The Bisti

Terra Abstracta

Three years ago, having signed a book contract for my last black and white series, I began to cast about, looking for a new photo project. My approach to photography requires an impetus, some central theme to work around.

During the final years of working on my last project, Prehistoric Suns, I was photographing in the northwestern corner of New Mexico. A friend gave me directions to a balanced rock known as Bit’a’i, which translates from the Navajo as “Wing”. This is an esoteric and amazing rock, with a long, thin extrusion that certainly lives up to its name. This formation entranced me, and I would visit it several times, always looking for clouds and storms.
After some research, I found that there are three contiguos badlands in this part of the state, and all contain innumerable strange formations. 550 million years ago, the American Southwest was underwater several times, flooded by inland oceans. These huge seas were surrounded by swamps and forests, with a large river flowing into them from the east. This river created a gigantic, swampy delta, with huge cypress tress dotting the landscape. This delta created the esoteric badlands that the Navajo would name Bisti, De-Na-Zin, and Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah.

By this time, the Bisti had mesmerized me. Beginning to explore these landscapes, I quickly found how disorienting this area is. Being hopelessly stuck in the past ( still shooting large-format film, printing in a darkroom, and refusing to use GPS), I was having trouble finding the various formations. There are no real landmarks for navigation , with fairly long hikes across featureless plains. Searching the internet, I found a small tour company, Navajo Tours USA, that specialized in the Bisti.

My experience with tour companies hasn’t generally been good. As a rule, most guides I have tried haven’t been sympathetic to photography, often being impatient to my requirements. A multi-hour wait is commonplace, while I figure out the light and composition needed for any particular photo. Meeting the owner/guide for the first time, I explained what was needed. He was completely understanding and knowledgeable about landscape photography.

My first trip with Kialo was to Bis Binaka Nyol, an otherworldly balanced rock. The immediate area around this rock is wonderful, with several oddball formations. When we arrived, the cloud cover was thick, offering scant photo opportunity. After a short exploration, we hiked back to our cars. Reaching the vehicles, Kialo pointed out that the western clouds were lifting. Throwing my pack back on, I told him he should head home, that the way out was clear to me. He agreed, and drove off. Just as I arrived at the rock, the sun came out, offering a wonderful light on Bis Binaka Nyol.

After shooting several sheets of film, I packed up, and headed back to the car. It was at this point that I was reminded how confusing the desert is at night. Following the scant two-track out, I immediately made a wrong turn. And proceeded to aimlessly drive through the badlands for several hours. Finally finding the main dirt road, I headed back to my hotel.
Kialo and Gil would repeatedly lead me deep into the badlands, always finding the places I was interested in, and always patiently waiting while I took the photo. They were sympathetic to my desire for cloudy, stormy weather, and also understood the type of subject matter I wanted.

Several weeks ago, Gil meet me in Nageezi, the tiny town east of Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah, and led me to the Yellow HooDoos, an area that I had been wanting to visit for some time. When we reached the trailhead, a storm was building to the east, massive black clouds churning across the sky. As we watched, it became obvious that the storm was travelling south to north. Deciding it would miss us, we hiked to the hoodoos. Scrambling down into the canyon, I quickly found a composition. The clouds were discharging electricity, causing an impressive display of lightning. I exposed two sheest of 4x5 film before Gil came jogging up. Looking distraught, he said that the storm had changed direction, and was barreling right at us. Quickly breaking my camera down, I put on a rainsuit, and then a poncho over that, to protect my pack. With a startling suddenness, a wall of water slammed into us, with driving rain and painful hail.

There was no option other than to hike out. The climb out of the canyon was difficult, involving two steps up and one back. Reaching the mesa top, we put our heads down and trudged back to the cars, lightning striking all around us. Reaching the parking lot, we were shocked to see another car. In a few minutes, two young ladies ran up, wearing T-shirts and shorts, nearly hypothermic. After everyone donned warm clothes, we began the long drive back to pavement. The road was bad, slick and treacherous, with a quagmire on both sides. The other two cars slid off the road, becoming hopelessly mired in the mud. As my car is a 4-runner, and has true four-wheel drive, I managed to stay on the road. Loading everyone into it, we slid and slipped to the highway.

This was the most extreme of my Bisti trips, with some danger and quite a lot of difficulty. My touchstone, however, is always whether a decent photo is achieved. In the case of the Yellow HooDoos, the resulting image justified the trouble.

The New Mexico badlands are both subtle and dramatic. The formations are hidden in alcoves and cul-de-sacs, requiring a certain commitment. The ancient, petrified cypress trees are impressive, and are often raised on pedestals of flowstone. The many and varied formations offer a cornucopia of subject matter.

Once again, I have found a subject matter imbued with mystery, one that fires my imagination, offering an array of possibilities. These New Mexico badlands are a wonder of the American West..

Published in Black and White Photography magazine.


Image Galleries:

Terra Incognita


New Landscapes

Prehistoric Suns


Toy Pictures

Dunes of Magdelena

Courthouse Wash

Multifarious Photos


The Bisti


Art of Intuition


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Steve Mulligan,
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