Ancient Connections

Three Rivers Petroglyph: When we ride in search of the unique, magic rides shotgun

Three Rivers Petroglyph site, the Chihuahuan Desert, New Mexico.

I’ve visited the Three Rivers Petroglyph site, a unique place in the Chihuahuan Desert, many times over the years. Less than three hours from Albuquerque, it’s one of the few Southwest locations protected (by the BLM) solely for its rock art.

Protection, though, isn’t an easy task. Over the course of years that non-Indian people have lived in the region, the petroglyphs have been seriously vandalized. These days, you pay a small fee to the site host, then walk the desert to view the 21,000 glyphs of humans, animals and abstract geometric designs made by the Jornada Mogollon people from 900 to 1400 A.D.

The Mogollon, who thrived in this region north of the Rio Grande after the Ancient Puebloan period, were precursors to the Hopi, Zuni, Navajo and Pueblo Indians who followed. Whenever I look at the glyphs, I always wonder what the Jornada were thinking and feeling as they used their stone tools to scratch these designs into the dark, volcanic rock. Many books attempt to explain what the symbols mean, but most of it’s conjecture. Were the Jornada saying things like, “We lived up this canyon,” or “We took water at this spring”? Did they mark rites of passage or birthing events?

No one really knows.

I see these petroglyphs as living realities, staring at us out of time. They tie me to the land because I sense how these people connected themselves to the natural world, even if I can’t know for sure the meaning of their symbols. I do know they had to deal with the natural world directly. Their landscape was right there.

During one visit years ago, I noticed a round volcanic boulder, half-buried in desert sand, with a simple mask-like face etched into rock all those cycles of time past. I thought, why not connect with it at night? Because the long reach of time itself feels like night to me, and using the blackness of night is a way I try to express time metaphorically in my work. Photographing at night helps me avoid showing mundane details—creosote bushes, sandy soil and hazy sky—and really hone in on the subject I feel.

So it was that I recently found myself at Three Rivers in the predawn hours, lugging my 4×5 view camera around fences, searching by flashlight for that same image on a round volcanic boulder I remembered from a decade earlier. With the sky just coming to life behind the Sierra Blanca Mountains to the east, I found it! The light was changing fast. I exposed for the brighter sky area above the mountains, underexposed overall by about a stop, then experimented by playing the beam of a penlight over the face to bring it up to the same level as the ambient exposure of the dawn sky behind the Sierra Blanca.

I underexposed the overall exposure by about a stop, which would make shadows blend into the night, and varied the percentage of time for playing the penlight over the face. The camera was four feet above the ground and three feet from the rock image. I used a wide-angle lens equivalent to about 20mm in 35mm terms. I wanted to achieve a visual sense of dawning—of placing that Kachina-like face in the context of a new day, a new era, emerging from the blackness of deep time. This image echoes the mystery I felt. It also gave me opportunities to discover new, stronger, different ways of making photographs.

When we work from a place of imagining what we want to say visually, we raise our potential to the highest level and let the power of the landscape move through us and into our photography. It’s another way to approach nature photography, to think about why you’re in a location beyond just making a pretty-light, bright-color image. Of course, I don’t think so much about these things when I’m out there shooting. Then it’s all unconscious response with my camera to the awe and mystery I feel within. When I’m playing with new visual language, I revel in the maybes and possibilities. I’m reaching for something indefinable, in my subject, within myself. That’s key.

The reward for such quests is inestimable. Maybe that’s why this photograph remains one of my favorites, and is in my personal collection of 200 images at The Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.

Over the course of some five decades, David Muench’s work has been celebrated in more than 50 exhibit-format books such as Plateau Light and Eternal Desert, as well as innumerable exhibits and permanent installations. See more of his images at Muench will present a workshop called The Desert Light at the 2011 Palm Springs Photo Festival in March 2011. Go to for more information.