UCB Libraries


Past Exhibit:

On display in the Special Collections Department, Norlin Library Room N345:


Essence of Rock:

The Photography of William R. Current


William R. Current's interest in photographing southwestern landscapes and architecture began in the late 1950's and early 1960's.  In 1964, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship to pursue this passion.  Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly attracted him with their stark beauties.


Photographs shown are proof prints for William Current's two books, Pueblo Architecture of the Southwest (1971), and Anasazi Places (1992). Photographs are supplemented with southwestern basketry, textiles and artifacts from many cultures, lent by University Libraries personnel.


On display in the Special Collections Department, Norlin Library N345,
January 7 through May 8, 2009.  Hours: Wed. Thu. and Fri. 1:00-5:00.

Free and open to the public.  Call 303-492-6144 for more information.



Current Cliff House Photo


Cliff Palace Photograph Courtesy of the William Current Estate.







William R. Current's interest in photographing southwestern landscapes and architecture began in the late 1950's and early 1960's.  In 1964, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship to pursue this passion.


Current requested special permission to photograph the ruins at Mesa Verde.  Karen Current Sinsheimer notes that the national park declined his request; he "simply had to take repeated guided tours, given by the Park service, lagging behind the group for as many moments as he could stray, to take his photographs" (Anasazi Places, xi).  Ruins such as Canyon de Chelly presented more difficult challenges: treks to remote locations were made more arduous by the injuries he suffered during World War II in France.


Current's photographic work featuring early Pueblo ruins did not attempt to romanticize the subject, but rather:


When I photograph a rock I want to portray and to preserve its identity as a rock - the qualities such as hardness, strata, form by which we name it and know it.  In the same photograph, I seek to reveal and to discover the essence of the rock as the embodiment of forces that created it: buffeting winds, abrading rain, beating sun (Anasazi Places, xiii).


Current utilized a medium format two-and-a-quarter-inch Rolleiflex.  Using the entire uncropped image, he enlarged each square negative to the ten-and-a-half-inch format seen in this display.  For extended views such as those of Fewkes Canyon or Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde, seen here, Current carefully fit two photographs together to create a panoramic image.


These photographs were a gift to the University of Colorado at Boulder's Special Collections Department in March 2008, from the William R. Current Estate via Karen Sinsheimer and Jennifer N. C. Davis.  Photographs shown are proof prints for William Current's two books, Pueblo Architecture of the Southwest (Austin: Published for the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, Fort Worth, by the University of Texas Press [1971]), and Anasazi Places (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992).


The photographs are accompanied by examples of Native Southwestern artwork, such as baskets and blankets.




Cliff Palace

Cliff Palace is the largest of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde.  It had a population of approximately 100 people living among 150 rooms and 23 kivas.  Cliff Palace is believed to have played a significant social, administrative, and ceremonial role.  William Current's photographs of the site reveal the spatial integration of these functions.    


A panorama of Cliff Palace, created utilizing two matched exposures, offers a view of the site looking toward the south.  The small rooms above were used for storage.

  • The south end of Cliff Palace includes kivas and square towers. 
  • Called “Speaker Chief Tower” by excavator J.W. Fewkes, this portion of the cave appears to have served as a center for the community. 
  • A retaining wall encloses stepped cylindrical kivas and a cylindrical tower that may have served as an outlook. 


    Spruce Tree House

    Spruce Tree House, built between 1211 and 1278 CE by the ancestors of the Puebloan peoples of the Southwest, held sufficient living space for between 80 and 100 people, including 130 rooms and 8 kivas.  It is the best preserved large cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde.  Spruce Tree House was discovered in 1888 by two local ranchers, looking for stray cattle.  William Current's photographs reveal both living quarters and ceremonial spaces.   


    • A view of Spruce Tree House which shows both living and ceremonial spaces.  
    • Although openings in the first court at Spruce Tree House may have once been covered with fabric or loose stones, there is no evidence of permanent doors or shutters. 
    • The north courtyard of Spruce Tree House reveals ceremonial entrances that may have held ritual significance.
    • This Spruce Tree House kiva’s circular ceremonial underground chamber is backed by a stone deflector or draft screen.   The entrance to the kiva also served as a smoke hole. 
    • The third court of Spruce Tree House exhibits keyhole doorways and a balcony. 
    • Buildings in the third court of Spruce Tree House reveal two-story living quarters.



    Balcony House

    Balcony House was probably one of the cliff dwellings near which Iowa prospector S. E. Osborn spent the winter of 1883-1884.  He wrote in Denver’s Weekly Tribune-Republican, December 23, 1886 that he had passed "many pleasant days . . . among those ruins."  Jesse Nussbaum, one of the first superintendents of Mesa Verde, excavated the site in 1910.  Current's photographs highlight the architectural details. 


    • Windows and a keyhole shaped door provided ventilation at Balcony House.
    • Cantilevered log flooring was used to create balconies.    
    • A high retaining wall protected inhabitants and supported 45 rooms and 2 kivas at Balcony House.
    • This view of Balcony House includes a sunken, unrestored kiva and two-story houses.   




    Square Tower House and Spruce Tree House

    Square Tower House and Spruce Tree House were explored by Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law, Charlie Mason in December of 1888.  Current’s photographs offer a view of the square tower emerging from the rock beneath. 


    • A four-storey tower holds four individual domestic spaces stacked one above the other. 
    • An area of native rock beneath Square Tower House provided a public space. 




    Fewkes Canyon

    Fewkes Canyon was named after Dr. Jesse Walter Fewkes, who studied the ruins beginning during the late 1890’s and later served as director of the Bureau of American Ethnology.  Current’s panoramic view of the canyon reveals residential and ceremonial buildings. 


    • This panoramic view of Fewkes Canyon shows a great kiva, Fire Temple, at the far left and a residential structure, New Fire House, at the far right. 
    • This view includes New Fire House. 



    Mummy House

    Mummy House, perched on the side of a cliff, is one of the smaller cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. 


    • This single house with smaller satellite buildings occupies a more isolated location at Mesa Verde. 




    Southwestern Tradition and Family Connections



    William R. Current’s photography of Mesa Verde served as a starting point for this exhibit that also features expressions of the visual cultures of the American Southwest.  Artistic remains of early Pueblo peoples, such as those who lived at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, stimulated and inspired later area artists.  The well-known Hopi potter, Nampeyo, noted:  “When I first began to paint, I used to go to the ancient village and pick up pieces of pottery and copy the designs. That is how I learned to paint” (Quoted in Nampeyo and Her Pottery, 28).  Family traditions of craftsmanship are paramount, too:  Nampeyo’s work is part of a creative lineage that has been carried on for generations, as reflected in her daughter Fannie’s featured work. 

    In addition, the baskets, pots, and rugs included embody the lasting aesthetic appeal and emotional resonance of these treasured family mementos.  The display, serendipitously, honors the relatives of several libraries personnel, in our memories and in works from the collections of William R. Current, Darwin L. Guinn and Beverly Fry Guinn, Willa and John Milton Van Bradt, Phyllis D. Turner, and others.


    Omer C. Stewart

    Omer Stewart (1908-1991) is known as one of the foremost authorities on the Ute Indians.  He received his B.A. in anthropology from the University of Utah in 1933 and a Ph.D. from the University of California in 1939 with a focus in ethnology.  Stewart taught at the University of Texas and the University of Minnesota between 1939 and 1941.  Following World War II, he helped found the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado, serving as its first chairman.  Stewart taught classes on American Indian culture at CU until his retirement in 1974 as Distinguished Professor Emeritus.  His portrait and a room named in his honor are in the Hale Sciences building (Riggs obituary, 1992; C. Stewart, 2008).  Omer Stewart’s manuscript papers, comprising 444 linear feet of resources, are in the Archives Department in Norlin.

    Stewart was interested in archaeology throughout his life, working as a cook for Julian Steward at Promontory Point and Black Rock Cave, and for Lynn Hargrave at Rainbow Bridge--Monument Valley.  Between 1949 and 1952, he served as executive secretary of the Colorado Archaeological Society.  During his southwestern travels, Stewart developed an expertise in Native American religions, especially the Peyote Religion (the Native American Church).  In 1987 he published Peyote Religion: a History.  A more biographical book, Cannibalism is an Acquired Taste: and other Notes from Conversations with Anthropologist Omer C. Stewart (1998), includes letters written between Omer and his wife Lenore Thurston Stewart (1911-2004).  Lenore was a teacher and worked in Norlin Library.  With Lenore and family, Stewart traveled widely throughout the Southwest. 



    Mildred  King  Swan

    Mildred Swan (1919-2008) was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and attended Muskogee Junior College and the University of Oklahoma, graduating with a degree in Speech and Education.  She married Oscar E. Swan in 1940.  The family lived in Wyoming (1952-1966), and Colorado (1966-1976).  The highlight of her Colorado connection was receipt of a Masters Degree in Speech, Hearing and Communication from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1974.  She subsequently taught in Denver schools as a speech therapist, returning to Wyoming after 1976 when Oscar was appointed State Land Commissioner.

    Swan represented Wyoming at the White House Conference on Aging, and was an active volunteer, including working for Habitat for Humanity, the Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, and Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic.  Throughout her life, Swan remained active and interested in politics on the local and national level.  Swan wrote poetry and several vivid personal memoirs both about her youth, and later life in Cheyenne.  She was a talented singer and writer of folk songs.
    “Wherever she went, she was always curious and learning, whether it be geology, painting, Russian, graphoanalysis, or Native American Culture and Arts.” (J.S. Hill, 2008.)  The Diné (Navajo) chief’s blanket in this display was purchased by paternal grandmother Sue Baskett Swan at a railroad stop in New Mexico sometime between 1915 and 1920.  Other items from Mildred King Swan’s collection include pottery by three distinctive, gifted Pueblo artists: J. Cheromiah (Laguna Pueblo), Stella Shutiva (Acoma Pueblo), and Fannie Nampeyo (Hopi); courtesy of Janet Swan Hill.



    J. Cheromiah, Laguna Pueblo. Small polychrome bowl with a band of geometric decoration.  The Cheromiah family began a revival of Laguna pottery during the 1970’s. Collection of Mildred King Swan, courtesy of Janet Swan Hill.


    Apache Drum. Anonymous loan.


    Oval Basket. Provenance unknown, possibly Paiute? Anonymous loan.


    Two Grey Hills Rug, unknown Diné (Navajo) weaver, 1930’s.   This rug was collected by Andrew Fry during the 1930’s while working for the Santa Fe Railroad in New Mexico; it was later given to his brother, James C. Fry.  As is characteristic of Two Grey Hills rugs, this weaving has a “spirit trail” or “weaver’s pathway,” which is “intended to ensure that the weaver’s energies and mental resources will not be trapped within the encircling border but will follow the line out”  (Kate Peck Kent, Navajo Weaving:  Three Centuries of Change, 1985, 90).  Courtesy of Darwin L. Guinn and Beverly Fry Guinn.


    Stella Shutiva, Acoma Pueblo.  Tall black-on-white seed pot with spiral decoration.  Color variations reflect uneven heat in the wood-fired kiln.  Stella Shutiva (1939-1997), was the daughter of well-known Acoma potter Jessie Garcia. Collection of Mildred King Swan, courtesy of Janet Swan Hill.


    Tohono O’Odham (Papago) Basket, courtesy of Kris McCusker.


    William Henry Jackson (1843-1942), Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde.  Jackson’s first trip to Mesa Verde took place during the 1870’s.  His photograph of Cliff Palace, however, was not taken until later, in 1893.  It is one of a number of works selected and printed by William R. Current for a series of one-man shows organized with the support of the Amon Carter Museum and the National Endowment for the Arts and published here in Photography and the Old West (1978).


    Tohono O’Odham (Papago) Basket.  Collection of Phyllis Diane Turner, courtesy of Kris McCusker.


    Tohono O’Odham (Papago) Dog-Shaped Basket, c. 1980’s.  Anonymous loan.


    Diné (Navajo) Rug, unknown weaver, c. 1990.  Courtesy of Susan Guinn-Chipman.


    Fannie Nampeyo, Hopi Pueblo: polychrome pot with wingtip and feather pattern.  Color variations reflect uneven heat in the wood-fired kiln.  Nampeyo (1900-1987), came from a family of well-known potters; her mother was the famous potter, Nampeyo of Hano. (Nampeyo and Her Pottery, by Barbara Kramer, 1996).  Seven of her children have likewise continued the tradition. Collection of Mildred King Swan, courtesy of Janet Swan Hill.


    Akimel O'Odham (Pima) Basket.  Collection of Willa and John Milton Van Bradt, courtesy of J.C. Van Bradt.

    Photograph of William R. Current courtesy of Jennifer N.C. Davis.


    Diné (Navajo) Chief Blanket.  Collection of Mildred King Swan, courtesy of Janet Swan Hill. The chief’s blanket was purchased by Sue Baskett Swan at a railroad stop in New Mexico sometime between 1915 and 1920.






    “Cliff Dwellings,” Mesa Verde National Park.  U.S. Department of the Interior.  Accessed 19 November 2008, via: http://www.nps.gov/archive/meve/cliff_dwellings/cliff_dwellings_home.htm
    Cook, Jeffrey.  Anasazi Places.  The Photographic Vision of William Current.  Foreword by Karen Sinsheimer.  Austin:  University of Texas Press.  1992. 
    Current, Karen.  Photography and the Old West.  Photographs selected and printed by William R. Current.  Fort Worth, TX:  Amon Carter Museum of Western Art; New York:  Harry N. Abrams, 1978. 
    “Fewkes Canyon,” U.S. Department of the Interior.  U.S. Geological Survey.  Geology Discipline.  Accessed 19 November 2008, via: http://3dparks.wr.usgs.gov/2005/mesaverde/html/mv028.htm
    Scully, Vincent and William Current.  Pueblo Architecture of the Southwest.  A Photographic Essay.  Fort Worth:  Amon Carter Museum of Western Art; Austin and London:  University of Texas Press. 
    Smith, Duane A. Mesa Verde National Park:  Shadows of the Centuries.  Boulder : University Press of Colorado, 2002.  Accessed 19 November 2008, via:   http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/smith/contents.htm