Elevated perspectives

Photograph by Adriel Heisey, 2008. White House Ruin is harder to see now because of the additional vegetation. This is the only site in Canyon de Chelly that is accessible without a guide, and is by far the most visited ruin in the canyon. A hiking trail leads to the site from a parking lot on the rim above. A pedestrian bridge over the wash can be seen, as can the hiking trail. Tour trucks and jeeps park at the ruin-end of the bridge, although they ford the wash rather than crossing the bridge. Even outside the wash, plant growth is lusher today, in part because the site is not being grazed as intensively as it was in 1929.
The Ultimate Time – Lapse Photography Project

ONE LATE JANUARY MORNING, I WAS treated to an aerial overview of the greater Santa Fe region, flying with pilot-photographer Adriel Heisey. His work is featured in the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture’s exhibition Oblique Views: Archaeology, Photography, and Time alongside images of the northern Southwest and Rio Grande created by Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh in 1929.


It was a lovely morning, bright and breezy, the latest snow gone from all but the most shadowed spots. As we flew over the Sangre de Cristo mountain range toward Pecos National Monument and the archaeological site of Pecos Pueblo, I found myself having trouble identifying exactly where we were. Many of my usual, ground-based landscape markers were distorted by the height and were faded against a country of new geography. The land looked different, both less familiar and more detailed. I was lost among the unknown features that filled my field of vision, but the view also opened a fresh way to see what had been ordinary. This new perspective on well-known places is a great benefit of aerial photographs and is one of the aspects explored by this exhibition.

The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology and the larger entity of the Museum of New Mexico include many treasures in their collections. Among those treasures are aerial photographs of southwestern archaeological sites and living communities taken by the Lindberghs in 1929. Most of the Laboratory Archives’ images, including the Lindbergh negatives, were sent to the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives in the 1970s, during an effort to collect and preserve photos and negatives from all the Museum of New Mexico divisions in one central location. The Lab, however, retained the prints.

The Lindberghs took these photographs at the request of Alfred Vincent Kidder, a highly respected archaeologist and a leading voice in Southwest archaeology during the field’s development. Notations made by Charles Lindbergh and Kidder on the backs of the original photographic prints show that both men looked at them, in some cases together; in others, Kidder responded to Lindbergh’s notes.

The Lindberghs gave the prints and negatives to Kidder and the Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC, which sponsored much of Kidder’s El Palacio 51 research. They were originally stored at the institution’s headquarters and sometime later were sent to the Laboratory of Anthropology. Before 1929 and on through the 1940s, Kidder was associated with both the Carnegie Institution and the Lab. He served on the Lab’s board and often advised its administrators and researchers on a variety of topics. At some point, Kidder or someone else at the Carnegie Institution must have decided that the Lindberghs’ aerial photos would be most useful in Santa Fe, then as now a center for southwestern archaeology.

The Lindberghs’ aerial photographs offer a rare look at the condition of the sites, towns, villages, and pueblos as well as the landscape around them. Not surprisingly, things have changed since 1929. Some of the sites have been excavated, backfilled, stabilized, or left as is during the intervening years. Towns, villages, and pueblos have grown or, if they haven’t, the land they sit on and the landscapes they inhabit are being used in different ways. These changes are the results of decisions made by people over the course of eightyodd years admixed with changing environments, changing priorities, and changing traditions. The Lindbergh photographs hint at all of this: the passage of time and the alterations it has brought.

Oblique Views is about those changes. We were fortunate to have Adriel Heisey, a gifted aerial photographer with years of experience photographing archaeological sites and landscapes, rephotograph a number of the Lindbergh images. For each image, he matched the original perspective and for many but not all the original time of year and time of day. These contemporary photographs highlight and clarify the passage of time in the years after the Lindberghs took their images and allow the viewer to contemplate how and why these landscapes have changed.

Archaeology and The West On Film

PHOTOGRAPHY HAS BEEN part of American western exploration and settlement for almost 150 years. Initially, to those of European descent, the West was seen as exotic, mysterious, and romantically wild. Government funders, scientists, and the general public in the East were eager for glimpses of western wonders. Many government-backed exploring parties took artists and photographers to document their findings. Some early landscape photographers who were later acknowledged as great artists got their start this way, including Timothy O’Sullivan, William Henry Jackson, William Bell, and John K. Hillers.

In the early days of photography, photographs were seen as lasting, tangible pieces of evidence. The clarity of detail and the lack of any obvious artistic license in a photograph stood in contrast to the artistic decisions made in the creation of a painting or drawing. Photographs seemed to capture reality and convey truth.

Later, of course, as photography became more common, viewers began to understand that photographers, like other artists, can manipulate the factors under their control to create the results they want. A photograph is not, as Oliver Wendell Holmes once put it while extolling the wonders of photography, “a leaf torn from the book of  God’s recording angel.” Instead, each photograph reflects the choices and skill of its creator.

Regardless of the truth of the image, because of the extraordinary detail that can be shown in a photograph, each image can be thought of as capturing an instant of time: the quality of light, the weather conditions, the state of vegetation, and animal or human activity. This trick of freezing time is part of what makes even recent photos feel nostalgic.

Old photographs, however, especially those from the more distant past, depict a time beyond our personal experience, a time whose stories are known only through books or from the remembrances of old colleagues or family members, sometimes retelling stories they were told long ago. Historical photos can feel disconnected from the lives we lead; we can’t feel nostalgia, for it’s a time we never knew.

When we look at photos taken long ago, it is not usually the landforms that inform us of the passage of time but those things that we know are short-lived: clothing or hairstyles, architecture, or the style of automobiles. In some pictures, when we look carefully, the land itself shows changes, sometimes so dramatic that we can no longer see the link to the past. More usually, though, the geographical details trace a likeness to its appearance today.

Aerial Literacy

AFTER OUR VISIT to Pecos, Heisey and I flew over the Galisteo Basin, south of Santa Fe, an area that was heavily populated from the 1200s CE until after the Spanish arrived. As we looked down on the vast basin, with its ancient sites and contemporary inhabitants, Heisey mentioned how, over time, he had learned to see layers of the past on the landscape. The present is seen in the houses, roads, cars, irrigation systems, and fields now in use. The past is apparent in still-occupied older houses, the foundations and collapsing walls of abandoned buildings, and old roads and decayed roadbeds. Ancient and defunct irrigation canals can be seen as lines of thirsty plants along the not-yet-filled depressions.

The even more distant past is visible in historical settlements, like the village of Galisteo, a community that was established two hundred years ago and whose plan reflects its colonial past. Still older are the ruins of pueblos that were thriving communities when the Spanish arrived, with hundreds or even thousands of rooms organized in multiple stories around one or more plazas. Rock art on exposed basalt volcanic dikes, like Comanche Gap in the Galisteo Basin, also remains from this time, as do pottery sherds, projectile points, and other materials used and left behind (but not visible from an airplane). Older than any human habitation, the landscape also speaks of its geologic past: volcanic eruptions, ancient seas, eons of wind and water wearing away rock and soil at some places and depositing new sediments at others. For the educated and interested observer, the layers upon layers of time and action are there to be read.

As archaeologists have long known, aerial photographs can tell us a lot about ancient human use of the landscape. The aerial perspective situates an archaeological site in a larger landscape, sometimes showing how inhabitants accessed resources or even why they chose a site’s location. An aerial photograph taken from directly overhead gives a true perspective of the site plan, which can be used to map the site. Crop marks, visible as differential growth of vegetation at a site, indicate, to a trained eye, the location of walls, ditches, residences, or even footpaths. Likewise, soil marks, visible as different colors of dirt from decaying walls, can show site structures and infrastructure. Sometimes even more useful, aerial photos taken very late or very early in the day, especially when the sun is low and shadows are lengthened, may show site features that are not easily visible from the ground. Very slight differences in elevation—a matter of inches or less—can be seen in these oblique views, highlighting buildings, ditches, artificial hills, and sometimes even grave sites.

Evolution of a View

REPHOTOGRAPHY—TAKING MATCHING images of an original photograph at a later time—is an old and much used technique. Every family that lines their kids against the fireplace for a yearly Christmas photo is practicing rephotography. Taking photos at intervals against the same background highlights differences, such as in children as they mature. Scientists—especially botanists and geologists—have used rephotography to examine changes such as those instigated by new management methods or natural processes. Taking multiple photos from a fixed point at the same time of year— often the same day of the year and the same time of day—and even utilizing the same equipment can highlight even slight alterations. Rephotography has been used to stress not only the changes on cities and wild places wrought by time but also changes brought about by human action.

Here we examine changes in landscapes and sites brought about by the natural forces of erosion, range management, control of waterways (plates 11 and 12, page 50), archaeological excavation methods, and National Park Service policies. In some cases, changes are subtle; in others, dramatic. For example, the removal of grazing livestock from Chaco Canyon led to an increase in vegetation, as did managing Chaco Wash, which is no longer eating away at the tri-walled structure in Pueblo del Arroyo (plates 17 and 18, pages 52, 53). The park service later rebuilt some of the arroyo wall, so that the partly eroded structure was no longer hanging in space above the wash. More obviously, the fall of Threatening Rock onto Pueblo Bonito changed that site. What isn’t widely known, however, is that Threatening Rock had been stabilized for a millennium by the ancient inhabitants of the site. After the ancient fix was removed and engineers cleaned out debris behind it, the rock fell within a couple of years. In this case, newer may not have been better. Elsewhere, as at Chetro Ketl (plates 21 and 22, opposite page), ongoing archaeological excavations exposed new areas of the site, many of which were left open and later stabilized so that visitors could see them.

The now-and-then pairs of photographs by Heisey and Lindbergh allow viewers to discover the changes time has wrought over the course of eighty or more years. The alterations articulate something important about these places and how we are managing them. They tell us about our societal choices—the kinds of choices we make daily or that are made by our representatives. We improve, stabilize, or neglect aspects of our surroundings. We are agents of change, and we can choose where and when to act.

Maxine McBrinn is the curator of archaeology at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and curated Oblique Views: Archaeology, Photography, and Time. She has written and contributed to many books and articles about the archaeology of the Southwest.