Louisiana photographer focuses on Aztec Ruins

Mike Easterling

FARMINGTON — Photographer Cate Sampson comes from a part of the country, southern Louisiana, where it is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to save archaeological ruins from the ravages not just of time, but of that ever-present enemy called moisture.

Photographer Cate Sampson is serving as an artist in residence for the month of September at Aztec Ruins National Monument under the auspices of the National Parks Arts Foundation.

Sampson has spent a significant part of her career exploring remote regions of her home state, territory that is accessible for the most part only by boat. She has done her best to document Native American coastal sites, mostly in the form of shell middens, that haven’t been washed away, eroded or otherwise degraded to the point that they are no longer recognizable.

So there’s a certain logic to her decision to come to northwest New Mexico, where the arid climate has helped preserve so many remains of Native settlements from the pre-Columbian era. Sampson is spending the month of September as an artist in residence at Aztec Ruins National Monument as part of a pilot program initiated by the National Parks Arts Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Santa Fe dedicated to bringing top artists to national parks around the country.

“It’s been fascinating,” Sampson said of her experience at the park. “I’ve gotten to learn a lot about the architectural significance of Aztec Ruins and other ancient Puebloan sites. Prior to coming here, I went on a survey of other ruins sites to prepare myself. And the rangers here have been great about interpreting the site for me.”

Sampson’s residency is even more noteworthy because of the imaging process she has chosen to focus on. She uses large-format gelatin glass dry plates, a process that dates to 1880 when it was invented by English physician and photographer Richard Leach Maddox.

Sampson said Maddox’s discovery played a significant role in the documentation of Western expansion in the United States because his method quickly became the preferred way for photographers to capture images of Western landscapes. Before gelatin glass dry plates came along, she said, photographers relied on the wet plate collodion process, a laborious system that called for the negatives to be immediately processed on site.

Cate Sampson captures her images with large-format gelatin glass dry plates, a process that dates to 1880.

That, of course, required an enormous amount of equipment. Sampson said it wasn’t unusual for photographers of that era who were on expeditions in the West to find themselves accompanied by a half dozen mules bearing their gear.

By contrast, the negatives for gelatin glass dry plates didn’t have to be processed right away. The plates could be placed in a secure location and await processing until the expedition was over without having their integrity compromised, leaving the artist far more time to capture images and greatly simplifying travel logistics.

Sampson said she became interested in Maddox’s process when she was a photography student at Louisiana State University and found that she was a little put off by contemporary styles and equipment.

“Digital, for me, was not something I was interested in,” she said. “I was a poor college student, and I definitely could not afford to adapt to the new imaging system.”

Sampson found herself looking backward, particularly at historic imaging methods that she said nobody had given much thought to in decades. She quickly found herself captivated by gelatin glass dry plates.

One of the things she finds so attractive about the format, she said, is that it isn’t particularly efficient, at least by modern standards. There is far more set-up time required than there is with digital equipment, but Sampson has found that to be a positive thing.

“It’s allowed me to have more of an exchange with my subjects,” she said. “It slows me down, and that allows for a more honest exchange and representation.”

Sampson also enjoys the notion that she’s following in the footsteps of so many early American landscape photographers, artists who made it possible for common citizens to see how varied, vast and beautiful their country was in an era when few could muster the resources, or will, to explore the West on their own.

This digital image of a photo from a Cate Sampson project called "All The Place You've Got" documents life in remote locations in her native southern Louisiana.

“They gave people visual access to a place they couldn’t access physically,” she said. “And that gave birth to the idea of conservancy.”

While Sampson’s residency is focused on Aztec Ruins, she said she visited Taos Pueblo, Mesa Verde National Park and Hovenweep National Monument before her arrival here to get a sense of what other significant archaeological sites in the area were like. And during her time here, she’s been able to slip away to do some work at the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, a place she found particularly fascinating because of its geology.

“I’m excited to be able to explore more of the area,” she said. “I want to do more work that contextualizes this place.”

Sampson described the sites she spends so much time photographing in Louisiana as water locked, places that most residents are unable to access.

“It’s a culture that’s been totally forgotten by people who live in cities,” she said.

The fact that the opportunity isn’t there to preserve those sites like it is in the arid Southwest led Sampson to speculate about the potential impact on modern conditions in her home state.

A digital image of a photo from Cate Sampson's project "All The Place You've Got" illustrates the near-impossibility of preserving archaeologically significant sites in an area soaked in water.

“I wonder if that might have something to do with the way Louisiana continuously has problems,” she said. “The idea of preservation is lacking there in a way it’s not here.”

Those sites in Louisiana — remote, forgotten and rapidly disappearing as they are — nevertheless are considered sacred by the descendants of the people who once lived there, Sampson said. The same is true of the relatively well-preserved Puebloan-Chacoan culture sites of the Southwest that Sampson is exploring now, and the focus of her work is to compare the two.

She said she was intrigued to learn that the Bisti badlands were once a coastal swamp — much like her southern Louisiana home — tens of millions of years ago. Perhaps the two regions have more in common than most people assume, she thought.

“That makes for an interesting connection to the land where I work,” she said.

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

More information:

National Parks Arts Foundation founder Tanya Ortega says the organization is funded entirely by donations and grants. The organization is seeking housing for the artist for next year's resident artist at Aztec Ruins and always welcomes donations to help cover the other costs of the program. The NPAF also offers residencies at Chaco Culture National Historic Park, Fort Union National Monument and Pecos National Historic Park in New Mexico, as well as as three other national parks or monuments. Visit if you are interested in helping.