Category Archives: books

California State Railroad Museum

Andrew J. Russell. The "Last Spike" at Promontory Summit, U.T., May 10, 1869.

Andrew J. Russell. The “Last Spike”

We’ve been going to the train museum for a couple years now. Now that the kids are finally old enough to leave alone in the train table area,* I’ve finally been able to take a proper look at the exhibits. I also finally caught the movie** they show there so I can comment on that too.

*As in they don’t care if one parent disappears for a while now.

**They can sit through movies now too! Though the youngest still cries out “TRAIN!” whenever he sees one on-screen.

Corky Lee. Restaging The "Last Spike."

Corky Lee. Restaging The “Last Spike”

The movie is different that I remember as a kid. Makes sense since it’s from 1990 even though it looks at least 5 years older than that.* It’s much more multicultural than the museum and film I remembered. When I was a kid my mom always pointed out how the famous “Last Spike” photo had none of the Chinese workers in it. Only this spring has it been officially acknowledged by Congress. And it’s been fun to see Corky Lee’s restaging of the photo in celebration. Now, the Chinese contribution to the construction of the railroad is emphasized almost immediately and the museum displays include artifacts from the labor camps.

*Seriously. This screams early/mid-80s, not 1990 to me—which confused me a lot this time since it LOOKS like something I should have been able to watch as a child.

The movie also mentions that the industry employed a ton of black labor on the service side and latino labor on the trainyard side. Very multicultural. Kind of nice to see this degree of awareness in something so dated. And kind of scary since it’s evidence that we’re into three decades now and so many people still don’t see, or refuse to see, this side of things.

There was also a special photography exhibit this time. In this case, it was about early railroad photography and how it sold the industry to the public. There was lots of stuff about early cameras and stereoscopic prints* which I kind of glossed over. I was more interested in how the museum displayed original photos with the engraved versions printed in newspapers, noting the differences in composition and scale and suggesting that these were intentional changes made on behalf of the people who owned both the railroads and the newspapers.

*Though if that’s your bag, they had a lot of Alfred A. Hart on display. The Getty has a decent sample of the kind of thing which was on display. The University of Nevada Reno has a ton of his work. And Stanford has a decent collection too.

The highlight though was being able to look through a full-size reproduction of Andrew J. Russell’s Great West Illustrated. As someone whose favorite photobook may be Mark Ruwedel’s Westward the Course of Empire, looking through, in many ways, an identical project documenting the landscape around a railroad’s construction, rather than its ruins, was great and pointed out a lot of details that were lost by the time Ruwedel did his project.

Andrew J. Russell. Carmichael's Cut, Granite Canon.

Andrew J. Russell. Carmichael’s Cut, Granite Canon

Much of the geography of railroading involves cutting through the landscape in order to keep a track graded correctly. These scars are prominent in Ruwedel as they’re the most-permanent landscape modification from railroading. I was unaware that they had names and seeing each cut given a special name in Russell’s album, gives a a more personal sense of things.

It’s not just a scar on the landscape. The cuts reflect a lot of manpower and effort and each one is unique. We no longer see the uniqueness since we’re looking at the absence of the railroad rather than marveling at its presence.

Andrew J. Russell. Coal beds of Bear River.

Andrew J. Russell. Coal beds of Bear River

Russell’s photos also include a number of references to coal beds and even a town called Coalville. This is something else that is easy to forget. Railroads are inherently tied to the natural resources they need to consume in order to run. Especially when building them in a place without any existing railroads for transport.

That the photos include a lot of the infrastructure required to support the railroads shows that it’s not just about the achievement of laying the track, this is about development and taming nature.

Andrew J. Russell. Snow and timber line, Laramie Mountains.

Andrew J. Russell. Snow and timber line, Laramie Mountains

It’s this intersection of development and nature which really puts Russell’s photos into the tradition of people like Timothy O’Sullivan and Carleton Watkins who are credited with defining much of the way we view the American West. When Russell isn’t showing how the railroad infrastructure is conquering the landscape, he’s showing us photos of the incredible views and wide open spaces available for people to move into. This is a land of opportunity, a land of growth, a land of potential.

Andrew J. Russell. Hanging Rock, foot of Echo Canon.

Andrew J. Russell. Hanging Rock, foot of Echo Canon

Andrew J. Russell. Dial Rock, Red Buttes.

Andrew J. Russell. Dial Rock, Red Buttes

There’s also a completely different scale to the landscape in the West. Almost all of the photos include a human figure in the image. Some of this may be to hammer the “we’re here and can conquer this” point. But a lot of it is also just to provide scale. The landscape is huge.

Andrew J. Russell. Salt Lake City, from the top of the Tabernacle.

Andrew J. Russell. Salt Lake City, from the top of the Tabernacle

But it’s settleable. Russell ends his journey in Salt Lake City with images that show a legitimate city nestled in the mountains. There’s also some curiosity about the Mormons, but it’s very clear that we can live in the West. And the railroads can take us there.

Besides the history side of things, I like a lot of the photos as photos even though all I had available to look at was a laminated digital print from a copy of the albumen print in the book. It’s not enough for him to just photograph the distinct landscape elements, I like his compositions and the way he’s able to situate so many of them in the landscape. I especially like the Hanging Rock photo and the way he’s used it to frame the settlement below it. Makes me wonder how much it would cost to buy a real print from the Oakland Museum.

LBM Dispatch 4: Three Valleys

After seeing Alec Soth’s photos of Silicon Valley, I wanted to see them in his Three Valleys series to see how my perception of them changed. My reaction to the Silicon Valley photos was very personal and while I appreciated what Soth was doing, I felt that it was an inadequate portrait of my home. I like them immensely more in their Three Valleys context.

My main issue with the Silicon Valley photos involved the lack of area history in the photos.

I found myself thinking a lot about who else should have been chosen. The lack of Intel or Cisco for example are pretty striking considering what all the tech companies actually run on. I also thought about how the set would have looked different if it had been shot in 2000. Or 1990. Or 1980. Silicon Valley has been around a long time now but people only think of the current version as a new thing.

I’ve spent the last few weeks driving past the construction site for the gleaming new Apple campus, the first phase of which is to tear down what used to be the main HP campus. The constant churning of industrial park construction/destruction as industries come and go is completely absent from the photos. As is the similar churning of strip malls and suburban housing.

Alec Soth’s Silicon Valley

This is no longer an issue when the San Joaquin Valley and Death Valley photos are included. What was a portrait of Silicon Valley has become more about California and its mythos as the promised land and how closely together success & failure and new & old and nature & technology live together. Instead of being about the details of one industry, it’s become about the ways different industries come and go and how people are left behind when the industry moves on.

As someone who visits the Central Valley regularly from the Bay Area, I’m very familiar with the time-warp nature of traveling from Silicon Valley to the San Joaquin Valley. Everything is different. Life moves at a different pace. Driving huge distances becomes normal. Technology even seems somewhat marooned in the past and any cutting edge technology is like magic.*

*For the first few years when Priuses were backordered in the Bay Area, you could drive them off the lots in Fresno.

Comparing the two valleys really shows the two sides of the California dream and does a better job at suggesting the boom/bust nature of things than anything I’d hope to see in just the Silicon Valley series. Soth’s photos also consistently show how isolating the California myth is. The myth is to go out and strike it rich on your own. On. Your. Own. There’s no sense of community in any of the photos. Instead Soth shows people working on individual projects or isolated by their technology or soldiering on as the last of their kind. Kids are left to their own devices—albeit safely tethered. For such a supposedly free place we’ve erected a lot of walls for ourselves.

The people all feel familiar to me too. I know them. I’ve been them. I’ve talked to them. I’ve listened to them. They’re portraits of both people and archetypes

Bringing Death Valley into the mix adds another aspect of the California experience—namely how close the state is to getting wiped out by nature. Throughout the Silicon and San Joaquin sequences, Soth has included photos of nature butting up with industry. In the Bay Area we love that nature—whether the foothills or the bay— are right there. At the same time, both threaten to wipe us out. Faultlines go through the foothills on both sides of the bay. Global warming meanwhile promises higher sea levels in the future. In the Central Valley, it’s more about resource usage and how everything dies without water.

Nature is always there, lurking, as something to be respected. Especially with regard to water availability. Everything in California relies on water at some level. Death Valley is the ultimate warning of what we risk becoming, or returning to, should we screw up our resource management.

Death Valley also serves as an example of land which we haven’t managed to tame despite all out technological advances. For all our glittering promise and talk about being able to do anything, there are parts of the state which are inhospitable and lack mobile phone coverage and won’t be getting any of that any time soon.

Miscegeny! Miscegeny! No escaping that for me!

Martin Schoeller. The Changing Face of America.

Martin Schoeller. The Changing Face of America.

I wanted to avoid writing about the PolicyMic What Americans Will Look Like in 2050 article. Part of this is because I don’t really like the photographs. I’ve found that portraits where the photographer’s style overwhelms the photo don’t really do it for me unless I’m looking at a show which is about the photographer. There are, of course, exceptions here—e.g. I really like Avedon’s West—but in general I’ll echo Wayne Bremser and think of these kinds of photos as caricatures rather than portraits.

National Geographic is not a magazine I expect to see caricatures in. Nor is race something I enjoy seeing caricatured. It takes me into uncomfortable territory, especially when the race in question is mine.

In addition to the Martin Schoeller all-look-same effect, another part of why I wanted to stay away is because the photos felt a lot like the continued fascination with how strikingly beautiful mixed-race people are supposed to look. There’s an odd fascination here with physical appearance that all-too-often strays into exoticism if not straight-up racism as mixed-race people are used as a way of being both acceptably foreign and white-assimilated.

It all gives me hives. Especially when PolicyMic framed the photos by claiming the cure for racism is miscegenation.

The responses to the article though have pulled me in. In particular, I’m finding that I want to add on to Sharon Chang’s response asking why we’re still hung up on pictures of race.

Chang’s post points out the history of racial-type photographs; the kind of ethnographic, white-centered values they promote; and puts the Schoeller photographs in this context along with much of the rest of National Geographic’s (undeniably excellent) photography. To read National Geographic, or at least to look at the photos and maps, is to see otherness and “explore” the world from the safety of your home.

It’s the colonial viewpoint which I’ve become tired of. It’s equating culture with appearances. Chang’s absolutely correct to call it out.

I just don’t think she goes far enough.

First, this kind of racial-type imagery existed well before photography. Second, we’ve had multiracial societies in the past and there was never anything post-racial about them.

Las castas. Anonymous, 18th century, oil on canvas, 148x104 cm, Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlán, Mexico.

Anonymous. Las Castas. 18th century.

The way National Geographic displays the Schoeller photos in a grid creates an obvious Casta painting connection. And it’s not just the grid layout but the way we’re invited to compare and guess who looks part Asian or Black or Indian or White and in what quantities. Focusing on looks. And focusing on parentage. And comparing proximity to whiteness.

It’s important to remember that we’ve gone down this road in the past and only succeeded in creating dozens of racial divisions all ranked by how close to whiteness and reason they are. Yes, you could breed your way up the ladder. But that the ladder exists is the problem.

Merely showing a multiracial society is not enough. Casta paintings show. Schoeller’s photos show. What are we being provoked to do or think about instead? Especially regarding how we address race, and how we’ll address it in the future.

Angélica Dass. Humanæ.

Angélica Dass. Humanæ.

I wish the critiques had gone into photographic work which is actively critiquing the concept of racial boxes. One example of this is Angélica Dass’s Humanæ* which matches the people’s skin color to a specific Pantone number.** Dass has managed to create a project which, despite being only about one feature (skin color), manages to both show a multicultural society and actually critique racial values.

*Note: Dass is from Brazil but what she’s doing is completely relevant to the multiracial discussion in the US.

**The purist in me is bothered by the fact that she’s not sticking to a single Pantone swatch book but that’s me being a print nerd. This in no way detracts from the actual point she’s making.

Where Schoeller’s work results in a number of images which all feels the same. Dass emphasizes the point that we’re all different. Everyone. Looking at her work doesn’t result in comparing mixes or trying to figure out who looks like what. Instead we’re realizing how unique everyone’s skin tone is—and how stupid colourism really is.

Dass isn’t making a claim about how things will be. She’s provoking us to think about how things are and asking us to think about alternatives. What she shows us is designed to break the existing racial checkboxes and even if all it accomplishes is laying bare how ridiculous the way we call clothing or makeup “flesh-colored,” we’ll have made some improvements.

Kip Fulbeck. Mixed Kids.

Kip Fulbeck. Mixed Kids.

Which brings me to the other work I wish Sharon Chang had mentioned in her post. While she talked about Kip Fulbeck’s Hapa Project, she didn’t mention Mixed Kids.

Fulbeck’s Hapa Project is about himself and finding his own community. It’s a necessary project of self-representation but indeed doesn’t go beyond and ask anything provocative. I like it. But then I’m hapa. And I have it on my shelf as evidence of my community and a reminder of how many different stories people who share backgrounds similar to mine have.

And it’s a completely necessary project to get out of the way as a stepping stone to Mixed Kids. The Hapa Project is about coming to grips with our identities and how we grew up and who we are now. Most of the book features adults and their stories—whereas Mixed Kids is only kids. Our kids.

Mixed Kids is about their potential. And about ourselves as parents. And how we want to raise them.

America in 2050 is a theoretical entity. Our kids are not. My kids are not. Fulbeck’s provocation is simple but huge. What am I going to teach them? About race. About themselves. About their world. About each other. It’s not about what percentages of what races they are. Or how they look. It’s about raising a generation which is smarter about race and privilege than their parents.

My parents had to fight the “but what about your kids” battle. I didn’t need to. Instead I get to look though Mixed Kids and rather than thinking, “what are you?” I think, “what will you become.”

Black in White America

NOTE: I wrote this post for Tom Griggs at Fototazo as part of his Photographers on Photographers series. I’ve crossposted it here with his permission since it fits in with my series of posts revisiting the books I grew up with. Compared to my post on Fototazo, my post here has a few more notes and a lot more links to related material.

"Through the slats of the boardwalk above, the sun shines upon the figures below, and self-imposed laws operate to segregate the people at this great city beach." Coney Island, New York

Through the slats of the boardwalk above, the sun shines upon the figures below, and self-imposed laws operate to segregate the people at this great city beach. Coney Island, New York.

When I was a kid—junior high and high school—I used to look through my father’s high school yearbooks. He grew up in Oakland in the late 60s. His yearbooks hinted at a very different world than what I saw in his family photos. The war stuff and the race stuff were both heavier than anything I had to deal with as a kid and suggested a different side of my dad than I’d ever known.

I’ve come to realize that I’m also unlikely to ever know this side of him. And while there are parts of our parents that we can’t ever expect to know, not many of them are so well documented as their high school years.

At the same time I was looking through yearbooks, I was also looking through my parents’ photobooks. They had what I’d consider to be the usual suspects for a liberal California couple: A few Sierra Club books,* Family of Man, America in Crisis, and Black in White America. Exactly what you’d expect from a liberal household. Yet, also not something that was common among my peer group growing up.

*Notably: This is the American Earth, The Place No One Knew, and Down the Colorado.

I’ve been looking through these photobooks again now with adult eyes. It’s interesting, I never really paid attention to the dates when I was young. I recognized, roughly, what time periods they covered but never really put together that everything was happening at the same time. Re-viewing them has helped me understand the books, and my parents, a lot better. I’m also figuring a lot out about myself in the process.

In this post, I’m looking at Leonard Freed’s Black in White America.

I even read the text this time; when I was a kid, I only looked at the photos.

Absorbing the images was enough to make me realize there was an alternate reality, and an alternate history, in my country. I grew up in the suburbs, not just without all the turmoil my father experienced in his schools, but totally insulated from it. In particular when it came to race stuff. For all the “diversity” of the Bay Area, it’s remarkable how non-diverse it really is. I grew up without having to really interact at all with black people.* As a result, most of my sense of things came from media.

*I had maybe a handful of black classmates total in my 13 years of schooling.

Black America was outside the standard story of “American” society which I learned in school.* The only time it came up was in the context of the Civil Rights Movement in The South. Freed shows how the Jim Crow South and the suburban white flight in the North resulted in parallel, oppressed societies all over the country.

*Why Cars bothers me now, especially with its romantization of a specific white-male-versioned past, and why the Green Books need to be remembered.

What’s shocking is how much of the book still feels relevant today. The struggle between choosing to submit to the politics of white respectability—with its resulting acceptance of second-class citizenship in exchange for supposed safety—and choosing the struggle for more rights even though that struggle carries greater risks. The ease at which it was possible to be, and desire to be, a white moderate.* How technology—really information (via TV in the 1960s and the internet now)—impacts society by eroding the ignorance between them. How the narrative is always blaming Black America for its ills rather than recognizing how White America created Black America to begin with.

*From Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail: “I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’ great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” 

I can’t look at this project and think that we’ve made a lot of progress in the 45 years since it came out. Do things suck less than before? Yes. But that’s not something to be proud of.

This is another of the reasons why I have such a low tolerance for looking at photos where there’s a huge privilege difference between photographer and subject. A lot of those projects, in addition to being exploitative and boring, only serve to show our lack of progress on addressing the structural inequalities in our society. That so many also appear to have their only goal be portraying the photographer as a savior just for being there and taking the photo is even more infuriating.

Freed though is an example of how to do this kind of outsider photography really well. He’s aware of how privilege works in granting access and providing safety.* And while being close to a white-man-explains-the-world sort of thing, it’s not a quick superficial dip into the other world. No poverty or suffering just for cheap grittiness. He shows how pervasive the different world is and how it’s closely related to our own world.

*Albeit not as much safety as one might think. The ways that southern whites attempted to intimidate any out-of-town whites who fraternized with the blacks is indeed intimidating.

As per the title of the book, many of the photos include White America someplace in the frame. Maybe it’s leaking in via the television. Or through the gaps in the boardwalk overhead. Or the unplugged acquired-via-surplus refrigerator being used to store food. Or the absent landlord of the falling-apart house. Etc. Etc. The photographer, and his world, is constantly present in the photos. Despite much of the subject matter being foreign, it’s still anchored to the mainstream cultural narrative of the increased equity and comfort that occurred during 1950-60s US history.

And there is a lot of joy depicted. Weddings. Kids playing. Music. Families. Life is normal even if it is very different from the “silent majority” lifestyle that we supposedly want to return to now.* Nothing is trivialized into a cheap storyline about suffering or poverty or a lack of virtue—narratives we still hear all too often.

*Something I alluded to when looking at David Goldblatt and Ernest Cole’s work.

Looking at Freed has reminded me how of the way National Geographic in the 1980s was looking at US cities as if they were foreign countries. In the same way I’d see images from abroad, I’d also see images from our cities. Only those images didn’t inspire me to want to travel there. When I was a kid cities were scary. Not just the busyness. They just didn’t feel safe. Black America was scary and foreign to me.

I know now that part of that feeling is embedded and absorbed racism from society. I also know now that another part was the recognition that the entire system had failed there.

I look through Freed now and try to distinguish between what’s unchanged and what sucks less. I better understand the barely-contained anger and frustration I see on Black Twitter as each successive Stand Your Ground trial reëmphasizes how little society values black lives. I see how liberal whites’ insistence on being recognized for our progress as a society feels false when things are still horrible. And I wonder what kinds of things my father talks about with his classmates when he attends his High School reunion.

#RuinAChildrensBook

Because I often zig when trending hashtag games zag,* I chose to run with this tag in the direction of things I’m noticing when I reread books for my kids. This is possibly one of the toughest parts of being a parent since it involves destroying a lot of the fond memories you had as a kid. And it involves setting your own kids up for some of the same harsh experiences.

*My six-word film plots comes to mind here as well.

Despite my critiques above, I’m reading all these to my kids still. Even Babar. Many of the books I’m actually fine with and am just being extreme with the hashtag. Green Eggs and Ham for example is obviously a lesson on not refusing food just because you’ve never tried it before. And The Monster at the End of the Book is an introduction to dramatic irony as an example of when it is actually okay to tease someone.

But yeah. Some of the others need some extra involvement to be palatable. Maybe not right now. But filed away for future reference in explaining how the world works and how a lot of those much-loved books are examples of things we’ve become more knowledgeable about now.

Timothy H. O’Sullivan

Glacial lake in the summit region of the Uinta Mountains of Utah. Photo by T.H. O'Sullivan. U.S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel (King Survey).

Viewing Porter and Powell made me interested in giving a good look at the recent Timothy H. O’Sullivan book of King Survey photographs. The King Survey predated Powell’s voyage down the Colorado by a few years and really set the standard for how the United States would go about filling in the holes in its maps.

This book includes samples of the other material generated by the geological surveys—drawings, etchings, writings, and specimen collection—and does a food job at explaining who the audience for the surveys actually was (Washington) as well as how they were meant to be used. In addition to encouraging the settlement and exploration of the West, these surveys were supposed to encourage repeated exploration and knowledge gathering—the USGS came out of these surveys and both King and Powell served as head of the organization.*

*Speaking of which, the USGS photo archives are pretty cool and include all the O’Sullivan King Survey photos.

Unlike the Powell survey though, the King survey already included a lot of territory which humans had begun to settle. Trains and mines are already in the landscape. As are Indians. That said, while the signs of taming the area are showing but this is still terra incognito.

I can see why O’Sullivan is referenced as the benchmark for landscape photos in the American West. His approach is still very much the kind of thing I find myself doing. Hike out someplace “untouched.” Photograph along the hike and around anything which looks interesting—especially if you can get to a mountaintop or catch sight of a distinctive geologic formation. The clear, clean documentary approach very much describes Ansel Adams. And we all know how many people are following in those footprints.

Sand dunes on the east of side of the Truckee Desert in Nevada. Photo by T.H. O'Sullivan. U.S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel (King Survey).

That O’Sullivan has a good eye for composition is why his photos stand on their own as art photographs instead of just being documentary work. To the point where it seems like many people forget the original function of the photos. Many of the essays in the book reference and offer interpretations for why he included himself or his gear so often in the photo. The obvious geological survey explanation is that he’s including whatever is handy for scale—though it’s noticeable that the elements aren’t just tossed in haphazardly and often work with the composition instead. But it seems we all too easily reach for artspeak and artistic intent while forgetting to remember the obvious.

The book also includes a complete collection of his plates as sort of a contact sheet for the entire survey. Viewing these shows how O’Sullivan approached landmarks and tried to photograph from all sides. In many ways they remind me of Ansel Adams’s Sierra Club proof albums. Not all photos are “keepers” but as a group, the describe the scene and show how he approached it. This kind of insight into the process is especially interesting and is another reminder that when they say that “film is cheap,” they mean that you should feel free to approach and work a scene. This isn’t spray and pray but it’s not trying to only take the one best shot either.

Green River Canyons: Upper Canyon, Great Bend, Uinta Mountains, Horseshoe Bend, and Green River below the bend, viewed from Flaming Gorge Ridge. Photo by T.H. O'Sullivan. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel (King Survey).

Mark Klett’s essay in particular takes this process and expands it. As he was rephotographing O Sullivan, Klett is able to show how photos are linked by being taken from the same vantage point. It’s easy to see how O Sullivan approached photographing landmarks. It’s a lot harder to link photos taken from the same vista point but in different directions. Klett, by traveling to the locations, is able to link frames together in ways which cannot be seen from the prints alone.

Rephotographing also provides a comparison with how the landscape has changed. The story of the West is about development and indeed, many of the rephotographs show development of some sort. Some wild land is now just the view from a parking lot. Other views have transformed from canyons to reservoirs. But it’s not all human encroachment. Mining camps are now abandoned and empty.

Quartz mill near Virginia City, Nevada. Photo by T.H. O'Sullivan. U.S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel (King Survey).

I also can’t help seeing the O’Sullivan photos and reading about Klett’s rephotographing without thinking of Ruwedal. So much of what we initially used to conquer the West is now obsolete. O’Sullivan’s photos show the lay of the land before we had a chance to really mess with it. Ruwedal’s show how it’s recovering after we’ve moved on. Much of the West is still open and empty and it’s taken only a century to obliterate most of our presence there.

For all the environmental damage that followed our settlement of the West, an awful lot of it still looks the same even after we’ve had our way with the land.

Down the Colorado and The Place No One Knew

Eliot Porter. Amphitheater and Pool, Redbud Canyon, San Juan River, Utah, May 25, 1962

I grew up in a house full of books, among them a few photobooks. I have childhood memories of flipping through the books and looking at photos. I only remember two books distinctly though. One was Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man. The other was Eliot Porter’s Down the Colorado.

—Intro to my review of Yangtze Remembered

I’ve decided to look through my parents’ library of art and photobooks and revisit those which I grew up flipping through.* First on the list, Eliot Porter’s Down the Colorado—and after looking at the bookshelf, also The Place No One Knew since it looks like I may have (correctly) conflated the two in my memory. I’ve already covered a lot of the structure of Down the Colorado in my review of Yangtze Remembered so there’s no need to rehash it. I can say that two key distinctions are how Butler focuses on people compared to how Porter focuses on the land and how Porter in particular avoids any grand-scale vistas.

*In addition to the two mentioned in my quote, my parents’ collection includes America in Crisis, Black in White America, This is the American Earth, The Place No One Knew, and a number of other Sierra Club books

Compared to most landscape photos, Porter’s photos are much more subtle. They don’t show grand vistas or anything high-contrast. They don’t include any of the standard views of the Grand Canyon. Nothing from the rim at all actually. Instead, everything is from the canyon floor. There are no photos even looking up at the rim. We have all kinds of quietly observant low-contrast details focusing on the way things look in the canyon’s shadow and the subtle differences in reflected light colors. Color is hugely important here even though it’s almost invisible at times.

We also have repeated studies of rock and water textures. In a canyon shaped by water, the interplay between the rock walls and water floor or inherently related. Some of these remind of Roni Horn and Hiroshi Sugimoto (who both follow Porter) in how they show how the same kind of view repeated over and over again can have all kinds of variation and character. One photo rarely suffices, it’s the repetition of subject which makes the point.

There’s also the elegiac tone which many of the photos have. Porter’s photos represent—and are presented—as examples of natural beauty which we destroyed. Displaying them along with John Wesley Powell’s diary of his voyage down the Colorado bookends our discovery and destruction of the land there.

Eliot Porter Dungeon Canyon, Glen Canyon, Utah, August 29, 1961

Powell’s diary is a flawed history* but both captures the sense of discovery and serves as great public relations for conquering the last unmapped segments of the United States. This is virgin territory to be measured, mapped, and tamed—a great undertaking in an age of discovery where the entire continent was at our feet and waiting for us to find a way to use it.

*It conflates multiple trips into one.

It’s interesting to note that the first Western assessment of the canyonlands was that they were “useless.” There isn’t much in Powell to hint at what use there is either. It was only in the early 1960s when we really figured out what use they could have and decided that we should dam the rivers and flood the canyons for drinking water and hydroelectric power. Porter retraces Powell’s steps but with the knowledge that the territory is about to be inundated before anyone’s had a chance to know it. His photos are our last chance to see.

During the 1930s, documentary films had portrayed environmental reforms to mass audiences, uniting spectators through sublime images of disaster and transcendent scenes of technology restoring the landscape. In contrast to these collective experiences of nature, the Sierra Club appealed to Americans as individuals, as solitary readers and viewers of coffee table books. The Exhibit Format series continued the environmental jeremiad tradition, fusing words and images to judge and condemn American society. Yet Sierra Club books placed less emphasis on the interdependence of humans and the environment, focusing instead on the therapeutic meanings of wilderness to postwar Americans. Worried about the arms race and the destructive potential of technology, wilderness advocates celebrated a world without machines, a space apart from the problems of modern civilization.

Finis Dunaway

What about a show on the whole of conservation?… Clear up the confusion in people’s minds, show them the issues at stake, and the dangers… Show the importance of the spiritual values as well as the material ones by making the most beautiful exhibition yet… A lot of people think Conservationists are a bunch of long-haired cranks and wild-eyed mystics. It’s about time they were given a chance to understand the broad principles and the full scope for which we’re fighting…

David Leland Hyde

Although the book did not stop that closure, it built important public and government support for limiting further dam construction on western rivers. Just as important, this experience revealed to Porter how his photographs could be used in the service of a cause without diminishing their artistic integrity. The book also helped jumpstart the Sierra Club’s transformation into an international environmental force and gave Porter a new career identity. He now concentrated on creating extended photographic portraits of diverse natural sites, first in the United States and then across the world. While he would never stop making fine quality prints, books became his main way to make a living and share his vision.

Amon Carter Museum on Porter

They’re also the cornerstone of the modern environmental movement. Environmental photos up until then were often in the context of “this is land which I have conquered.” Even Ansel Adams, with his Sierra Club pedigree, glorifies nature in the sense of “things you have to photograph.” Adams at least limits his conquests to being just photographic conquest, but there’s still a sense of taming the wild in his photos.

Porter is a different beast. These photos force us to ask whether all nature should be tamed and whether our presence or activity is always a good idea.

Epilog

Eliot Porter. Plunge Pool, Cathedral in the Desert, Clear Creek Off Escalante River, Utah, August 23, 1964 Michael Melford. The ghostly arms of cottonwoods emerge from Halls Creek Bay, and water again spills through Cathedral in the Desert, uncovered as Lake Powell hits its lowest point since 1969.

Porter didn’t need to show the post-flood impact and destruction and just presented beauty with the information that we destroyed it without understanding what it is that we were destroying. But we’ve been given the interesting chance to actually see what we did. In 2006, Lake Powell’s levels dropped, revealing many of the features which Porter had photographed. It’s interesting to revist the place no one knew, especially with easier access due to the still-higher-than-before water levels which meant you could boat to places instead of hiking.

Things are obviously still destroyed. But it’s nice to see that they haven’t been completely lost yet.