A New Take on a Very Old Subject...

Ruin #1.This is one of the baseline images that I shot 
on the afternoon of the first day. There are three ruins in total.


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.


In this image the view is from within Ruin #2, looking through the doorway, across a small courtyard and into the doorway of Ruin #1. The vertical object in the courtyard area is a charred wooden post that at one time had probably supported a roof of some kind.

At about this point I came to my senses and, remembering that I had come here for a specific purpose, began to work quickly in the fast fading light. First I set up my camera on one of the compositions that I had pre-visualized when I first walked through the complex—a room framed by the ancient doorway of a second room—and then, from my backpack, removed my headlamp, a stopwatch, and some instructions explaining the technique that I was going to attempt. Next, I carefully cleaned the lens, checked the camera’s settings, and peering through the viewfinder, held the headlamp up high to illuminate the scene. I strained in that low light to see if the image was in focus, and then locked the shutter open with the cable release and began to “paint” the beam of light from the headlamp, sweeping it evenly from side to side over my subject. After about 30 seconds I released the shutter and it was over… I had painted my first image with light and I knew that it was going to look great! Even the scorpion that scampered under my camera bag couldn’t take the joy from me. I had learned a new way to express myself through my art and I was overjoyed.

I spent the balance of the night photographing these amazing ruins and contemplating the stars which, in this clear, crisp air seemed so bright, and so close, that I felt that I could reach out and take them in my hands. I studied them for hours, and then just as I thought I had taken it all in the earth stumbled upon the Orionids meteor shower and I had to start all over. It was fantastic!

I also spent many of those long, dark hours wondering about the people who lived in that small area all those centuries before. They watched the same sky that I did and experienced, in the very early morning, the same stillness. In this now empty place, families were raised; there was play, and laughter, and teasing, and mourning. There would have been shouts of concern at the sight of enemies and excitement at the arrival of relatives. There would have been gatherings around fires—the soot of which still darkens the rock—to tell stories, and to speak of weather, crops and war. All of this ran through my mind in the quietness of that night.

Eventually, though, as with all things, the night came to a close. The horizon began to lighten, slowly at first, almost imperceptibly, before suddenly erupting into an amazing sunrise. As for me, I went into my normal frantic mode to capture it, and then hiked back to my Jeep and headed home… excited to process not just technically successful photographs, but a wonderful adventure and a new form of expression!


Here are a couple of other shots that I took over that fantastic 16 hour period:

This image of Ruin #1 was shot from behind a wall of Ruin #2. Notice that the mortar has eroded from the top of this wall leaving only the stones behind.

This is a 20-minute shot of star trails. I believe that the orange glow on the right side of the horizon has its origin in the small town of Williams, roughly 35 miles to the north. This photo is really unremarkable, but I wanted to include it so that I could show you how it relates in a really cool way to the image below.

After I shot the 20-minute star trail photograph, I re-composed on Ruin #2 and locked the shutter open. This image reveals what happens when the camera is allowed to record the same orange glow as in the previous photograph--but for a 3 ½ hour period!

Warm early morning light on Ruin #2 (below) and Ruin #3

Here, blended with the surrounding stone, is Star House in its entirety. Click on the photo to enlarge it.