It was not the first time it happened. Our initial plan for Colorado was clear – we were going to drive 2,300 km to photograph spectacular Colorado fall colours. As always, we had a few other objectives and places that we would go to if we had enough time. Certainly, Mesa Verde was not our first priority.
However, one thing that we have learned over the years of our photographic travels was to be flexible, open-minded and abandon the plan if our instincts told us to do so. Sometimes things just don’t cooperate to make great imagery and you have to shift your plans on the run. This is exactly what happened during our recent trip.
On the first day our plan was to photograph the Dallas Divide – well known for its spectacular fall foliage. Upon arrival, not only was the weather not what we needed (it was sunny and cloudless) but the peak of the fall colours at the Dallas Divide was still a few days away (it was late due to a very unusual draught). We knew we didn’t want another average photo of the place so instead we opted to go and visit Mesa Verde (later on we photographed Kebler Pass with great results – look for our upcoming posts).
We didn’t regret this decision at all. As we wrote in our previous post, when we entered Mesa Verde National Park we knew this place was like no other. The visuals and atmosphere we encountered grabbed our senses and offered a great experience.
Mesa Verde is a well-preserved prehistoric settlement of the Ancestral Pueblo people, who arrived in about AD 450/600 and occupied this canyon until 1300. During this period, the Pueblo people created a chain of stone buildings including numerous cliff dwellings. Together with the spectacular landscape of the southwest Colorado Plateau, these buildings offer one-of-a-kind visuals.
Despite the very difficult terrain, the Pueblo people used sandstone blocks, which, mixed with water and and dirt, provided an excellent building material. Some 600 cliff dwellings have been recorded in Mesa Verde National Park. This includes the famous multi-storey Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Square Tower House. For those wanting more, there are additional 4,300 archaeological sites. The cliff dwelling sites range from small storage structures to large villages of 50 to 200 rooms. Other structures include farming terraces and check dams, field houses, reservoirs and ditches, shrines and ceremonial features, as well as rock art.
One of the largest sources of knowledge about Ancestral Pueblo people was their…trash. Indeed, they tossed scraps of food, broken tools and pottery down the slope in front of their homes. Of course they didn’t know that by doing so they would provide future generations with a wealth of knowledge about their civilization.
In about 1300, no one knows why, the people started to leave Mesa Verde in large numbers. Some sources cite climate change, population growth, competition for resources or conflict as factors in such an abrupt change. Today the Hopi of northern Arizona, the people of Zuni, Laguna and Coma and the pueblos of the Rio Grande are considered descendants of the Ancestral Pueblo people of Mesa Verde.
The first photographer to visit Mesa Verde was William Henry Jackson. In 1874, guided by a local miner, he took the first images of the cliff dwellings. These photographs have helped spread the word about the area.
Of course, today Mesa Verde is a popular tourist destination. As such, this creates challenges for photographers who would like to capture the place in its own way. First of all, some sites are swarming with tourists, leaving you little space to take photos that do not include modern people. I guess the best way to get around this problem would be to start taking photos just before closing time when most people have left. Also, due to the hidden location of some dwellings, you would need to know the time of day when the sun hits certain buildings. Because we were visiting for the first time, we didn’t know the tricks and our choices were limited. Fortunately, we encountered unbelievable clouds, providing us with diffused light.
Most of the images were taken with the X100S and the X-T1 paired with the XF 14mm F2.8.
2015 © Kasia & Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.