Ghosts of Our Predecessors

There I stood on the morning of November 3rd, 2021, at the base of a magnificent sandstone cliff in Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly. The rock before me is beautifully textured by cross-bedding, betraying the ancient dunes that solidified to create the sediments that had been eroded to form the sheer face. Descending from the top of the wall are stunning patina streaks of darker desert varnish. This scene would be striking enough from these features alone, but there is more – about fifty feet above the canyon floor is a deep alcove housing the remains of dwellings from the Anasazi, ancestors of the modern Pueblo tribe.

Although the setting was bathed in crisp fall sunlight, I felt the long shadows of those who had stood here before. In 1873 the western survey photographer Timothy O’Sullivan made probably the first photograph of the wall and ruin, which became known as the White House Ruin. In 1942 Ansel Adams also photographed the ruin, as have other noteworthy photographers like Eliot Porter and William Clift. (Although Porter is primarily known for his color photographs, he did some excellent black and white work as well, much of which can be found in the book Eliot Porter’s Southwest.)

Willfully ignoring admonitions like “Don’t bother with grand views of Yosemite, Ansel has already done it better than you can,” hundreds or thousands of photographers like myself make pilgrimages to sites like this annually. Some aspire to repeat the efforts of their predecessors, and others hope to transcend them. Or if not transcend, at least put some sort of personal stamp on their effort! I was no different than the rest, so I migrated to roughly the same spot on which O’Sullivan and Adams had placed their tripods, and set up mine. I would like to think I would have found this position on my own, even if I had not seen previously made photographs – it is very natural to place the ruin in the lower left corner of the photograph, in order to be able to include the sweeping, streaked cliffs above and to the right of the alcove. The ruin itself is somewhat visually interesting, but it is the setting that really makes it such an amazing sight. Here is my rendition of this incredible spectacle:

On the evening of leaving for a long road trip with my wife that would include our visit to Canyon de Chelly, I sat down with the book Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs by Ansel Adams, in which he describes making his photograph of the White House Ruin. He states “Technically, my problem was primarily filtration,” and goes on to explain that O’Sullivan’s superb photograph was made on a glass plate with a photographic emulsion (chemical glop that reacts to light) that was particularly sensitive to blue light and not very sensitive to red light. These characteristics are exhibited by orthochromatic black and white film, but not the more commonly used pancromatic film, which is what Adams was using. Lacking orthochromatic film, Ansel compensated with the best filter he had with him at the time, which he still did not find entirely satisfactory.

Heeding Ansel’s regret that he did not have any orthochromatic film with him at the time, I ordered some during the first days of our trip, and had it shipped to one of the stops along our journey. I had never used or developed this film before, but I decided to throw caution to the wind and use it for all of my photographs at Canyon de Chelly – and the results came out fine! The reader can compare the above photograph with those of O’Sullivan and Adams to determine whether my effort has any merit, relative to theirs. Some might argue that it had already been done, and I was wasting my time. Whether that sentiment is valid or not, I derived some personal enjoyment from making the photograph, and I feel like my version holds its own with its forerunners. In fact, I believe my image benefits from a lower angle of the sunlight illuminating the wall but, of course, this is due only the fortuitous accident of when I happened to be there, rather than any planning or skill on my part!

The non-photographers among you may prefer to skip this paragraph! Ansel Adams liked to say that a negative (or RAW file for those using a digital camera) is like a piece of written music, and the photographic print (or digital image) produced by the photographer is like the performance of that piece of music. I might propose to take that analogy a step further, to say that the scene itself is the piece of music, the negative or RAW file is the photographer’s arrangement of that piece of music, and the final print or digital image is the performance of the music. The image above then constitutes my arrangement and performance of the White House Ruin.

I made that photograph on our way into the canyon, and we stopped at the ruin again on the way out. The light had changed some, so I repeated essentially the same photograph in the event that the different the light would give a better result. (It didn’t.) I then set about seeing if I could come up with something creative and more original than the previous photograph. There is a small cottonwood tree in front of the ruin, and I had seen an image online where the photographer put the tree on the right hand side of the ruin, in the foreground. I didn’t want to repeat that (in fact, neither of the two lenses I had with me would have permitted it anyway), so I walked back and forth, finally settling on making a vertically oriented photo with the tree placed in the center of the scene. I carefully composed so that the bright leaves of the tree stood out against the dark alcove and obscured as little of the ruin as possible, and made the following image:

Regardless of the artistic merits of this photograph, it is interesting to compare the present site with what O’Sullivan experienced in 1873. One can see that there is a second ruin at the base of the cliff, on the canyon floor, and its appearance differs somewhat from how it looked when O’Sullivan made his image in 1873. Some small trees in the foreground of his photograph are gone, and the floor of the canyon seems to have eroded down to the base of the lower ruin (possibly the soil was removed by human excavation?). The main ruin, however, appears to have changed little in the intervening 148 years. (One thing the viewer does not see in my photograph is the fence that has been constructed to prevent the ruins from intrusions by tourists and photographers!)

There is a current trend among many black and white photographers to create dark, moody images with something like the appearance of a blazing spotlight directed at the main point of interest in the photograph. Although this can be effective when well done, it can also at times appear quite contrived. Having gone through a period of admiration for the drama of such photographs (and I still appreciate them when they are adroitly envisioned and executed), I have more recently developed an affinity for less affected imagery. In the case of the above two photographs, the brighter, high key nature of the images properly reflects the penetrating nature of the stark desert sunshine, a feeling that I wanted to convey.

Canyon de Chelly is truly an amazing place, and I would encourage readers who enjoy the southwest to make a visit to this incredible site. Note that the canyon floor is accessible only by tours through approved vendors, but many of those services offer fairly intimate excursions. Our party of three went with Bobby VanWinkle of Tseyi Jeep Tours, who gave us a wonderful tour, tailored to our wishes. At the time of year that we went, mid-week in November, we seemed to be the only tour in the canyon.

Finally, I invite the reader to view my other photographs from Canyon de Chelly.

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