Images reveal bonds between photography and archaeology

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The wall cuts horizontally across the photograph. It has vertical holes for an entrance and window. But glass, door, and ceiling have disintegrated

It’s a desolate wall. Still, a presence clings to it. People depended on its adobe long ago to shelter them. It’s a universal wall. It might have been part of an Irish cottage, or an inn on the high road through the English moors. It happens to be part of the old army hospital.

Its image, entitled “Army Hospital, Fort Laramie, Wyoming,” hangs in a 90-piece black-and-white photography exhibit entitled “Presence Within Abandonment: Photography, Archaeology, and Western Historic Sites,” at the Anasazi Heritage Center near Dolores.

Thomas Carr, photographer and staff archaeologist for the Colorado Historical Society, put the show together from work he’s shot since coming to the West from North Carolina 11 years ago. Photography and archaeology share a rich and common history, he says. One emerged in part because of the other.

Archaeology came first, in Renaissance Europe. “But there wasn’t really a scientific approach,” he explains in a phone conversation from his Denver office.

“People were collecting objects for curio cabinets,” Those antiquity collectors also concentrated on large things, buildings and trappings of kings, not common people and small objects. Focus on small detail came with the beginnings of photography. “The archaeology we know came about because of the invention of the camera obscura and the camera lucida,” says Carr. The camera obscura projected an image onto a wall using a pin hole, and a lens.

The camera lucida cast light onto a table by combining a prism with a lens. Using these tools, antiquities hunters could trace accurate images of sites.

They could also realize that the position of objects at a dig had importance to understanding the excavation, and discover the need to capture the image made by a camera obscure or camera lucida. Not all antiquities hunters could trace a good likeness of a site.

Inventors went to work. When Louis Jacques Daguerre created the daguerreotype in 1839, and Fox Talbot and John Herschel ushered in modern black-and-white photography a few years later, the young science had the perfect tool at its disposal.

Now archaeologists could make images of sites without drawing. They could see many details they had missed. As papers, developers, and films got better, they could also interpret what they saw. By the end of the 1800s, a body of artistic photography grew from more and more disciplined study at historical sites.

But now, scientists were intent on separating archaeology from antiquities- hunting. They stressed disciplined digging and documenting of finds, and had no time for interpretive photography, By the turn of the 20th Century, archeologists used photos strictly to record their work

Meantime, artists found photography. They carried on the tradition of interpreting historical places.

Eugene Aget prowled Paris looking for landmarks. In the United States, Edward Weston searched for Indian ruins. By mid-century, photographers like Paul Caponigro and Fay Goodwin used archaeological sites to express their personal feelings about the past.

Today, Carr continues the tradition of blending archaeology and photography In the archaeological field, he snaps pictures of unearthed objects to show their relationships to each other, the strata in which he’s found them, and a host of other scientific things.

After work, he employs art photography to make a personal statement about history, using Aget and Caponigro’s work for inspiration.

“We need to get in touch with our roots in the arts and sciences,” he says.

He came to that conclusion in college. A photography student, he volunteered to work on an archaeological site one summer. The experience so fascinated him that he changed his major to archaeology.

“Presence Within Abandonment: Photography, Archaeology, and Western Historic Sites” makes strong statements about the past.

“Grand Staircase, Hotel Meade, Banack , Montana” presents steps that seem to wait for someone to come down. Unlike “Army Hospital Fort Laramie , Wyoming,” this picture suggests people have visited the abandoned hotel recently.

Carr confirms that tourists can still go inside the 140-yearold building that served as the capitol of the Montana Territory, as well as a hotel and brothel in the 1860s. “Not that long ago, t h o u g h (Banack) is now a ghost town.”

Another shot, “Hovenweep Castle, Utah,” examines how native people used natural materials to build their homes, blending them neatly into the landscape.

Carr includes captions with his photos. The achingly beautiful “Ludlow Massacre Site, Las Animas County, Colorado” becomes chilling when the viewer learns the story of the killing.

During a a strike by coal miners in 1914, soldiers burned the tent city in which they were living near Ludlow, Colo. Barricaded in a cellar under one of the tents, women and children perished. Their deaths helped change American labor laws.

For Carr, photography serves as a metaphor for human existence. He points out that the caption for “Army Hospital” explains that the building sits atop an ancient cemetery dating to the time traders used Fort Laramie.

He shoots carefully, selecting films, exposures, development, and printing paper to evoke just the feeling a place evokes to him.

“To me the arts and sciences should be linked,” he muses.

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From Arts & Entertainment, December 2005.