Collaborative photo exhibit sheds new light on ancient dwellings

Town in the cave

When Gene Balzer and Russ Gilbert first met in the classroom at Northern Arizona University, Balzer was teaching commercial photography and Gilbert was a promising art student. Little did they know they would forge a partnership lasting almost two decades.

Photographs resulting from their 17-year collaboration are on display through Sept. 10 at the Museum of Northern Arizona. Fragile Antiquities: Commemorating 100 Years of the Antiquities Act with Photography, shows their ancestral Pueblo site photographs taken throughout the Colorado Plateau.

After graduating from NAU in 1985, Gilbert joined Balzer on his sabbatical in 1988 photographing sites in Canyonlands National Park.

“We both were inspired,” Gilbert said. “We talked about it and decided to concentrate on sites instead of landscapes.”

Balzer said his interest in cultures and architecture is what struck him, adding that many of the sites he and Gilbert photographed have been closed for preservation or commercial reasons.

“We realized that these sites needed to be documented before pot hunters and vandals ruined them,” Balzer said. “In Utah, people were digging up these sites with backhoes.”

Gilbert added, “There was a time limit. We needed to do this quickly before the sites began to close.”

The two artists have a mutually beneficial partnership. Balzer’s tight focus, with its sense of warmth and intense color contrasts nicely with Gilbert’s black-and-white panoramic views showing perspective and texture. The exhibit shows each artist’s perspective of the sites.

“Our styles are so different that we don’t usually photograph the same stuff,” Balzer said.

Balzer will be sharing his knowledge of photography in a photography tour April 21-23 at Mesa Verde National Park. The two friends also plan to continue their project with a trip to Canyon de Chelly National Monument.

For information about the exhibit, click here. Information about Balzer’s photography tours can be found here.