Out of the flood of books on the Colorado River, two recent illustrated volumes caught our eye.
H. Webb's Grand Canyon, a Century of Change features pairs of
matched photos, old and new. The author, a hydrologist involved
with Glen Canyon Environmental Studies, spent seven months
replicating hundreds of photographic views from the Stanton
expedition of 1889-90.
Robert Brewster Stanton
was both an engineer and a dreamer. He worked for a railroad
company that proposed to lay a track right along the Colorado River
from the plains to the Pacific. The initial boat survey was an
unqualified disaster: Three men, including the company's president,
drowned. Yet Stanton persevered; he resumed the railroad survey in
1890, this time with lifejackets.
Then, after the
expedition photographer fell from a cliff and had to be evacuated,
Stanton, a novice with cameras, took over the duties. The
engineer's approach to photography evolved as he moved down the
river. At first, Stanton took pragmatic views of the proposed
railway; later, he began composing more artistic shots, many of
which didn't include the route. "Grand Canyon changes people,"
Nothing came of Stanton's railroad
plans, of course. But the engineer gave future canyon-lovers an
unexpected gift: His photographs, shot systematically in one-mile
intervals, provide an unparalleled baseline for studying the
Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.
rephotographing 445 of Stanton's views, Webb painstakingly compared
the prints. Perhaps most striking is what hasn't changed. On the
benchland, many desert plants have survived the century. On the
river, some rapids have been altered by debris flows, but the
majority appear the same. Significantly, rephotography shows that
sand bars persist at specific sites, despite the influence of the
dam. The condition at these tried-and-true sites can be used as an
indicator of the river's sediment health.
all, Webb writes, this second view of the Grand Canyon reveals
that, "We do not understand why changes occur in the landscape over
long periods of time; our best theories work only over short
At Glen Canyon, where the river has
been changed into a reservoir, the issue is not rephotography but
photographic memory. From archives and private collections, Eleanor
Inskip, former executive director of the Canyonlands Natural
History Association, has compiled more than 100 views dating from
1872 to 1964. Her self-published book, The Colorado River through
Glen Canyon before Lake Powell, is arranged in downstream
progression: a ghostly river trip.
design - photos paired with quotes - recalls Eliot Porter's
magnificent The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado
(Sierra Club, 1963). But where Porter emphasized the abstract and
mysterious, Inskip draws attention to Glen Canyon's personal charm:
a bagpiper playing in Music Temple, hikers holding hands in Dungeon
Canyon, river rats setting up camp at sunset. These images of lost
times and lost places will elicit smiles and perhaps a cumulative
Grand Canyon, a Century of Change:
Rephotography of the 1889-1890 Stanton Expedition. University of
Arizona Press, 1230 North Park Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85719. 290 pages,
1996. $26.95, paper; $60, cloth.
River Through Glen Canyon Before Lake Powell: Historic Photo
Journal, 1872 to 1964. Inskip Ink, 366 E. 100 N., Moab, UT 84532
(801/259-8452). 95 pages, 1995. $25, paper; $150, silk-bound
limited first edition.
Farmer is an HCN intern