I’m not sure I’d ever heard about Chaco Culture National Historical Parkprior to researching where I wanted to go on my Southwest trip last September. But as I did my research, I became excited about this place. What self-respecting travel photographer, or at least those who like to get off the beaten path, would not want to go there! And off the beaten path it is. Is there any other national park in the lower 48 with vehicular access that requires driving at least 21 miles off the highway, with 13 or more miles of, to quote the Park Service, “rough dirt road?” That may not seem very far, but when you are traveling the road in the late afternoon in hopes of getting a camping spot (in a campground with only 49 spots and nothing else even remotely nearby), that 21 miles seems longer.
Because it is so remote, the night sky is incredible there (the nearest town of any size if Farmington, New Mexico, about an hour and half drive from the park). The park has an observatory and hosts a night sky program help visitors appreciate the astronomy visible there. In fact the night sky at Chaco was declared a critical natural resource in 1993. I’d like to show you the images I took of the night sky at Chaco, but I made a rookie mistake. When shooting a star trail shot from our campsite, the battery run out on my camera! Lesson learned – always have a fully charged battery when doing star trail images (leaving the aperture open for hours tends to suck up a lot of battery life).
The park wasn’t created for the sky though, it was created to preserve one of the largest collections of ruins in the Southwest. It is on par with Mesa Verde National Park, but built in a shallow canyon instead of on cliff walls (making access to the ruins much easier). Here’s how the Park Service’s website describes Chaco:
From AD 850 to 1250, Chaco was a hub of ceremony, trade, and administration for the prehistoric Four Corners area–unlike anything before or since. Chaco is remarkable for its multi-storied public buildings, ceremonial buildings, and distinctive architecture. These structures required considerable planning, designing, organizing of labor, and engineering to construct. The Chacoan people combined many elements: pre-planned architectural designs, astronomical alignments, geometry, landscaping, and engineering to create an ancient urban center of spectacular public architecture–one that still awes and inspires us a thousand years later.
The place is so full of ruins there are even some within the campground. We only spent one night there, but could have easily spent several days. The park contains many major excavated (or partially excavated) sites along the loop road, and more if you want to hike. If you only have a little time when visiting there, such as we did, be sure to go to Pueblo Bonito, the most excavated of the large ruins. Many of the images featured here are from that site. Pueblo Bonito was a major center of ancestral Puebloan culture between AD 850 and 1150. It covers over 3 acres, was four and five stories tall, and contained more than 600 rooms. It is shaped like a large “D” and contains two plazas and dozens of kivas. The place is amazing and quite photogenic.
In addition to ruins, there is canyon and desert scenery to be shot. And wildlife as well. Amazingly, the park is home to an elk herd (who visited us in the middle of the night at the campground). Coming from Washington State, where elk frequent the forests, it was hard for me to believe they also like this place with high summer temperatures and no trees.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park is worth the drive. Check it out the next time you’re in New Mexico.
During my recent southwest road trip, I took lots of good photos. Unfortunately, I took lots of bad photos too. And lots of mediocre photos. And lots of duplicates. In other words, I have a lot of editing to do. If I calculate it correctly, I tripped the shutter button 3,852 times over the 18 days on the road. Considering I didn’t take any photos on the first or last days, that averages out to almost 240 photos per day.
This is what I love about digital photography – you can take a lot of pictures. This is what I hate about digital photography – you can take a lot of pictures. Digital cameras give you the freedom to experiment. They give you the freedom to bracket. You can bracket exposures, apertures, compositions, etc. Of course, you could do this with film, but it got to be real expensive.
I confess, I am a bracketer (is that even a word?), and truth be told, probably an over-bracketer. This is especially true when traveling on a trip like this one. I went some places where I will likely never visit again. And I wanted to make sure I got the shot right. So, I bracket. I basically bracket exposures, using the auto-bracket feature on my camera. But often I also bracket apertures. And I usually bracket compositions. And, of course, with each change in composition, I bracket exposures again – and on it goes. I end up burning a lot of pixels. I love this ability to take lots of images, so that I get the perfect one.
Formerly, when I shot film, I was much more selective; and though I did sometimes bracket, never to the extent I do now. For example, the images accompanying this blog are of the House on Fire ruin in Mule Canyon, Utah. If I was still shooting slide film, I might have taken 10 or 20 shots at this site, knowing I was unlikely to come back for many years if ever. This trip, I took 126 images at this location. I love being able to do that.
Now comes the hate part – I must edit those 126 images from the House on Fire ruin. And I must edit those 3,852 images from the entire trip. This will take a lot of time. And I usually fall behind in my editing; for example, I still have images from last May that should be edited.
Besides time-consuming, editing is aggravating in deciding which image is better. Is this one better than that one? Is the focus slightly better in this one? Did this slight change in composition make a difference; is it noticeable; is it better, worse, or the same? It reminds me of an episode of the The Bob Newhart Show, which ran in the 1970s. (I suppose I dated myself with this comment, but I really loved that show.) In this particular episode, Emily Hartley (Newhart’s wife on the show) describes to Bob how she hates going to the eye doctor – not because it hurts, but because there’s too much pressure deciding if the letters on the vision chart are clearer with lens one or lens two. The doctor presses for an answer over and over, lens one or lens two. In my case, I’m pressing myself over and over, image one or image two (or three or four…)
The ability to take thousands of photos with a digital camera has made some of us photographers sloppy. There are those who say digital cameras have made photographers sloppy in that they take shortcuts because an image can always be fixed in Photoshop. I don’t mean that kind of sloppiness; I always try to take the highest quality image I can to limit post-processing. By sloppy, I mean not being selective of the images we take. I am guilty of this with my over-bracketing. But my over-bracketing is a response to a desire to take the highest quality image to start with; it’s an attempt not to be sloppy and leave it to Photoshop to fix! In fact, I often will not take an image, even though it may have a worthy subject, if the light is not very good – you cannot fix bad light in Photoshop! Even so, I end up with way too many images.
I guess, in the end, there are no shortcuts to doing the work of photography. Either you have to take the time to think about the best exposure and composition in the field or take the time editing in the office. The work must be done one way or the other. However, thinking in the field is a quicker and less painless process (as long as you trust yourself to do it right) than editing endless numbers of very similar images. High time for me to think more, trust myself more, and shoot less. Perhaps editing these 3,852 images will help me to finally learn that lesson.