Storied Rock Origins

I shot the first photograph for the Storied Rock article in 2017.

Seven years sounds like a long time to work on a project. Developing National Geographic stories can take quite a while, but for me, the journey of this story began long before that.

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Sego Canyon Utah, photographed March 2017

My first experience in Sego Canyon was in 1988, 29 years before I shot this panorama. In the years after I graduated from the University of the South I spent a lot of time driving around the American west making photographs. I was a young photographer trying to find my visual voice. I’d just spent a cold week alone hiking through the winter stillness of Cedar Mesa. My route home took me on a wandering path north past Lake Powell to Hanksville. I’d tried to get to the Great Gallery of Horseshoe Canyon but the silt beds were too deep for my ’85 Honda Accord.

I had no fixed timeline or even destination.

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"I had no fixed timeline or even destination." Stephen Alvarez on the San Rafael Bridge 1988

Driving East on I-70 past Green River I saw a small sign that read, “Indian Pictographs.” On a whim I pulled off the interstate at Thompson Springs and headed up toward Sego Canyon.

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It’s hard to convey how truly empty that part of the world was in the winter of 1988. In the 150 plus miles from Cedar Mesa to I-70 I saw one car. The only human being I had seen in 10 days was the gas station attendant at Hollow Mountain. 1988 was after the uranium boom but before the outdoor recreation explosion. Hanksville and Green River were virtual ghost towns. Thompson Springs was a ghost town. There were not a lot of people, and no one visited in the winter.

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Billiard Room Green River Utah 1988

The sun had set, and darkness was gathering as I drove further into this vast human emptiness. I thought I would drive up to the pictographs, take a look around in the twilight, and find a place to camp. 1988 era black and white film limited my options. I thought it best to shoot in the morning.

There are many petroglyphs and pictographs at Sego Canyon. Today they are protected by fences and signs -not the case in ’88.

Seeing those images looming in the darkness unnerved me

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Sego Canyon Utah 1988

As I pulled off the road, my car’s headlights swept across images that seemed like they were from another world. Life-size human figures painted in red on the rock face, trapezoid bodies, no arms, horns! The paintings were like nothing I had ever seen. They were awe inspiring and intimidating. Any thoughts about sleeping in that canyon evaporated instantly.

I stepped out of the car and began to make pictures by bracing the camera on the still warm car. By the fouth or fifth frame my hands were shaking. Seeing those images looming in the darkness unnerved me, I got back in the car and fled.

FLED, there is no other word for it. I drove across the rest of Utah and half of Colorado that night to put space between me and those paintings. 

The experience fed my fascination with rock art. Those paintings scared me, but after some time and reflection I was left impressed with their ability to convey a strong emotional response long after the artists were gone.

These Sego Canyon images are Barrier Canyon Style (BCS) rock art Archaic in origin. Those images, in their original setting still have power 2,000 years after they were made. That power was definitely on my mind when I returned to Sego Canyon in 2017 with my daughter riding shotgun. This time I drove past the petroglyphs in the evening and found a place to camp well up the road. We woke before dawn and made our way down to the pictograph panels. This time I shot one of the panels as dawn light spread across it. That photo closed the  loop I’d begun in 1988.

My journey with stories told on the landscape continues. Moved by the power of Sego -and other places- I founded the Ancient Art Archive, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and sharing humanities oldest stories. My fascination now is working with descendent communities to look at rock art like Sego -or Rochester Creek- and see what they tell us about the world we live in today.

Stephen Alvarez

April, 2024