"Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed carvings on granite stone — my first petroglyphs. I was completely captivated. They were of mountain sheep, beautifully etched into stone. They were obviously very, very old but done with such purity of perception and intent by the person who made them. They were simply and beautifully a part of the landscape."
Photographer John Wimberley's chance encounter in the remote Nevada desert in the spring of 1999 was the beginning of a 10-year quest to find and photograph Native American rock art.
More than 2,000 petroglyphs sites are contained within the Great Basin of the American West. The sites are sacred and secret, known only to a handful of archaeologists and researchers like Wimberley, who promise never to reveal their locations.
It takes a quiet man in the silence of the desert to discern the hidden traces of an ancient people. It takes an artist with "soft eyes" to take in more than what is easily seen.
"When you see with soft eyes, without censorship, you notice what draws your attention," says Wimberley. "What will catch your eye are the things that want to be photographed. What catches your eye is what you need at that moment."
What caught Wimberley's eye that day in the desert turned out to be much more than ancient graffiti. It was a window into a timeless spiritual world. It was, as he describes it, "evidence of magic."
Learning to see
John Wimberley is a thoughtful, serious man whose rigorous artistic efforts have broadened his understanding of the spirituality that encompasses all religions and cultures. His 40-year photographic career has prepared him to present — in exquisite, attentive, intuitive detail — images that were left behind thousands of years ago and rarely, if ever, seen since.
Born in Bermuda in 1945, Wimberley lived for 55 years in the San Francisco Bay area until he and his wife, Teri, moved to Ashland in 2005. Like his father, Wimberley joined the Navy, serving as an aviation electronics technician during the Vietnam war. His photographic career began there, on the deck of an aircraft carrier, off the coast of Vietnam.
"I started feeling something historical was happening that wasn't being recorded. I bought a camera and began photographing day-to-day operations. I wanted to convey human experience in an incredibly intense environment."
Wimberley left the military in 1966 and pursued a career in electronics, but every non-working moment was devoted to photography.
"I worked on photography at lunchtime, weekends, after work. I spent five years photographing on one little hill. It was very humbling to realize how little I saw. I learned to see more deeply the beauty of everything; land, trees, plants, sky."
Learning to see more deeply took him farther afield and deeper into himself. As with many artists, his work became a way to access spiritual elements within the physical world. In 1969, in Canyon del Puerto east of San Francisco Bay, Wimberley had a profound experience.
"Focusing my camera on a group of trees, I saw far more than I could ever see. I saw the trees as manifestations of something divine in a clear, direct way."
Inspired, Wimberley began working exclusively in black and white, but he struggled to achieve the effects he envisioned.
Art through chemistry
"When I started black and white photography, the chemistry wouldn't give me what I wanted. I could see it in my mind, but I couldn't achieve it in the darkroom. I was looking for more detail, more luminosity. So I bought a bunch of chemicals and started experimenting."
In 1977, Wimberley revived and refined pyrogallol, a chemical film developer that had disappeared from the market in the 1940s. Pyrogallol is challenging technically, but it provides delicate, translucent highlights and finer detail across a range of tones. Wimberley developed two commercial formulas and is credited for the pyrogallol renaissance that brought the developer back from obscurity.
'A compete miracle'
In 1981, Wimberley gave up his electronics career to explore photography fulltime.
"It was a daring thing to do," admits Wimberley. "I had no savings and very few print sales. But I'd reached the point where I wasn't going to do anything that wasn't from the heart. For a decade, I slept on the floor of a one-room cottage that I turned into a darkroom. It's a complete miracle that I'm still eating, still have a roof over my head, but it allowed me to fully concentrate on my work, to go deeper and deeper."
When a friend invited him for a swim, instinct told him to bring his camera and insist on a photo session. "I knew something was going to happen," he says.
The result was Descending Angel, one of the best-selling fine art photographs of the last 30 years. It wasn't named by Wimberley, but by viewers who responded to the otherworldly figure as confirmation of their belief in the divine. Although photographed underwater, the image of a woman's legs in diaphanous fabric is ethereal, seemingly swirling in ripples of air rather than water.
The woman in the photograph, unlike the model, appears to have six toes.
"Some traditions say that angels have six toes, and I've heard that Michelangelo sometimes painted them that way. Descending Angel has received tremendous response from the religious community. I even received a letter from the head of a major university divinity school asking if Descending Angel was a miracle."
Alone in the desert
Miracle or not, the photograph and the photographer were gaining recognition. In the early 1980s, Wimberley was selected by Ansel Adams to join him in a couple of two-man shows.
"I felt very honored and absolutely terrified to go to the opening reception.
I found Adams to be an extremely gracious and generous man, very supportive of aspiring photographers."
For decades, Wimberley has been drawn to the desert. He spends 10 to 12 days at a time, alone in the haunting silence, waiting for images to emerge.
The places Wimberley travels are almost inaccessible; the terrain punishing, the environment unforgiving. His specially modified four-wheel drive van is outfitted with bed, stove, heater and sink. Relying on GPS technology, computer generated topographic maps and a satellite phone, Wimberley carries 60 pounds of photographic equipment as he hikes through the brush.
In 1990, Wimberley began photographing the desolate, dried-up ghost towns and mining camps of rural Nevada.
"I found those places very poignant," recalls Wimberley. "They were places where people had brought their dreams, but 99.9 percent of their dreams weren't realized ... There's a tremendous human story underlying all these mining camps."
Seeing through stone
It was on his last ghost-town trip that he caught a glimpse of his first petroglyphs. Spurred to do research, he found a book by archaeologist David Whitley who had uncovered interviews conducted with Native Americans in the late 1800s. The interviews supported Whitley's theory that the majority of rock art was created by shaman as part of their visionary experience.
Shamanism is a broadly used term that applies to many native cultures who incorporate spirituality into their everyday world. A shaman is the spiritual guide for the tribe, a mystic who intercedes with the spirit world to achieve healing, balance and blessings.
"Spending so much time alone in the desert, my trips are 24-hour meditations. I meditate on rock walls and large boulders at twilight. One evening, the surface of the stone became transparent and I witnessed various visions through it. Years later, when I read Whitley's assertion, I understood exactly what he meant."
As Wimberley explains, "Shaman performed their duties in a trance state. To get into that state, they meditated on the surface of a boulder until they saw through the illusion, until the surface dissolved."
Upon their return from their dreamlike trance, the shaman left records of their spiritual experiences on the rocks. Because going into a trance was considered a kind of death, a bow and arrow — the symbol of death — is often seen.
"The surface of the stone is like a wall on the spirit world," explains Wimberley. "I think of it like stained glass when the sun shines through. Petroglyphs are apertures of light from the spiritual world."
"Like the shaman, I believe the world is an illusion, a dream we're dreaming. It's the real reason I always attempt to photograph at the interface between the physical and spiritual worlds ... I want to punch through the illusion."