Drive two hours from Silver City on NM 35 and 15, and you’ll find yourself at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. The last inhabitants, from the Tularosa Mogollon culture, probably left not long after the last construction date of 1287.
While they were there, they farmed the mesa tops and riverbanks, and pulled water from the Gila River’s West Fork. They stored maize you can still see today in their cliff dwellings, and likely cooked and performed community activities there by firelight.
The alcove ceilings are all soot-stained, similar to those in cliff ruins across the Southwest. From nearby pit house ruins, potsherds, primitive tools and other traces, we know the Gila Hot Springs area has been used for at least 2000 years. The Tularosa Mogollon were the last residents of the cliffs.
Ruins photography is architectural, but without the need for strictly-realistic perspective. I don’t worry as much about perspective distortion with wide-angle lenses used close, but I still pay attention to the way everything looks. I usually choose lines and connected shapes that lead a viewer’s eye around the picture.
I use lenses from 24mm out to 16mm on a full-frame camera. Fields of view that wide require you to include a lot, but everything in the frame should have a reason to be there. I always try to get it right in the viewfinder, but if I see something I should crop during the editing process, an ultra-wide on a high pixel-count camera gives me room to do it.
Shot Design – What’s The Story?
For ruins, I’m showing the contrast between native rock and dressed stone block walls, plus any obviously artificial rock placements. What story do they tell – what might it have been like to live here? How difficult is it to enter the ruin? What does that tell me about the residents and their fears?
What is the modern story – who takes care of the ruin, and what are the visitor interactions?
Most ruins are in scenically-impressive settings. Did the residents appreciate the views, along with the available natural resources? I think they must have.
An unlit photograph of a ruin speaks to me of abandonment. That’s one possible story. On the other hand, remote flash inside can make the ruin look more like it might have when people lived there. On this trip, I first hiked to the Lower Scorpion ruin, photographed it, and thought it might look great with light inside. I retrieved the flash and wireless trigger from my vehicle, but forgot to bring a firelight-simulating amber gel.
I shot the image anyway, and used Lightroom’s adjustment brush to warm the color balance of the lit area. This helped, but still wasn’t quite what I wanted. Guess I’ll have to go back.