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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.