Crossroads: Roderell & Photography in the Canyon De Chelly


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On our hike out of White House Ruins, we passed a native man whom I said hello to. I had wondered in my head whether he was a local or not? After climbing out of the Canyon I was sitting on the rim making an image when he came running to the top of the plateau. He cracked a coca cola and looked at me, saying “this is my daily work out, it’s a pretty nice gym, Ya” and then proceeded to laugh as he does after he makes any statement. Roderell, is a native Navajo of the Canyon De Chelly. He told me that he runs the canyon twice a day to keep his mind off of life. I asked him where he lived and he said he stays in a trailer with his brother about a mile from the White House Overlook. We got to talking and he pointed out a series of trees within the canyon below where a house rested. It was his grandmothers house, who had passed away recently at the age of 97. He stated that his parents were alcoholics and that his grandparents had raised him in the canyon. He claims to be very blessed to have had such role models. He was home schooled and later in life went on to achieve his GED. For speaking some what broken English and having had a modest education, I was very impressed by his vocabulary and general disposition.

Roderell pointed around a bend in the canyon where his grandmothers sister lived and he stated that he would check on her daily. I asked what he did for work since the area was so remote? He replied that he would occasionally travel to Phoenix and do construction for a few weeks at a time but admitted to hating the city.  He pointed out some other ruins within the canyon and was delighted to tell us about the flora, fauna, wildlife, river systems and agriculture on the valley floor. Roderell makes rock art which he sells to maintain his modest life and help take care of his older brother who is sickly. One day he wants to save up enough to travel to South America to learn of other native cultures.

I have always dreamed of seeing this landscape and now that I have, I vow to return again. I feel privileged to have visited a site of such scale and proportion as the Canyon De Chelly, although I found it haunting to stand in the footsteps of some of the Masters of Photography who had appeared at these ancient ruins and canyon walls many moons before myself. The images made by the likes of such masters as Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Edward S. Curtis and of course Ansel Adams remained etched in my head as I scrolled through history books as both a teenager and novice photographer.

O’Sullivan was a member of Matthew Brady’s gang of Civil War photographers who were hired to document the aftermath of the great battles. Soon after the war, O’Sullivan joined the Geological Survey of the Fortieth Parallel. He was hired as the Official photographer and was responsible for making images of westward expansion for the purpose of attracting early settlers. O’Sullivan may have been the first white man to visit Canyon De Chelly and was certainly the first white man to photograph the Canyon.

Edward S. Curtis was widely known for his vast landscapes and portraiture throughout the western United States during the early 1900’s. In 1906 Curtis was give a $75,000 grant from J.P. Morgan to produce a photo series on the vanishing Native American culture.  One of his most recognizable photographs to this day is titled Canyon De Chelly .

Ansel Adams was commissioned by the Department of the Interior in 1941 to make a series of murals of Americas national parks  and monuments which were to hang within the corridors of the  Department of Interior building in Washington D.C. He was allowed the maximum pay for any position that was not of congressional approval, which was $22.22 per day plus $5 per Diem. Adams entered Canyon De Chelly in October of 1941 during two very stormy days, one of which his car became stuck in a deep mud hole almost causing him to lose the vehicle and all of his photographic negatives. The mural project was terminated in July of 1942 due to rising pressures of WWII. In 1945, Adams applied for a Guggenheim fellowship, which he received, allowing him to return to the parks to continue the project under his own creative visions.

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