Of all the landscapes that I have been blessed to explore and photograph over the years, the Sycamore Canyon area of northern Arizona rates among my favorites. It is absolutely amazing; it has the Juniper/Pinyon Pine forest and the beautiful red rock formations more commonly associated with nearby Sedona, but its official wilderness designation has kept out motorized vehicles and the tourists that accompany them. This challenge—non-motorized transportation only—has also helped to preserve some wonderful treasures, including countless Sinagua Indian ruins. The Sinagua, who were contemporaries of the better known Anasazi or “Cliff Dwellers” of the Four Corners region, reached their zenith, they say, somewhere around 1450AD, after which, as with the Anasazi, they abruptly abandoned the country leaving only rock art, artifacts, and the ruins of their homes to mark their passing.
As a photographer, and an insatiably curious explorer of wild places, I am always looking for interesting and little-known subjects to capture on film. So, on a recent fall morning, after learning of a new ruin to investigate in the Sycamore Canyon area, and almost simultaneously discovering a new photographic technique with which to capture it, I packed my gear and headed north towards this fantastic place. Along the way I traversed landscapes that ranged from tawny, rolling grasslands to the Cottonwood and grape vine lined banks of the upper Verde River. Finally, after several hours and a final 4-wheel drive push, I arrived at a massive red rock formation that marked the boundary of this stretch of the wilderness.
A night shot of Ruin #1, much like the afternoon shot above. All of the artificial light in these photographs is a result of "painting" the subject with a headlamp.
Pulling into a dense stand of Junipers, I hastily set up a camp—really just a cot and a sleeping bag—, stuffed some gear into a pack and headed out over a faint trail, following it up and over a lava saddle before taking a hard left on the backside and scrambling up a scree slope to a beautiful volcanic amphitheater. This recess was about 60 feet wide, 30 feet deep, 100-feet high and held three 600-year-old-plus Sinagua ruins that were bunched up tight together and so well preserved in some areas that the roof beams were still in place and the handprints of the people who plastered them were still visible.
After familiarizing myself with the ruins I shot a series of baseline images and then expanded my exploration to nearby ledges and overhangs. It was while probing a prehistoric granary secreted under one of these ledges that I first became aware that the sun was setting; the stone itself began to glow a reddish-orange. I immediately went into my “wild-eyed-frantically-attempt-to-shoot-as-much-film-as-you-can-because-your-time is-super-limited” mode, scrambling up and down the slope, dodging tree branches and cactus, jumping from rock to rock, searching for ever more powerful foregrounds, all the while the sky graduating from a light orange to reds, pinks, grays, and finally to a deep royal blue.