David Noble

Recollections of the Arroyo Hondo Project: Forty Years Later, David Noble, August 2015

It seems to be human nature to remember, perhaps with exaggerated romance and nostalgia, the good and happy times in one’s past.  Now, in 2015, my memories of working on the Arroyo Hondo Project forty years ago fall in that category. The summers of 1972, 1973, and 1974, when I was the record photographer during excavations at Arroyo Hondo Pueblo, were exciting and challenging times. For one thing, it was my first photography job and I was working for two very prestigious organizations—the School of American Research and the National Geographic Magazine.  What a start!

My days on the site were very busy for there were four or five excavation teams at work and much to record—from small artifacts to finished wall profiles to aerial views of the entire site—and all had to be done to high professional standards. In addition to scientific documentation, both the School and the Geographic required human-interest pictures—the crew at work and play, camp life, portraits, and so forth—in both black-and-white and color. As I had only one camera, I became adept at taking out a half-used roll of black-and-white, noting the frame number on the film leader, and winding in a roll of color. And then a few minutes later, back again. It was a tricky business but it worked.

I was instructed to take pictures liberally for, as Doug Schwartz told me, “Film is cheap.” Well, it was then. When in doubt, take the picture and bracket the exposure. It felt very extravagant but by NGS practices I was probably shooting conservatively.  Evenings and nights, I’d develop and proof the black-and-white films and every week I’d mail off a batch of the Kodachrome to Washington D. C. to be processed. A week or so later, the processed slides would come back, minus the images the Geographic selected for possible magazine use if they later decided to run an Arroyo Hondo story.

The magazine editor always would include a note with the processed slides offering suggestions and encouragement.  I remember the first note said, “Good job, keep it up, don’t forget we want human interest pictures.”  So I upped photographing human-interest scenes: Mrs. Ferguson cooking, sweaty archaeologists eating, volleyball games, anything I could think of.  Still, the second note repeated the need: more human interest, please. So I did more.  And that’s how it continued, trying always to find human-interest angles.

Finally, in frustration, another crew member and I organized a Sunday picnic down along the Rio Grande. We car- and truck pooled, drove as far as we could, and hiked on to the river. We were well stocked with food and beer and, if memory serves, some other substances, and we did have fun that afternoon.  We ate and drank, told stories, frolicked, and laughed a lot. At one point someone said, “Hey, let’s go swimming!”  Clothes were stripped off and everyone jumped in the shallow river.  Everyone except me, of course—I was taking human interest pictures. On Monday, I sent the films off to the Geographic and about a week later, the slides came back with another note from the editor. “Good work, David, but too much human interest.”

SAR has a large well-organized archive of black-and-white and color photographs of the Arroyo Hondo Project—pictures taken by Douglas Schwartz, the crew chiefs, Alan Stoker, and myself. This collection is an invaluable resource complementing the project’s many written reports and published volumes.

For me personally, documenting those three field seasons was a life-changing experience. I was introduced to archaeology, I learned about the deep history and rich cultural heritage of the American Southwest, and I made some lasting friends. The job was challenging, intense, educational, and fun and led to 17 rewarding years as an SAR staff member.  Most importantly, the experience opened a new door through which I walked.