Depth afield

Why is the Western image so appealing?

  • Getty/Time Life photos, Photo by Ansel Adams
 

I have a complicated relationship with photography. Once, on a hike with my boyfriend up Spencer Butte in Oregon, he paused to take in how the sun -- something we hadn't seen in weeks -- poured through the Douglas fir and splashed against the ferns. "Look," he said, "it's just like a photo."

Maybe it was early, or maybe I was just more prickly than usual. "It doesn't look like a photo," I remember snapping. "It just looks like itself." We didn't talk again until we'd reached the top of the butte.

Later, I apologized. And then I wondered why I'd spoken as if photos didn't matter. After all, I was the one who'd spent nights in a darkroom in college, trying to unveil stark, sublime landscapes on paper the way my favorite photographers did.

My camera was enormous, with a clunky body and a penchant for eating the film I unrolled inside it. Still, I hauled it from California to Alaska, from the Cascade Range to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I finally abandoned it in a Santa Fe pawnshop, feeling as if it held secrets I would never know. Perhaps when I snarled at my boyfriend, I just meant that the light through the trees was something I could never capture on film. I thought so much about whether I'd be able to reproduce a particular scene that I barely experienced the moment unfolding in front of my lens.

I started putting other people's photos on the wall. I bought prints of the ocean when we lived in the mountains; prints of the peaks when we lived by the sea. After we got married, we hung a 1913 photograph of a lake where we'd both lived -- a wedding gift from friends who knew we were trying to create our own history there -- in the bedroom of each house we moved through.

And every year, I still buy the same calendar: an Ansel Adams with an enormous single print poised above each empty month. I always look at others in the bookstore, but this one ends up on the kitchen wall.

Recently, I asked Martha Sandweiss, a Princeton University historian and author of Print the Legend: Photography and the American West, why people are so attracted to Western photographs -- hoping, really, that I'd learn something more about myself.

Photography, she said, became a way of reframing the country after the Civil War. "The West was a place beyond history, during a time when recent history was really painful," Sandweiss said. Many landscape photographers kept their cameras trained on the wilderness and its prospects, often omitting the West's history and people to create a powerful illusion of a place where only the future mattered. "There's this intense desire to imagine the West as our last great hope."

I wonder if that's what I'm after as I buy these calendars: a place of hope. Each new year spreads out beneath images that show only beauty. My own photographs were never like this -- always a little out of focus, or holding strange shadows, never quite capturing the awe I felt as I looked at that lake, that mountain, that stream of light. I need someone else's vision to remind me of what I saw, just as the clean calendar reminds me of someone else's life -- something less messy, more perfect.

My calendar stays empty only until I get home from the bookstore. Even months in advance of the coming year, there are already deadlines, birthdays, appointments and play dates that need to be remembered.

These days, I'm spending even more time looking at photographs. Not yet 2, my son can already slide his finger across my phone's screen to see images of his grandmothers, his friends, himself. These people are his landscape now -- their faces his Half Dome, their hands his bare tree branches. The photos don't show everything -- not late nights, not bathroom cleanups, not discontent or frustration or anger -- and I wonder how he will see them someday. Perhaps as a time less complicated, a place of hope.

He notices more than I realize, even now. The other day, I peeled up the pages of the calendar as I tried to scrawl in another meeting. "Moon," I heard him say.

"Can you see the moon?" I asked as I wrote. "It's not dark yet. Maybe we'll see it tonight."

As I flipped down the page, I glanced up to the print. There it was in the picture, a speck above Adams' dark California valley. Moon.

When I turned, he smiled and pointed, as he must have been doing all along. Maybe that's what photographs are for -- to teach me to recognize the beauty that is already in front of me, if only I would look.

One afternoon not long ago, our family made its way down wooden stairs to a nearby beach. The fog that smothered the coast for weeks had lifted to reveal an expanse of water freckled by kelp, sailboats, and the Channel Islands in the distance. "Isn't that just a picture?" my husband said.

This time, I kept my mouth shut. We were loaded with shovels and towels, sunscreen and surfboards, but I stopped for a moment and tried to see like a photographer. Or like my son. Whether or not I can preserve the moment on film, I can at least try to truly see it: I'm in the lens, and the lens is in me.

Cameron Walker is a freelance writer based in California.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED PROGRAMS COORDINATOR
    Are you looking for a positive and success oriented work environment, the opportunity to join a (small but) dynamic group of people supporting watershed activities...
  • BACKCOUNTRY FILM FESTIVAL MANAGER
    Boise-based Winter Wildlands Alliance is looking for an experienced and highly motivated individual to organize our annual Backcountry Film Festival and Tour and coordinate additional...
  • LAND CONSERVATION MANAGER
    SUMMARY Leads, administers and manages the land conservation, conservation easement stewardship, and property management activities of the City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department within...
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM ATTORNEY, NEVADA
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Staff Attorney who is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend, Oregon
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.