The Vulture Mines

Old West Mining Town Photographic StoryHave you ever had the experience where you see something (a landscape, a fleeting moment of light, an expression) that gets stuck in your mind?

 Your mind keeps working over what you saw, creates an image in your memory, and that image sticks with you. Sometimes it haunts you.

In photography there is a phenomenon called “pre-visualization”. Pre-visualization is where you see that image but you see it filtered through the lens of your camera, through your technical skills, through development and printing—right to the final image you hold in your hand. Now imagine you could see and hold onto all of that, in a moment.

That moment is called pre-visiualizaton and for me that is one of the most intriguing concepts in photography.

The story that follows involves an image that nagged and haunted me for over 10 years and thousands of miles…. This image was my first taste of pre-visualization and became the anchor that has kept me in photography all these years.


 Let’s start at the beginning…. I took up photography as an after school class in 1992 (in case you are wondering, that means black and white film & darkrooms, which is like hanging out at the nexus of patience and magic).

In 1993, I was an high-school exchange student in Australia.

In January 1994, on my way back home from Australia, my family and I visited an old mining site in Arizona called the Vulture Mine.

I was young, being held hostage on a family bonding trip, and strung out from the jet lag…and I found myself trudging through the desert with my family. I have to be honest, the situation didn’t seem optimal. All around us were abandoned buildings, a true ghost town falling into disrepair at the painfully slow speed of the desert. Warnings about snakes who would like to kill you had been ample.

As we passed through yet another doorway, I suddenly perked up; the world fell away as a scene caught my eye and created an image that captured my mind. Before me I saw two pairs of jeans hanging off pegs in the wall, exactly as they had been left in 1942 when the mine shut down. What I saw in my mind was the exact image that scene would make as a black and white photograph. I saw the tonal range, how the side lighting would pull out certain details and conceal others. In that moment I saw exactly how I would print it: I saw the final image in my mind.

I needed that image…not just to see it in front of me, but I actually NEEDED IT….

Now here is the sad part, this was a defining moment in photography for me, and it was also the moment when I didn’t have my camera on me. Lesson learned: travel without your camera at your own risk.

So I walked away from that moment that was meant to be an image and learned a hard lesson.

I was willing to let it rest at that…but my brain wasn’t. For the next 12 years, the vision of this image would pop up in my mind, taunt me a bit and disappear. It drove me mad. I could take thousands of photos and none of them would be that one.

Also, I should point out that I was very new to photography when I visited the Mine. The fact that I pre-visualized that scene in that manner was a fluke—an intriguing fluke but not something I could control. It took me a few years, much learning, great frustration and a lot of time spent in dark rooms with odd characters to be able to regularly pre-visualize images.

Twelve years later I was once again on my way home from Australia and found myself jet lagged in the Arizona desert with my father…but this time I was ready. As we approached the Vulture Mine, I took a deep breath and crossed my fingers and prayed; it is so rare that you ever get a second shot at an image.

I walked through the doorway and the world fell away again. The jeans were there, as if I had visited them yesterday. The speed of change in the desert was on my side. But things were different, too. I was different. I had a different relationship to my camera, years more experience and what I saw was the contrast of the image a 17-year-old created in her head to that of a 29-year-old. And I began shooting.

Ultimately, as a 29-year-old I saw in both color and smooth grayscale. As a 17-year-old I saw in high contrast black and white. Time, my technical ability and experience drastically evolved  how I pre-visualized this scene.

Color version of abandoned mining town photograph

Shot with Kodak Portra, medium format color negative film on Mamiya 7.


Greyscale version of old mining town photograph

Shot with Agfa APX, medium format black and white negative film on Mamiya 7.


High contrast scene from old west mining town.

The image represents what I “pre-visualized” the first time I saw this scene. The image is more high-contrast with fewer subtle grey tones and is more closely cropped. Early on in photography, I was so focused on my subjects that I didn’t acknowledge their larger environment. With time I began to pull back on my images, giving my subjects room to breathe.

If you were to ask me which version I like the best—I couldn’t tell you. I covet them all for different reasons; some for the memories and some for the achievement of finally capturing the image. They all speak to me differently.

I am happy to say that I am not haunted by this image anymore. It doesn’t appear behind my eyes, because now I can hold it in my hands and look at all the lessons it has taught me.

Obviously this is one of my favorite images; it also has sentimental value. This was the last trip I took with my father before he died. He signed me up for my first photography class, he gave me my first camera, and he encouraged me to pursue art as a career when there were other safer roads laid out before me. Sometimes when you think about the people who are gone, about their absence, you want to remember the good times. This photo was the good times….

But on a lighter note, I would also like to know who were these people who abandoned this town without their pants? Pants are important (that is a good life lesson…the pants thing).


Good News: Large photographic prints of this work are available at my Etsy shop

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