-off until you get 20 miles down the road to Kayenta, which is where I ended up staying.
Every time I wanted to set up at an interesting spot, I had to deal
not only with the 105° temperature, but the dust clouds kicked up by passing cars and all the jokers jumping out to strike silly poses against the landscape as their friends or family took snaps. Everyone has the right to enjoy as they see fit, but it just kills the aura of the location if you know what I mean. Maybe I'm spoiled or a bit selfish, but I often manage to find myself alone and at peace with the environment in places like this, and I definitely picked the wrong season this time. I thought I was totally wasting my time, but as is often the case, surprising things happen if you just stick it out to the end.
I often say that I like photographs that resemble a painting.. I think this one qualifies. As the sun gets low, the rich colors of the red earth come to life in a way that you just will never experience at mid-day here in the desert. The crowds thin out, heading off for drinks and dinner, the temperature cools a bit and maybe even the sky which was mostly clear blue for much of the day starts to cooperate.
Check out the SkyWatch homepage for more great sky oriented scenery from all over the world.

You could not guess in what a fantastic place I am. I sit in the shade of an ancient, dying juniper tree, cushioned on my Navajo saddle blankets. On all sides, the burning sun beats down on silent, empty desert. To right and left, long walls of sandstone mesas reach away into the distance, the shadows in their fluted clefts the color of claret. Before me, the desert drops sheer away into a vast valley, in which strangely eroded buttes of all delicate shadings of vermilion, orange and purple, tower into a cloudless turquoise sky.

-Everett Ruess, June, 1934 (age 20) writing from Monument Valley.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The White House Ruins

"White House Ruins" - Canyon de Chelly, AZ
Archeologists have determined that various peoples have been living in Canyon de Chelly for 5000 years. The structures I photographed here, known as The White House, were built approximately 1000 years ago and were occupied for another 300 years, until the builders decided to move on for reasons unknown... perhaps over population, lack of food supply, drought, or just feeling the need to move, we will never know for sure.
Although administered by the National Park Service, mainly to preserve what is left of these valuable sites, the canyon and surrounding area are completely owned by the Navajo people, many of whom still reside here in the canyon during the summers, running small farms and living in traditional Hogans (round, low profile log cabin-like structures.) Closed to outsiders unless accompanied by a Navajo Guide, horses and cattle wander around freely among orchards and small fields, making it seem a pastoral and peaceful place now, but there is a long and complex history of struggle and violence in the whole of the southwest.. some of the most important of it happened right here. I'll get into a bit of that in another post.
This particular ruin is the only site down inside the canyon that you can visit on your own, by hiking down from the rim. The accompanying photo looking out over one section of the canyon, which you can click for a detailed view, was taken at dawn from the spot on the rim where the trail begins. I'm including it here as a good scene to put the place in some kind of context.. I took it while waiting for the sun to come up enough to start down the trail; my theory was to get down and back before it got too hot since there is no shade and the days were running in the 100° range, but I ended up having to endure it anyway because I spent so much time at the bottom shooting the ruins. The trail is about 1.5 miles and 500 ft. elevation gain which is not too bad, but with the heat and having to carry my photo gear, I was complaining to myself at the start back up when I met an old Navajo lady, at least in her late 70's and probably older, dressed in a colorful full length skirt and wearing a jacket even in such heat, hiking down all by herself. She seemed to be fine and happy, so I had to tell myself that if she can do it at her age, I should be able to make it up without complaining.
I decided on a black and white treatment for this image due to the way it highlights the textures of the rock and especially the dark streaks of desert varnish trailing down the sheer rock face from high above.