The Tree of Life

Tree of Life, 2008

I have many photographic prints made over the years that remain on a personal list of favorites. Black Mesa rests high on the list. Taken in 2007 while traveling through the San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico, I find this photograph grounding in its sense of place and timelessness—radiant in the energy of ancient peoples, grand landscapes and a reconsideration of priorities.

Having driven by this landmark many times while traveling along Hwy 285 from Santa Fe to the Rio Grande as a commercial river guide I watched the seasonal moods of this Mesa and grew to sense the importance of this geologic formation in the lives of those who live at the peublo. For a short time I was assisting with a remodel at the Cottonwood Trading Post which shares water’s edge with the Rio Grande as it flows along the base of the Pajarito Plateau and the “San I” Pueblo. Black Mesa was my daily bearing—relentless in its required attention and will to teach to those who listen.

More recent in the San Ildefonso history was the struggle against the Spanish conquistadors during the Pueblo Revolt in 1680. The pueblo people attempted to stave off the attack and forced conversion to Christianity by climbing to the top of Black Mesa. Though the pueblo people were able to maintain some moderation of independence after the loss, Christianity replaced, inpart, their original way of life and beliefs as can be seen by the graveyard scene of an adobe church and simple white wooden crosses highlighted by the sun’s filtered rays in this photograph.

The day this photograph was made, I was following the summer southwest light as it filtered through building cumulous clouds riding upward along Gulf of Mexico air currents. Driving along a secondary road splitting the main pueblo off from the Rio Grande, purifying rays of sunlight began to highlight the mesa and, taking my breath away, the church and crosses. Quickly pulling over, I grabbed my gear and set up against a barbed-wire fence. The dichotomy and energy of the scene was overwhelming.

I have always enjoyed the slow measured pace of black and white fine-art photography. Setting up the tripod and camera, composing the scene, making lens choices, metering the scene, deciding on a negative development strategy and finally…waiting for the light. What I cherish most is what occurs internally during this external process. Physical senses awaken—a deep tactile awareness of what is going on here and now. Light, vegetation, scents, the feel of moving air across skin…one’s own heart beat…one’s own breath and finally, a quiet mind. For me it is a form of prayer—a present moment connected to all— an acute sense of the Presence in all. This is why I photograph.

Cars driving by, light constantly shifting, I compose the image on my focusing screen, meter the scene and select my beloved deep red filter #29 to increase the tonal separation between the billowing clouds and the deep rich blue sky. I meter the scene again, adjust my shutter speed and expose one frame to light existing for a single moment.

I continue to expose additional frames eventually being welcomed back in to the world from whence I came by a tribal policeman asking me what I was doing and, without pause, to please leave.

Black Mesa is considered sacred to many. This print captures the historic dichotomy of this arid land and its inhabitants—long gone and reborn time and time again. A simple Christian graveyard made of earth and wood set against a backdrop of a massive tree trunk like geologic formation—a trunk weathered and eroded into a beautifully elegant mesa providing both reminders and renewal…still a place of ceremony, focus and prayer. A mythological tree once reaching beyond with moisture laden summer clouds temporarily resting on branches as they too rise on the summer heated southwest air and into the world above.

From my 2009 portfolio