Photographer Susie Reed shares her Call of Sedona, a call that changed her art and changed her life.

LT: Susie, how did you first learn about Sedona?

Susie ReedSR: I first learned about Sedona in 1993. I was running a small business in Marin County, CA and my office manager came to me one day all excited; she wanted to go to Sedona, her friends had gone and it was so great, she had to go right away. Within 2 weeks she came back and she showed me these photographs she took with her little pocket camera, and then I was like, “I gotta go to Sedona.” I’d never seen it before; I didn’t know what it was. Christmas of that year we came out here and we arrived at night. We woke up in the morning to all of the beauty here, and I just fell in love with it immediately. I started to make annual pilgrimages out here, before I finally moved here at the end of 2005.

LT: You have photographed various subjects through the years, but discovering Sedona’s Native American rock art and a series of events changed the course of your career. Please tell us about that.

SR: At first I was completely satisfied with photographing the landscape. I call Sedona “a photographer’s paradise.” We were out here at Christmas in 2009 and we drove up to the end of this dirt road and we saw a sign that said “Palatki.” We hiked in, and we went up this hill and I remember you could like feel the presence of the ancients. And then we got up to the top of the hill and discovered all this amazing rock art that we had no idea was there.

That was a real big experience for me. When I got home, I looked at my pictures; I was even more taken with them. It’s just interesting to see how when you frame out the rock art in the photograph, you can almost see it better. I just got hooked. And then when I’d come to Sedona, my primary focus got to be photographing the rock art.

LT: The rock art images at the site are truly amazing; it is easy to understand how they would inspire you!

SR: I think they contain a power and energy from when they were originally created that is timeless. What we see today when we go out to most of the rock art sites is they’re faded from exposure to the sun and weather, and unfortunately in some places they’re defaced with graffiti, sheared off canyon walls or lost to development. It’s really kind of a shame. But there’s just something about those images that I think is timeless, and I think some of them were probably made by the shaman of the tribe and they’re very powerful, healing images.

Native American rock art

LT: Please tell us about the point when, like Ilchi Lee, your Call of Sedona became a life quest.

SR: So, I went back, probably a year or two after the trip where we first came across Palatki, and I was out here by myself and the place I was staying had one of those little travel magazines with a small article about rock art and they mentioned this one site that wasn’t open to the public and something in me went, “I gotta go there.” It was the same thing as when I thought, “I gotta go to Sedona.” So I spent about two and a half years over several trips here, trying to find where it was, and eventually I found out that the Forest Service had taken over the property. So I called and went through a whole chain of people before I got to a lady who agreed to let me go.

I drive out there and park at the gate and I see there is a Forest Service truck on the other side of the gate. And this man gets out, and he comes over and I tell him what I’m doing, and he says, “I’m out here to give a tour of our new sites to some of the forest service workers and the docents, would you like to join us?” Like perfect timing! It was Peter Pilles, the head Archaeologist in the Coconino National Forest.

So I went on a tour with them and I was so grateful that he gave me this opportunity that I brought him some photographs on my next trip, and this relationship developed between he and I where he essentially became my mentor. I’d never studied archaeology; my degree is in fine art photography. I started planning trips to Sedona based on arrangements I made with Peter to shoot archaeology digs, field schools, a restoration project at Honanki, a docent training at Palatki and more. Over the years, I’ve donated hundreds of photos from these shoots and others to the Coconino National Forest archives.

LT: You mentioned that, unfortunately there have been times when visitors to some sites have caused intentional damage to the rock walls and art.

SR: Once I was talking with Peter and he was telling me that this site had been graffitied, and I was really upset. I asked him, “Are we better off keeping these places hidden?” And he said, “No, education is the way to go.” Based on Peter’s influence, I really learned that one of the ways to preserve these places is through education.

So when I do talks, I always let people know what happens when people go in and graffiti a wall or do damage. It really has turned me into a conservationist and preservationist. I do think it’s important that we go visit these sacred sites, and they just don’t stay empty, because I think it keeps the energy in those places alive. To me, going there is like going to church.

I realized at one point when I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to share the rock art photos, I thought, ‘you know, I can share these photographs, people can still see and experience the rock art and we can leave these sacred archaeology fragile sites untouched.’ So people can still experience what‘s there without having to go physically to the place.

I’m really thinking the ancients still want some of that to be seen. I guess in some ways that’s why so many doors have opened up for me to get my work out into the world. It’s almost like they have an energy—there’s something energetically in them that we respond to, whether we consciously get it or not.

LT: Please tell us about your current projects and what may be on the horizon for you.

SR: I’ve been nominated for the Sedona Mayor’s Arts Award in the Individual Category, which is an honor. At their last ceremony, they showed a video about me and my photographs that helped people become more aware of the rock art. I feel like I have a partnership with the ancients whose rock art I depict. I think, ‘if they were sitting in the room, while I’m working in my studio, would they be pleased and excited about what I’m doing?’

I also photograph a lot of the landscape and teach photography. I was lucky; in 2009 I got accepted into Goldenstein Gallery, where now I’m one of only three photographers she exhibits.

I also do some customized jeep tours. I kind of fell in love with the land all over again, going out on tours, like when I first came here. For a long time, most of my photography was rock art sites, but now I go out to all the amazing places on the land. It’s so beautiful and healing, and no place is ever the same twice.

I love going out on the jeep tours, especially with people from out of town, because it helps me to see it new and fresh, how I used to feel when I’d come to visit: How special it is to be at these places!

LT: Thank you, Susie!

By Lynn A. Trombetta