Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Grazing the Edge of the Precipice

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL ("Why Here," part 14):  


The Inca Bridge is always closed now; 
too fragile, 
too dangerous, 
Standing at the edge looking across the gap 
an anticlimax, 
no crossing over the precipice
swinging on a walkway of vines,
of rounding the next bend,
looking back,

My walk brought me back
just as a low squinting sun  
serenaded shadows
across the ruins 
and the mountains
and the clouds.
As I came off a high terrace 
to get a different angle, 
there were the llamas below me, 
grazing at the edge 
of the precipice and 
the cloud forest.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sun Gate Road

KIM MacQUARRIE from The Last Days of the Incas: "The Spaniards, meanwhile, still had a very weak grasp of just how complex the empire that they had only partially conquered was. While they had immediately recognized the overall similarities with the Old World's culture of kings, nobles, priests, and commoners, they knew little of the actual mechanisms that enabled the Inca Empire to function. The Inca's genius -- like that of the Romans -- lay in their masterful organizational abilities. Amazingly, an ethnic group that probably never exceeded 100,000 individuals was able to regulate the activities of roughly ten million people. This was in spite of the fact that the empire's citizens spoke more than seven hundred local languages and were distributed among thousands of miles of some of the most rugged and diverse terrain on earth."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL ("Why Here," part 13):   At the end of our first day at Machu Picchu, our only evening, I took a long walk alone to a spot called the Inca Bridge where the Incas had thrown a removable catwalk of logs, a drawbridge, between two parts of the trail and across a face of sheer, verticle rock.  The trail was part of one of the two Inca roads into the city. It hugged a jungle cliff, high along the west side of the mountain, above the Urubamba.  Among their other achievements at the time Pizarro arrived in Peru, the Incas had paved 10,000 miles of road like this to knit their empire together. 

Roads and runners were enough. With only knotted chords to record their figures, local chiefs, warlords, and administrators rendered population-based taxes, usually in labor, to the king and his administrators. The taxes built an agricultural surplus that fed the nation and filled emergency warehouses.  Did the terms of the social compact protect every citizen from times of drought and famine? How might such compassion be squared with the ruthless and brutal tyranny for which Atahualpa was also known? What kind of paternal justice balanced the well-being of the Inca nation and the well-being of each of its citizens? Whatever the case, it seems Inca administration had been bountiful, even after some years of civil war. 

The Inca drawbridge was a simple defensive device, but its effectiveness depended on an alert guard and his absolutely superior vantage point that prevented anyone from getting near the bridged gap without being exposed and vulnerable. The Inca's, was a labor-driven economy.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Hanging Gardens

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL ("Why Here?" part 12): If built as a nobleman's estate, the nobleman must have controlled great power to have built a city with terraced gardens to feed it, 2000 feet up in a mountain, where even the dirt had to be carried in by llamas.

Were the laborers greatly oppressed slaves, or did they work in the shelter of fervent belief in a god that bestowed grace and favor upon them, their nation and their children?

The Incas had no real writing. Yet their ruins tell of cultural resources accumulated over generations - not just religious teachings but engineering, agricultural knowledge, systems of broad scale governance and a dispersal and conservation of that knowledge, a class of people who knew how to plan and design and innovate.

Pizarro arrives at the end of a great civil war that divided a nation that stretched through the Andes and to the edges of the jungle from Quito in the north to Cuzco 1000 miles south. Through Pizarro we get a picture of a highly organized society, communities linked by a network of roads and runners, a primitive internet, bringing Atahualpa, the king, constant news of his kingdom. It is a society that treats Atahualpa with loyal reverence and to which he always returns haughty disdain. As Pizarro makes clear, Atahualpa was a ruler of utmost wisdom, courage and composure, and he was sorry for having him garroted.

NOTE: This is a three-shot panorama capable of being printed fairly large. The people walking at all levels of the terraces are clear and sharp down to distinguishing camera bag and backpack straps.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Agricultural Huts

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL ("Why Here?" part 11): Recent scholars contend that Machu Picchu was built as the country estate of a powerful Inca nobleman or ruler, a retreat with good views.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Grand Stair

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL ("Why Here?" part 10):  Until we learn why the Incas were here, we will continue imagining orchidaceous rites and surreal sacraments while knowing that the truth was far more startling than anything Hollywood can envision though perhaps totally mundane in its daily aspect. To be there is to feel the intoxicating, stony reality of it all.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Tampu Tocco

HIRAM BINGHAM: "The principle temple faces south where there is a small plaza or courtyard. On the east side of the plaza was another amazing structure, the ruins of a temple containing three great windows looking out over the canyon to the rising sun. Like its neighbor, it is unique among Inca ruins. Nothing quite like them in design or execution has ever been found. Its three conspicuously large windows, obviously too large to serve any useful purpose, were most beautifully made with the greatest care and solidity. This was evidently a ceremonial edifice of particular significance. Nowhere else in Peru, so far as I know, is there a similar structure conspicuous for being 'a masonry wall with three windows.' It will be remembered that Salcamayhua, the Peruvian who wrote an account of the antiquities of Peru in 1620, said that the first Inca, Manca the Great, ordered, 'works to be executed at the place of his birth consisting of a masonry wall with three windows.' Was that what I had found? If it was, then this was not the capital of the last Inca but the birthplace of the first. It did not occur to me that it might be both." 

 PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL ("Why Here?" part 9): I was so used to thinking that Inca terraces are for growing crops, that it didn't occur to me until I stood here, that these terraces were used very differently. This stairway cuts across the long central square around which the city of Machu Picchu is organized. Suddenly it was easy for me to understand the power of those three, large windows, aligned to the sun like the other temples of the sacred precinct all the way up to the Intihuatana at the top of the adjacent mound. The imagination riots at the infinite variety of liturgies that might be played out in the complex space below that was the center of life here. What did those liturgies look like? -sound like? -What celestial events summoned their cadences?

Bingham offers a possible script and actors. When he excavated graves on the hillsides around the city he found the vast majority held the bones of women. There must have been men to cultivate the fields, he reasoned. Where were they buried? Where had they lived? Clearly this was a sanctuary primarily for women. Inca stories led him to conclude that Machu Picchu had been a holy retreat and shrine dedicated to the Acilas, women chosen for their beauty to serve the sun. In news stories they were called, "Virgins of the Sun," though I've read that the concept of virginity was unknown to the Incas. Bingham thought Machu Picchu was where they were trained and perhaps occasionally sacrificed in their quest to become either holy Mamacones who serve the sun god and the Inca priests, or become faithful wives who serve Inca noblemen.

Were Acilas wed here? Whatever ceremonies took place must have used this elaborate stage machinery, the levels of terraces from which one may speak up or down and command an audience. I'm told that a voice speaking loudly at the top of the Intihuatana can be heard clearly in the rock shell of the plaza. Could the setting sun inhabit those Three Windows to dramatic effect at the Sun's ceremonial betrothal? In the morning they focus three ominous rectilinear beams on the temple floor that grow erect as the equinox approaches. Can we yet hear the forgotten sacraments still echoing along canyon walls? Or was it some other music that played here?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Peak Powers

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL ("Why Here?" part 8):   BIngham also came to believe that what he had found was not only the last refuge of the Incas but also the holiest place of their origins, the site where Manco C├ípac, first ruler of the Inca nation was born from the union of the sun and the moon. Bingham identified temples and monuments at all corners of the city that, even today, are tuned to the solstice and the equinox and other celestial events. Stonemasons set their stones, we are told, to mark astral passages by annually rendering light and shadow harmonies of the rhythms that govern life.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


NOTE: "Just Photographs," this weekend, July 20-22, at the Sherman Center. Help spread the word. 

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL ("Why Here?" part 7):   Structures at Machu Picchu show the skills of the greatest Inca stonemasons, designers who made stone sing, who shaped stones into 3D jigsaws so that not a hair's gap showed where the complex angles met. Their skills would have been prized and were reserved for the most important structures.

Those men worked here.  At numerous places in the city I stopped and gasped at the sheer virtuosity of their craft and the genius of their art. Why were they brought here? ...Outpost?  Fortress? While I was in Machu Picchu, wherever I looked, I always felt at the center of something.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Terraces in the Cloud Forest

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL ("Why Here?" part 6):   Another theory is that Machu Picchu was built as an outpost of the Inca Empire, a fortress at the edge of the jungle where civilization ended, and where the Incas had need to defend or at least guard against hostile tribes that lived in the interior.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Grand Plaza, Huayna Picchu, and Cloud Forest

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL ("Why Here?" part 5):   ...Beyond tourists (if it can be managed), beyond Vilcabamba and the exploits of Conquistadors and archeologists, even beyond whatever business or rituals occurred in this grand plaza where Inca's gathered, for me this is a place where silences echo loudly the vague shapes and shadows of the culture lost.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Composition in Stone with Watchman's Tower

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL ("Why Here?" part 4):   Vilcabamba? How might the city have withstood the pressures of suddenly expanding to feed and house a retreating, desperate aristocracy and their retainers and their defenders?  The question is moot. Scholars have identified a different spot as the real Vilcabamba, another site Bingham had passed through and explored.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Of Stone and Vapor

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL ("Why Here?" part 3):   ...What care the builders of Machu Picchu took to lay out their city into districts, to set aside a large central plaza, to make optimum use of a compact, difficult site and to bring in and distribute water from the nearby mountain for drinking, irrigation and conservation! What care they took in the placement of each stone! ...

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Amidst Cloud Forest

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL ("Why Here?" part 2):  What led the people we call Inca to build Machu Picchu in one of the most inaccessible and least visited places on the planet?  Bingham was looking for Vilcabamba, the last secret refuge of the Inca's after the Spanish had conquered all Inca lands. As a place for hiding, Machu Picchu is hard to beat, surrounded by sheer cliffs east, north, and west and only accessible across a narrow, vulnerable ridge on the south. Two trails that led to that ridge are long and treacherous, the region remote. No one was going to stray here blindly or get here without being seen. That and several details from contemporary sources convinced Bingham he'd found Vilcabamba.  ...

Sunday, July 8, 2012

details - In the Clouds on Huayna Picchu

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  ...Even then we are not likely to notice the distant traces of terraces, towers and ceremonial structures along the ridge from the peak of Machu Picchu to the peak of Huayna Picchu (shown here) connected by a precipitous trail that defines an axis north-south through the city; people on the trail will be barely visible specks, but their path is aligned to the constellations and kept teathered to the seasons by the Intihuatana.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Of Stone

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: (Part 3 of 4) It is not until we have penetrated the city, perhaps climbed to the Intihuatana or emerge, as here, from an avenue through the city, and look back, that we notice Machu Picchu the mountain, "Old Peak," behind us and towering above all that the Inca stonemasons created. ...

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Huayna Picchu at Sunset

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: (part 2 of 4) The Intihuatana catches the full arc of the sun from its small hill on the west side of the city which is anchored to, seems almost to grow from, the hard granite ridge that runs between Huayna Picchu ("Young Peak") and Machu Picchu ("Old Peak"). Huayna Picchu (shown here) rises like a tusk from the valley floor where the Urubamba River makes a tight loop around its base. The topography forces all access to come from the south with Huayna Picchu's familiar profile at the back of the Inca city of stone and an indivisible part of the architectural whole. ...

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

detail 2, City with Intihuatana

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: (part 1 of 4) Machu Picchu, the city, emerges from the mountains' rock much as Michelangelo's Bound Slaves emerge from marble, mind rising live from cold stone, the secrets of its form preexisting within the unformed mass.  What sixth sense enabled the Inca builders to probe the earth to the mountain's core as they balanced stones that have remained unshakable amid quakes for 500 years? At the top of the city is the Intihuatana (shown here on left with tourists), the so called, "hitching post of the sun,"  that allowed the Inca's to remain tuned to the winter solstice and the movement of the spheres. ...

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


HIRAM BINGHAM [Describing the discovery of Machu Picchu in 1911. The narrative picks up just after Bingham and his escorts have crawled across a rude  bridge suspended from frail vines above the cold, rushing rapids of the Urubamba River.]:

"Leaving the stream, we now struggled up the bank through dense jungle, and in a few minutes reached the bottom of a very precipitous slope. For an hour and twenty minutes we had a hard climb. A good part of the distance we went on all fours, sometimes holding on by our fingernails. Here and there a primitive ladder made from the roughly notched trunk of a small tree was placed in such a way as to help one over what might otherwise have proved to be an impassable cliff. In another place the slope was covered with slippery grass where it was impossible to find either handholds or footholds. Arteaga groaned and said that there were lots of snakes here. Sergeant Corrasco said nothing but was glad he had good military shoes. The humidity was great. We were in the belt of maximum precipitation in Eastern Peru. The heat was excessive and I was not in training. There were no ruins or andenas of any kind in sight....

Shortly after noon, just as we were completely exhausted, we reached a little grass-covered hut 2000 feet above the river where several good-natured indians, pleasantly surprised at our unexpected arrival, welcomed us with dripping gourds full of cool, delicious water. Then they set before us a few cooked sweet potatoes. It seems two indian farmers, Richards and Alvarez had recently chosen this eagles' nest for their home. They said they had found plenty of terraces here on which to grow their crops. Laughingly they admitted they enjoyed being free from undesirable visitors and officials looking for army 'volunteers' or collecting taxes."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL "Why Hear?" Part 1: Why did the people we call Incas build here in a spot impossible to reach?  What is it we rush here to find? 

The terraces that the Inca's built here are filled with soil they hauled by hand from the valley 2000 feet below. Those terraces form the largest arable farmland at this beneficial altitude in this part of the Andes, and the llamas are very happy here. I cower. It's a matter of scale.