« Return to this article

Know the West

Power of the picture

International photographers hit the Wyoming Range to document the effects of energy development -- and find that beauty and ugliness walk hand in hand


Back in the mid-19th century, as the West was being "discovered," the few who ventured to the far side of the 100th meridian brought back tales of fantastic and magical landscapes. Their words were usually dismissed as mere travelers' tales, at least until the 1870s, when William H. Jackson received government backing to photograph the Western landscape. Jackson's images are said to have changed the way the rest of the nation saw this region, and are even credited with helping convince Congress to designate Yellowstone as the first national park.

This May, a group of Jackson's artistic descendants buzzed around another slice of Wyoming, hoping their photographs might have even a fraction of the influence Jackson's did. Members of the International League of Conservation Photographers spent 72 hours capturing images of the gasfields around Pinedale as well as of surrounding areas that are currently targeted for drill rigs.

It was their first RAVE -- or Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition -- in the United States. Previously, the group has conducted these photo blitzes in places like Baja, Mexico and New Guinea in Africa, areas that are at an "ecological crossroads," says Cristina Mittermeier, the ILCP executive director.

Much of the West could be considered to be at an ecological crossroads, but the Pinedale area is a special case. Hundreds of drill rigs are scattered across the landscape now, and thousands more are on their way, making the area one of the biggest natural gas producers in the nation. It also provides important habitat for wildlife, including sage grouse, cutthroat trout, antelope and mule deer.

The Mexican-born Mittermeier and many of the foreign photographers were shocked by what they saw. "It's very hard for me to believe the U.S. is doing this in their own backyard and making it sound like a good idea," she says. "It's something you'd expect to see in a hungry African nation, not the U.S."

The photos produced by the group are striking, not only for their documentary qualities, but also for their beauty. Even drill rigs and wastewater pits are captured in aesthetically pleasing ways, glowing in a lightning-torn night or in orderly patterns as seen from the air. It raises the question of whether the images might be too beautiful to rouse people into action; they lack the disturbing qualities of the iconic pictures from the Vietnam War, for example. But Mittermeier disagrees: "To capture it in the public imagination and burn it into the imagination," she says, "the images must be beautiful."

High Country News photographer Morgan Heim joined the ILCP team. Her photographs show that the pristine landscapes captured by Jackson nearly 150 years ago are now as likely to support industrial accoutrements -- in all their beauty or ugliness -- as they are grouse or moose.