In anxious anticipation of our good President Obama designating a Bears Ears National Monument here in southeastern Utah (specifically San Juan County) I’ve been visiting some old friends. Over Labor Day weekend I revisited two archaeological sites that are dear to me. What? You want the names and locations? Sorry, this is not about that.
I have enjoyed making photographs of archaeological sites in this area since the early 1980’s when I first really explored Cedar Mesa. I was living and working on the Navajo Reservation in the Utah town of Montezuma Creek. This made Cedar Mesa my default backyard. The Needles District of Canyonlands was 1.5 hours further north and Moab was beyond that. At first I was lured in by the deep canyons and mushroom rocks at canyon heads and rims. It did not take long for me to become enthralled by the vast array of archaeological sites. Dwellings, granaries, towers, kivas, lithic scatters, stone kilns, and, of course, rock art. All of these and more became part of my weekend walking vocabulary. I was already photographing when I arrived in Montezuma Creek at the age of 24. I had a dream of becoming a ‘national park photographer’ and though I have essentially done that having created interpretive slide shows for Organ Pipe Cactus NM and Arches NP (now gone), that early and innocent outlook did not prepare me for the depth of feeling and commitment that was to develop toward this particular subject.
As I wandered the canyons alone and with friends I began to feel something I had not when traveling to farther locations like Yellowstone, Zion or the Grand Canyon.
It was there in the Needles District, the Maze, Escalante and even Capital Reef, but not this strong. It took a few years for me to acknowledge what it was.
It was home.
Home, to me, is a place, not an address. This is a concept I learned best among the Navajo. Cedar Mesa was my backyard and for the past 30-40 years I’ve been exploring it as often as I can. I need more time, but it seems that time is running out. Cedar Mesa and the surrounding landscape are being overrun by people, by us – for lots of reasons. Some people come because of stringent and enforced group size and camping limitations found in the national parks. Some are after something new and have been bitten by the ‘rock art and ruin’ bagging bug. Others see this vast landscape of BLM and some NFS land as an open playground in which to ride their motorized road maggots (atv and ohv)…….oh, I’m sorry – not!
Let’s move on.
Labor Day. 2016. I was pleasantly surprised to NOT find too many people on the Bears Ears or Cedar Mesa. I assumed it would be packed. I camped high and visited the two sites taking my time and allowing the visits to last for hours.
There is much creative compositional insight that can happen if you give it time. I made but a few photographs (5-7) at each site, but stayed at each for about 4 hours. At both I made an initial “gut” photo, then laid my gear down and just sat absorbing the sounds of the canyon, the light, and re-discovering the nuances of the rock, both the natural and built environments. One of my attractions to this subject is finding a balance between the geometry of the built environment and the natural poetry of place. My seeing has been enhanced by years of large format photography where the image is inverted on the ground glass. Among other considerations the inverted image helps us to erase ‘nouns’ from our mind’s eye and encourages and almost requires us to see in the visual language of line, shape, balance, etc. If an image “hangs together” in inverted form you can be assured that you have a strong working composition. Try it; you’ll like it, Mikey!
I’ve made two dozen or more other images at these sites over the years, but these recent ones seem most satisfying, not out of technical consideration, but that I considered them for a longer period of time and let them work their magic on me more than I sought to work any magic I might possess on them.
The musician Mary McCaslin has a great song titled Old Friends. “Remember old friends we’ve met along the way, the gifts they give us stay with us every day.” I think of the Cedar Mesa region this way, and it’s the reason I’m trying to be a good friend and give back by being involved in its protection. I’m convinced that a national monument is the single best choice for the region and that’s why I serve as vice-president of Friends of Cedar Mesa.