In the Places of the Spirits

by David Grant Noble
Published by School of Advanced Research, 2010

Issue 20

David Grant Noble’s In the Places of the Spirits features black and white photographs of rock art, cliff dwellings, and other reminders of the ancestors of present-day Southwestern Native American people and cultures. In pondering Noble’s perspective, I turned to Frank Gohlke’s essay, “Thoughts on Landscape.” Gohlke writes:

Americans have been noticeably divided on the necessity, even the desirability, of a harmonious relationship with the natural world; but when we do attempt to establish a connection with larger realities, photographs of unspoiled Nature frequently play a central, almost devotional role. It is an odd choice of tools: the making of a photograph presupposes distance, which accounts, I think, for the elegiac tone, the note of longing that suffuses so many of the finest landscape photographs. (p. 196, Thoughts on Landscape, Collected Writing and Interviews, Frank Gohlke, 2009)

It is worth noting that by “Americans” Gohlke knowingly excludes those people native to the continent whose cultural landscapes are the focus of most of Noble’s photographs. These images, framed by Noble’s writing on both the subject and his personal experiences, reflect his understanding of places that “can evoke emotion, transmit knowledge and wisdom, and even show us how to live.”

Although many of them, like the Pueblo Bonito doorways at Chaco Canyon, are much photographed, and although for the most part Noble does not present these storied places in any particularly unique way, nevertheless, seeing them all together in one very well-sequenced book has a strong impact. In addition, Noble includes just enough of the surrounding environment to provide all-important context. His two-page photographs of the Llano Estacado and snow geese at the Bosque del Apache are particularly evocative. That Noble has the patience of a good landscape photographer -- he waits until the light is right – is evidenced not only by the photographs themselves but also by his written descriptions of, for example, waiting out a storm or enduring the blistering heat of a Phoenix summer in order to make a picture. By dint of persistent effort, technical ability, and the kind of photographic fortune that is bestowed upon those who show up with their cameras again and again, Noble is rewarded with the kinds of moments that make for beautiful landscapes: the sun breaking through clouds to illuminate two white horses in a distant field, handprints on a rock in the foreground and rain falling in the background.

There is no question that Noble writes and photographs skillfully, and that he is intelligent and knowledgeable about his subject. It is also true that Noble views this Southwestern cultural landscape as – in his words – “an archaeological archive, a museum in nature.” I doubt that a present day Native American whose ancestors lived in, for instance, Canyon de Chelly, would see those cliff dwellings as a museum or an archive. It is also true that many of the stories related to these places are known only to Pueblo people who prefer to keep them private. Thus, although Noble does appreciate the spirit in these landscapes to some extent, he also approaches them in the way of a non-Native American, albeit one who is not unaware of the existence of other points of view.

In his introductory essay Noble recalls having heard my mentor, the late Alfonso Ortiz, an anthropologist from Ohkay Owingeh (formerly San Juan Pueblo), say that Pueblo people “are less concerned with individuals and dates than with places,” and that such places “have spirit and memory, and over time they grow sacred.” Noble does recognize the value of Native Americans’ traditional knowledge and suggests that “collaborations between native elders and non-native researchers” could benefit both. Noble mentions that oral narratives might guide research, but I wish he had explained how a Euro-American historical or scientific approach might benefit Native Americans.

In the second part of his essay, Noble discusses the uncovering and recording of thousands of architectural features and artifacts as well as hundreds of human burials from Pueblo Grande, a site that was excavated, as required by law, prior to the construction of the Hohokam Expressway near Phoenix, Arizona. It is difficult to reconcile Ortiz’s idea of going to such places and holding them “in respect” with the archeologists’ methods of preservation. Perhaps it is comparable to protecting an animal that is threatened with extinction by confining it to a zoo. At any rate, Noble went there to photograph, and in the course of doing so, he also explored The Park of the Four Waters, located near the excavation and within the limits of the Pueblo Grande community. He explains that he regarded the park as a “kind of living archaeological site” and mentions that he was photographing in a vagrant’s camp when its occupant returned, noting that “he appeared much surprised to find me photographing in his living room.” (I can only imagine how I might react if I returned home to find a stranger with a camera in my living room!) Several plates near the end of the book depict this “vagrant’s home,” while others show a “vagrant” and a “vagrant’s camp.”

The photographs in this final section seem disconnected from the rest. I didn’t understand the emphasis on airplanes, such as the one flying over the Hohokam Expressway, or another over a portion of the Pueblo Grande site. The composite of a Hohokam rock art sun shining on a Phoenix cityscape is both aesthetically incongruous and lacking in nuance. But I was thrown off most of all by Noble’s concluding essay, in which he writes that he began to regard the residents of the park not as “vagrants” or “homeless,” but felt that “they, too, were the descendants of the Hohokam” because they were “continuing an age-old tradition of semi-nomadism, foraging, and making do with a minimum of material possessions.” I don’t pretend to be an expert on the Hohokam, and I realize that Noble is not directly equating all of the various Native American people of the Southwest to these park residents, yet this ending seems all wrong. Most of the book focuses on places connected to a number of sophisticated cultures whose people were, in fact, nothing at all like the sort of marginalized person whose home Noble invaded in order to capture a photograph. So why end on such a discordant note?

I have to say, though, that with the exception of the ending, I like this book -- partly because I have been to many of the places Noble has photographed, and also because I have an abiding interest in images related to Native American cultures. I recommend In the Places of the Spirits to anyone who shares this interest, or who enjoys traditional black and white landscape photography, or who simply wishes to glimpse these sacred places of the Southwest again.

Ellen Rennard is a Groton, MA based photographer and teacher.
To view some of Ellen's photography, please visit her website.

To buy the book, please visit photo-eye