Apparently, the Americans view the French as a bunch of fat blokes with a beret carrying a baguette under their arm. And of course, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Well, maybe that fat part is … But feel not ashamed, good people on the other side of the Atlantic pond, as the French have equal misconceptions about your great country.
Culture, for instance. It is well-known, particularly among people who have never visited, that America has no history and no culture.
Nothing older than yesterday to visit. T’is a new country, you see. All the buildings are new, shiny and made of glass. At best, some traces of Western-epoch ruins, such as the ones depicted here. Yeah, right …
If Arizona is anything to judge by, there’s enough about to make the avid archeotourist happy and the ancient-culture oriented photographer also. So here is a small list of sites to discover when in the area with a few comments about photography thrown in.
I’ll devote a whole post to this site very soon, because it simply is magnificent and because I bruised my butt on a horse for 2 days exploring every nook and cranny, so I’ve earned the right to pester you about it.
If you’re at all interested in Ansel Adams or any number of modern-day SouthWest landscape photographers, you’ll have seen many versions of Canyon de Chelly. It’s famous, easily accessed via Chinle (North of Holbrook) and quite beautiful. Most visitors view it from one of the rim routes in a car. These take you to overlooks which provide lovely views. But it’s a lot more pleasant to experience from within.
You can walk, ride or get shaken to spare parts in a 4×4. All great fun, but horseback probably would be my recommendation as the Canyon is very sandy and exhausting to walk and shooting from a moving jeep is downright frustrating.
Take any lens you want. Due to my John Wayne impersonation (I would draw my camera and lenses from a small Crumpler side bag, make my photo and holster the whole gizmo at every interesting spot, the Canyon was alive with the sound of … velcro) I limited myself to Audrey and Cesar (DS names for the Zeiss wunderkids : Distagon 1.4/35 ZM and C-Sonnar 1.5/50 ZM, respectively). But I often missed something wider, having to stitch many frames, not easy from a moving animal’s back. And anything up to 300mm would have been nice for details of ruins and petroglyphs as well as animal life.
One last note: it is usually quite dry in there, but if you see any greenery, be assured it harbours gazillions of mosquitoes. Stock up on plenty of strong repellant. It won’t work, but will make you feel like you’re taking measures, making the itch more bearable.
Archeologists, eat your heart out! This place has great historical significance but all I could think of was Luke Skywalker.
I blame the heat. Man, it was a scorcher when we visited. Over 115°F and with not a drop of wind. We were handed large umbrellas by the kind site owner (who also instructed us on how to see a good baseball match) but even with that portable shade in hand, we didn’t last long in between ramadas.
A very wide-angle is useful inside but you’ll be happy with anything from 35mm to 85mm, which were my 2 lenses of the day. The urban setting and major flight path just next to the site can let you try exotic compositions but the downside is that it can be difficult to get the unwanted background out of your photograph.
If you visit, send me your best Tatooine photographs. But do take the time to read the signs as these describe how Pueblo Grande is where the Hohokam invented the game of soccer (a long time ago, in a distant pueblo).
No, I haven’t abused the mezcal, that’s really what the signs and museum explain. It was a ritual game played in a concave field. True story.
Load up on cards and bring your friends, Besh Ba Gowah is another photo-nirvana ruin. Located next to mining-city extraordinaire Globe, it offers pueblo dwellings in excellent condition, birds, and interesting plants. Fun for all.
The 800 years-old Salado settlement has been partially restored to give the visitor (and photographer) a more lifelike experience. That’s severely frowned upon in the purist archeo-circles of Europe, meaning that most visits to ancient sites amount to walking along piles of rubble and having to imagine everything for yourself. Not so here. 90% of the walk is through restored but authentic ruins, a small part has been rebuilt and is really interesting to visit.
Casa Grande, South of Phoenix, is a minor letdown for photographers. As important as the site is to historians, it is mostly centered around one large building that doesn’t allow a lot of variations.Good skies are probably a great help and there are a few angles to experiment with, but I wouldn’t recommend the trip exclusively for photography. Still, Casa Grande is close (in AZ terms, about 70 minutes on the road) to very interesting settlements such as Miami and Globe, two mining places with virtually unlimited photo opportunities. And Globe is home to Besh Ba Gowah, described above.
In the other direction, Biosphere 2 is just an hour South.
Lenses: I used a 15mm Zeiss Distagon and my OTUS 85. Anything in between will do but I think most opportunities arise from either compressing (85 is actually a bit short) or strong perspectives. 50mm doesn’t seem particularly attractive here.
On the other side of Phoenix, North, lies the wonderful, laid-back, easy and beautiful Flagstaff. If the hiking, food, astronomy, shopping and history aren’t enough, you have several more archeological options to spice-up your visit. Here are just two among many others.
Walnut Canyon offers plenty of lovely hiking and great forests which, in themselves, can provide hours of photographic amusement. One of the hikes is a steep 1 mile up and down from the information center that winds around the canyon cliff along perfectly maintained paths.
If you’re human, and not Jedi, you’ll likely find yourself catching your breath here and there, so photography is actually quite natural a pretext for stopping 😉 A zoom is probably an interesting proposition because you’re constantly switching subjects between flowers, dwellings near by (below is a stitch), dwellings in the distance, vultures, … There’s a water fountain in the information center but no water on the path. It’s a very easy walk but many underestimate the heat and climb on the trail. So hundreds have to be rescued every year on what really should be a stroll on a beautifully sealed path. As usual, proper shoes, proper shade and plenty of water.
Final stop, Wupatki, already mentioned on this blog a few weeks ago. This is probably my favourite site of the lot (photo-wise). The combined colours of the citadel walls, hills and sky make this a must-see for photographers. It’s busy so patience is needed. And morning and evening are better than mid-day, for the quality of light.
Wupatki (“Tall House”) is another essential piece of the ancient Indian World puzzle. Built around 1500 years ago by the Sinagua and Anasazi, it was home to an estimated 2000 immigrants when nearby Sunset Crater blew its cap and covered agricultural and hunting grounds in lava and cinder. Shamefully, all I could see was a Jawa Sandcrawler (but look: they’re exactly the same thing 😉 )
Any lens will provide a great experience. You can move about to suit your angle and you won’t feel short-changed if you forgot your 12mm home. Far more tricky than lens selection is white balance. Depending on your tastes, bricks will look orange-brown (below) or rusty-red (above).
This site is accessed via a superb 30 mile loop of the main highway North of Flagstaff. This is scenic desert driving at it’s best. And it also takes you to Sunset Crater. Here, the landscape changes dramatically in a few short miles and provides tremendous hikes through lava fields. If you’re not photo-horny once you reach a trail head here, you’re dead inside! (DS top tip)Of course, there are many, many others. Palatki, Navajo National Monument, Tusayan, Montezuma’s Castle, Montezuma Well, both close to the great V-bar-V Ranch petroglyph site. Oh yeah, I haven’t even started on petroglyphs …
And, yeah, there’s more modern ruins to enjoy along the way, too 😉
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