I got out of the car and the sun was shining. Of course it was. I had spent the previous 5 hours hiking the trails under a thick veil of clouds that smothered any source of contrast to be found in the vast desert landscape where I had spent the day. It also extinguished any bit of glimmer or sparkle to be found in the jeweled logs I had traveled so far to photograph again. Those same clouds were now bubbling up into spectacular desert thunderstorms. You know, the ones that create captivating black sheets of rain that evaporate before hitting the ground. They were heading east into New Mexico. Fast.
I was standing in a parking area for the Painted Desert Inn, which is located within the Petrified Forest National Park, found in the northeast corner of Arizona. Frustrated. The day had not gone well. You might have heard about that already.
I had stood in the same place 10 years earlier, on the other side of changing fortunes with the light. During that last visit the light had been spectacular all day long, low in the sky on a bright fall day. I had plenty to show for my trailwalks through the petrified logs the park was created to protect. But on that day we had arrived to the Inn too late to capture much. The shade enveloped the desert vista that unfolded behind the inn. The log ceiling joists protruding from the adobe wall of the inn were casting shadows that overlapped each other, pointing due east on the walls, and about to inch north. “Next Time” I thought at the time.
The next time was now. This time it was late March, not October. The days were longer and the light on the Inn was spectacular. The light at this moment saved the day.
The Painted Desert Inn was constructed by the CCC in the late 1930’s, a part of Roosevelt’s new deal, an economic plan to lift America out of the great depression. Pueblo Revival in architectural design, the Inn operated for around 35 years. Based on location, atop a seam of unstable clay, the Inn is difficult to maintain structurally. In the mid 60’s the functions of the Inn, by then mostly a welcome center, were moved to the south end of the park and to a newly built, modern visitor center. After sitting empty for several years, outlasting calls to demolish it, during the 90’s it was refurbished as a museum with a café for visitors. It remains that today.
As I sized up the scene, I knew I wanted to capture the subject with film. The desert spoke to a timeless black and white vision. The echoes of Paul Strand could be heard upon the wind. I had several options in the bag with the Petri 2.8. Pan F, Berlin 100, and if I wanted to get really experimental, Babylon 13. I went with Delta 100 and used a yellow filter. I wanted the long shadows of the joists cascading down the side of the adobe to go black when I was done. The high contrast of Delta 100 would be perfect. It was also a film I was very comfortable working with. It might be a while before I ever got back again. I wanted to make sure I had images to show for the visit.
The Inn faces south-southwest. Starting on the western side, I slowly and meticulously circled the building which was still aglow in the early evening sun. I wanted to use a single roll here. I could squeeze 26 frames out of the 24 exposure roll.
At first, I took an image that captured the entire western façade. I then got in closer, paying attention to the log joists and framing elements. Around back, to the north, I made images from the back patio of the scenic basin that early guests once took in with awe and amazement. The eastern face was shaded, there wasn’t much to accomplish there. On the south facing wall, three joists cast long dramatic shadows. In my mind and for my taste, that was the image of the day.
As the sun set, driving east, we chased the tails of the thunderstorms into the dusk and towards our base camp in Gallup, New Mexico. For all the drama, it had been a productive day.