On The Plains Of San Agustin, New Mexico
There's weird stuff in the desert. Imagine driving hours away from the city, down an endless road to the middle of nowhere and coming across 27 enormous satellite dishes that are 82 feet wide and weighing 100 tons each. Oh yeah, and they can all turn and look at you too. What the what?
If you've seen the movie, Contact, you may recognize this place as the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Very Large Array, more commonly known as the VLA. The VLA is so remote that it doesn't even have an address other than The Plains Of San Agustin.
To find this desert science machine, take HWY 60 west from Socorro for about an hour and then follow the signs. For more specific directions, enter these coordinates into a GPS 34 04'43.497N, 107 37'05.819W or visit their website here. 34 04'43.4907 37'05
What is the VLA?
The Very Large Array is a group of 27 radio antenna that work together, collectively creating a telescope that is up to 22 miles across. (Now that's some Dish Network!) Each of the 27 dishes gathers natural radio waves traveling through space from distant objects such as black holes, galaxies and baby stars.
What does the VLA do?
In a nutshell, the Very Large Array keeps an eye on space. The radio telescopes at the VLA see a part of the light spectrum, known as radio waves, that are invisible to the human eye.
Radio waves reveal previously concealed activities of stars, galaxies and planets, they also map the chemical workings of the gas and dust clouds that create them. Optical telescopes cannot see into these places because these same clouds block their view but incredibly detailed images can be created by combining the data from both radio and optical telescopes.
Unhindered, radio waves can travel billions of years across the vastness of space, providing the VLA with data critical to constructing a timeline of the Universe.
Visiting the VLA
The VLA is open daily from 8:30am until sunset. There is a museum, informative films, several photos of Jodie Foster, a gift shop and a self guided walking tour that includes some cool stuff. That being said, if you really want to see what the VLA is all about, I highly recommend taking the guided tour. Twice a month, on the 1st and 3rd Saturdays, the VLA offers guided tours led by their staff scientists. Admission is $6 and it is well worth it.
I've been out to visit the VLA twice. The first time was several years ago and I just showed up and did not go on the tour. It was ok, but the array was in one of it's more spread out configurations with only the one antenna on the walking tour being close by. The second time, Johnpaul and I planned our visit so we could attend the First Saturday Guided Tour and it was so much better! The director of the VLA was there along with a couple other scientists, they provided an in-depth explanation of how the VLA works and we even got to visit the control room to see the whole thing in action. For the photographers out there, the control room has an observation deck where you can get some photos that you wouldn't otherwise be able to get. Additionally, the array was in a much tighter configuration this time which made the photos even better.
The Very Large Array is very large indeed!
It can be somewhat difficult to show the scale of just how large these radio telescopes really are. To put it into perspective, the dish itself is 82 feet across which is about the same size as two large school buses sitting end-to-end. With regard to height, if there were people standing around the base of the dish pictured above, they would be about half as tall as the concrete footings that the dish sits on. Look carefully at the stair case at the bottom to get an estimate of height.
The Whisper Dishes
My favorite thing on the self guided walking tour is the whisper dishes. There were a lot of people standing around them so I didn't get any photos but they are the coolest thing! The Whisper Dishes are a small scale demonstration model of how the VLA works. They are two dish shaped concrete installations and to demonstrate how they work requires at least two people. One person stands at each dish and the person at the first dish whispers very quietly while the person at the 2nd dish (that is about 50 feet away) can hear the otherwise inaudible whispers clear as day as if the other person were whispering directly in their ear. So the moral of this story is... don't be talkin' smack around the whisper dishes!
Spend some time in Magdalena, New Mexico
For those traveling west from Socorro, HWY 60 goes through Magdalena on the way to the VLA. Magdalena is a small settlement that is about 30% ghost town. For photographers visiting from out of state, Magdalena is a worth while stop. I live close enough to go back out there on any given weekend so sometime soon Johnpaul and I are going to return to Magdalena and make a day of it. So much cool stuff to see there!
This trip to the VLA was on November 2, 2019. All photos were shop with a Canon Powershot Elph 360 and edited with Fotor.
A Wind In The Hills
On this day it was soooo windy. Wind that rips the car door out of your hand and chokes you when you open your mouth to speak. Wind that makes your eyes crusty. You know... New Mexico wind.
Santo Nino Cemetery in Carnuel, is located off I-40 (Route 66) in the canyon that separates Albuquerque from the east mountains. It includes 259 grave sites, some dating back to the 1800's. I don't believe this cemetery is still in use but it is certainly still watched over by the local residents of Carnuel.
Should you decide to visit Santo Nino Cemetery, arrive quietly, tread lightly, take your photos (and nothing else) and head on down the hill to get some pizza.
As a matter of practicality, do spirits get blown around by the wind?
Click here to view my other posts about cemeteries.
In 2005 I was commissioned to photograph a big game hunt in South Africa. These are are my stories.
South Africa is the queen mother of all brothels.
When you talk to a man with soft hands who claims to have killed an elephant, you have to wonder what reason a man with soft hands has for doing such a thing. Unlike Heart Disease and Type 2 Diabetes, elephants are not high on the 1st world list of threats to humanity.
My job was to portray the gentlemanly sport of big game hunting as genteel and aristocratic, which is not at all what it really is. What it is, is paying for flattery. I mean how else does a man with soft hands end up with an elephant head on his wall?
My employer wanted me to make him look important and distinguished. He wanted to make sure the world knew of his international exploits, so long as they met the first two criteria. My photographs of him have been published in prestigious hunting magazines that are read by tricks everywhere. I guess that makes me famous.
I did my job perfectly. He knew I would and this is why I got the gig, but I wasn’t happy.
My employer, who usually looked to me for council, had become deaf in both ears and was making an international ass of himself. An adolescent boy with a rifle; spending big money to kill big animals, running his mouth like a fool and fondling his mistress who was a carbon copy of his wife. I would have let all this slide, had he been nice to me, but seeing as how that was evidently not part of the plan I decided to show him what big game hunting looked like to me.
I shot his photos, the ones he wanted, and then I shot my photos, the ones I wanted him to see. For every one magazine ready portrait, I shot hundreds of gruesome images: tongues lolling from bleeding mouths, heads with lifeless eyes hanging from the back of flat bed trailers, pools of blood in the sand, ripped skin.
The Ojito Wilderness
The Ojito Wilderness in New Mexico is an 11,000 acre site located north of Bernalillo, around the vicinity of San Ysidro. It is a BLM owned public open space full of desert jewels such as petrified wood, rare plant species, dry river beds, ancient petroglyphs, hoodoos and a generally alien landscape.
Some things to be aware of when visiting Ojito is that it is closed to motorized vehicles. I don't recall there being any proper parking lots and it is in no way ADA accessible. There are no bathrooms, water fountains, tour guides or snack bars. What there is is wind and lots of it. If you come here, be prepared to pack in anything you might need and carry it all out too. The desert doesn't want baby wipes and beer bottles so, as always, leave only footprints and take only photographs.
No one remembers the Trading Post
I guess that's why it closed, you know, because no one knew it was there. I found plenty of sites with information about the Ojito Wilderness but I couldn't find even one mention of this abandoned trading post that once sat out in the middle of it all.
These photos were recovered from my (previously missing) archives. They were shot in 2006. I know the trading post was still there for at least another five or six years but I heard a rumor that it had since fallen down - either by itself or with the help of bulldozers. With that in mind, these are likely the last photos of this forgotten place.
The dragonfly pictured below was stuck to the window in the above photo. I do recall that on a subsequent trip, the window in question had been broken thus marking this image as a one of a kind moment in time. And for the record, the dragonfly was already dead when I found it, I did not harm the dragonfly for the sake of staging a weird photo (because I would never do that!).
The Last Page
The photo above is one of my all-time favorite images. In fact, there is a large framed print of it hanging front and center in my living room so the three people that come to my house can say, "Wow, that's a great photo!"
Believe it or not, I didn't stage this photo. In the back room of the trading post was an over turned stove. Sitting on the stove was a copy of The Red Badge Of Courage that was well past it's prime. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, it is always windy in the Ojito Wilderness. So all I did was turn the book slightly so that the draft coming in through the broken window and exiting the missing door would blow the book open. Then I set myself up across the room with a telephoto lens and a slow shutter speed and waited for the wind to make the book do just the right thing, which it did... eventually. Good things come to patient photographers.
To see my posts about other Abandoned Places, click here.
Directions To The Ojito Wilderness
To reach the Ojito Wilderness, start in Bernalillo and travel north on U.S. 550 for about 21 miles. Then turn left (west) on Cabezon Road (County Road 906). After approx. 9 & 1/4 miles there should be a sign for the Ojito Wilderness. Continue for another 3/4 mile and start looking for some kind of parking area. There should be two trail heads here; the Seismosaurus Trailhead and the Hoodoo Trailhead. I honestly have no idea which of these trails might lead to where the trading post is (or was). What I remember doing was driving until a sandy dry river bed forced us to park the vehicle for fear of getting stuck and then walking across the river bed to the trading post. That being said, even if the trading post is no longer standing, there is still plenty of cool stuff to see and I think a hiker wouldn't be disappointed with either trail.
In October of 2005, I was commissioned to photograph a big game hunt in South Africa. These are my stories.
The dark hills of South Africa are filled with baboons. They hide in trees, scanning the landscape with human eyes, barking monkey messages to their monkey brethren and smiling broadly so the sun glints off their razor sharp lion teeth. To hunt a baboon is both murderous and futile. While a human predator camps out in the bush, waiting for an unsuspecting beast to wander in front of his gun, baboons are stripping his truck and using the parts to build a spaceship.
Troops of baboons crowd the shoulders of the highway; waiting for food scraps and making obscene hand gestures at the VW Buses rattling non-stop up and down the wrong side of the road. You never, ever see a dead baboon in the road. They don’t get hit by cars. The same cannot be said of dogs or boa constrictors but baboons understand traffic laws. A baboon always knows who has the right of way.
While it is not uncommon to see unemployable men camped in front of the general store; cooking fowl meat with a butane lighter and pissing in a Coke bottle, this is not a fate that would befall a baboon. They don’t smoke dope, grow delirious from malaria, or live in shanty towns. A baboon does not call plywood and a tarp with a house number a house, nor is it a master of exploitation. A baboon knows it’s place in the scheme of things.
A successful predator in any environment, this intelligent, albeit ugly, lion-monkey is a marvel of nature. If I were you, I wouldn’t antagonize the baboons. They know where you live.
I am DeAnna Vincent, fine art and portrait photographer in Los Lunas, New Mexico. These are the photos from my everyday adventures.