Mark Willis on Photography

Rainbow by Mark Willis

Double rainbow with lightning strike–Photo by Mark Willis

Mark Willis, archeologist and photographer

Mark Willis, archeologist and photographer

I am delighted to have Mark Willis, an expert in emerging technologies in photography and archeology, as my guest today.

This double rainbow photograph is magnificent, Mark. Tell us about it.

This image of a rainbow was taken after a storm passed through the Lower Pecos region in early April, 2013.  Right at sunset the clouds parted and this beautiful double rainbow appeared.  I took a series of bracketed shots to capture the color depth.  That also helped to capture the lightning strike that can be seen in the right side of the image.

Your pictures are amazing! How do you get such wonderful shots? 

Thanks.  If I get a nice shot is normally because I’ve take hundreds of photos and one or two are keepers.  I enjoy experimenting with various types of photography to increase my technical skills.  Lately, I’ve been playing with landscape and nighttime photography.

Lightning strike at Shumla, Texas, by Mark Willis

Lightning strike at Shumla, Texas, by Mark Willis

This one was also taken the same night of the storm mentioned previously.  To get this shot, I took dozens of  long exposures looking into the darkest part of the storm.  The long exposures allow for the lightning to be photographed and it also allows the ambient light to illuminate the landscape and hence the dramatic colors.

Stars over Bunk House at Shumla, Texas by Mark Willis

Stars over Bunk House at Shumla, Texas by Mark Willis

The night sky out at Shumla is really impressive.  Most city dwellers can’t believe it when they see how incredible the stars are.  For this photograph, I placed the Shumla Bunkhouse in the foreground to add some interest to the image. It was taken a couple of hours after sunset and with a 20 second exposure.  The light area in the lower right of the image isn’t a sunset.  It is actually the light pollution from Langtry, Texas bouncing off of low thin clouds.  This type of photography is pretty tricky because you have to guess at all of the manual settings and just hope something turns out nice.

You are well known for kite aerial photography. What is that, Mark?

Kite Arial  Photograh of archeological site by Mark Willis

Kite Aerial Photograph of archeological site by Mark Willis

It is one of the cheapest and most innovative ways to take aerial photographs. Kite Aerial Photography (KAP) was invented in the middle half of the 1800s by the French.  A camera is attached a sturdy string and lifted into the air by a large kite. One of the earliest uses of KAP was to map topographic features of the landscape for military purposes.  In much the same way, I use KAP to create highly detailed maps of archaeological sites and excavations.  I have had the privilege of conducting KAP projects all over the world.  It is my favorite type of aerial photography.

You also use drones. Could you tell us a little about that?   

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or drone, flying over Ecuador

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or drone, flying over Ecuador

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly called drones, are the up and coming way to conduct aerial mapping projects.  Unlike KAP, the UAVs are autonomously controlled by an internal computer.  UAVs are true robots that fly themselves.  UAVs are perfect for mapping large landscapes as they can cover a much larger area than KAP in a short amount of time.  The disadvantage is the cost of the equipment.  KAP also tends to produces higher resolution images.

You recently completed an ambitious 3-D modeling project at Panther Cave. What did that entail?

The 3D modeling at Panther Cave is ground breaking.  It involved creating an extremely high resolution model from nothing more than a series of photographs.  Typically these sorts of models are made using extremely expensive and cumbersome laser scanners  The new method we used is called Structure from Motion. It is inexpensive and produces results that other techniques are not capable of.  I am excited the world gets see this site in an entirely new way.

Have you ever had any mishaps or close calls while shooting?

It wasn’t really a close call but one of the eeriest moments I had was working very deep in the rock art cave of Marsoulas in Southern France.  I was on a very steep muddy slope documenting Aurignacian era rock art with an underground river below me. My colleagues had exited the cave and I was alone with the ancient art when the generator powering our lights ran out of gas.  For several minutes I sat alone in the inky blackness listening to the slow flow of the water below me and imaging how many of our ancestors had done the same.

Your photography has taken you around the world. What are some of your favorite places?

I started backpacking the world alone when I was seventeen.  I haven’t found a favorite place yet but the more exotic the better.  I enjoy working in the Pacific at places like Palau and Kiribati but feel most at home on the left bank of the Pecos.

What drives you to do this?

Those that know me know that I work constantly.  I am either creating a new 3D modeling process, testing a new technique to document petroglyphs at night, or running an archaeological survey. Always doing something related to archaeology.  A friend of mine calls me the “James Brown of archaeology”.  Not sure if I would go that far but I get a thrill out of finding new ways to look at archaeological sites and our world in general.  It is my work and it is my passion.

This has been fascinating.  Many thanks for being with us today, Mark.  

Mark can be reached via his occasionally updated blog, http://palentier.blogspot.com/ , or on Google+https://plus.google.com/u/0/117833894683564726361

Pecos Experience, Day 4

Figures in White Shaman shelter . Note little man in canoe at bottom of picture.

Figures in White Shaman shelter.

Today our objective was White Shaman shelter with Dr. Carolyn Boyd.  Dr. Boyd has studied the art in this shelter for over 20 years, and is as passionate about it today as she was when she started. We spent the morning in the shelter hearing her latest hypotheses about the meaning of the painting and the process of painting itself.

This complex mural was painted with four colors, black, red, yellow and white over 4000 years ago. The small alcove where it is located overlooks the Pecos River near the confluence with the Rio Grande.  Today, this confluence is heavily silted, with only a narrow channel of water actually trickling from the Pecos into the Rio Grande.

There are a number of mortar holes ground into the stone floor of the alcove, and also into nearby boulders. The

Hole drilled or ground all the way through boulder in front of paintings and overlooking river. You can see light at the bottom of the hole.

Hole drilled or ground all the way through boulder in front of paintings and overlooking river. You can see light at the bottom of the hole.

purpose of these is unknown, but one possible hypothesis is that they were used to make alcoholic beverages of some kind, perhaps to be utilized in ceremonies. There is no evidence of paint pigment in the holes, so probably they were not used for grinding pigment.

Our schedule was so full this past week, I am finishing this post at home in Austin. Our small group was proud of themselves because we all got in and out of the canyons without having to leave anyone behind for the buzzards! Although at one time the group I was riding with in the pickup did vote to leave me there, if I broke a leg, and bury me in a crevice in the flex position. It was a unanimous vote.

We had a great medic with us at all times, Dave Gage. I have no doubt all his reflexes would have kicked in had anything serious really happened, and he would have made heroic efforts to carry someone out.  I asked if he had brought anesthetic or something to knock us out, in a case such as that, and he said no, it was just gonna hurt like hell!   I voted for the flexed burial instead.  We kept hearing stories of someone who had broken a hip recently down in a canyon, and was carried out. It was not fun.

I mentioned the wonderful food we had in an earlier post. Therese, the cook, is wonderful!

Almond cupcakes with green tea icing

Almond cupcakes with green tea icing

She made chicken tagine with olives and carrots, lentils with kale, couscous, tabooli, and naan one night. The last night we had a baked ham with raisin sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, green beans with mushrooms, homemade rolls, and

Semifreddo--Take five cups of cream, two cups of sugar, 12 egg yolks...

Semifreddo–Take five cups of cream, two cups of sugar, 12 egg yolks…

three kinds of pie!  To me, the best desert of the week was the Italian semifreddo, a type of light-as-air ice cream. Yes, we were very spoiled.

The morning of the last day we held a ceremony overlooking a small arroyo to dedicate our prayers to the powers that be. Dr. Stacy Schaefer of California State University at Chico lead the typical Huichol ceremony.  Stacy has studied the Huichol, a small group in Mexico, for about 30 years.

Offerings to the wind

Offerings to the wind

She conducted the blessing ceremony, and we left the Huichol-style offerings we had made in the rocks for the wind and rain. We had each gained something special from the week, and we each felt the glory of the landscape and the call of the paintings by the ancients.  The ceremony was an act of gratitude for these things, and acknowledgement of our small place in the history of mankind.

Future posts will elaborate on many of the sites and observations from the past week. A week in the Lower Pecos gives you a clean heart and a clear head–and lots to write about!