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Know the West

The contradictions of iconic lands

The photos inside two new volumes show the grandeur and vulnerability of landscapes like the Grand Canyon and Bears Ears National Monument.

 

Nowadays, most of the Colorado Plateau’s national park or monument gateway-communities boast their own landscape photographers. Usually the primary one is a man, who owns a gallery there and specializes in large-format, highly processed prints. Promising wholeness and wholesomeness, postcard picturesqueness translates nicely into dollars, especially during troubled times.

Some critics consider the idealized scenes — showcased through calendars, magazines, ads, documentaries and NGO websites — mere “Nature porn.” Such images, they object, always suggest wildlands that are healthy, largely intact, and free of intrusion or degradation. Too many photographers still work under romantic biases, in the tradition of 19th-century painters like Albert Bierstadt or Thomas Moran. Detractors see set pieces of waterfalls, rock formations, cloud-lined vistas, light ricocheting from canyon walls, and portraits of shy desert creatures more as soothing anodyne than actual art, the kind of images that anesthetize any engagement required of us. Glossy publications attract busloads of visitors to already-overcrowded parks. Genre proponents, conversely, feel that images of soul-stirring sublimity promote a desire to protect what is left, or at least to financially support those who try to.

Landscape pictorials as a means to stoke political activism are a venerable tradition. Photography supported Western preservation campaigns, from Ansel Adam’s glorification of Yosemite Valley to Eliot Porter’s The Place No One Knew (1963), which the Sierra Club publicized to fight Glen Canyon Dam. The former Sierra Club director Dave Brower’s brainchild, This Is Dinosaur (1955), rallied public opinion against building Echo Park Dam inside that national monument. Two recent “coffee-table” books about Southwestern desert enclaves reaffirm this combative heritage.

The Grand Canyon by self-taught Colorado photographer and filmmaker Pete McBride sprang from his 2015 expedition with Kevin Fedarko (author of The Emerald Mile): The two men backpacked 750-plus, mostly trail-less miles from Lees Ferry to Grand Wash Cliffs. Their book is meant as “a visual requiem for those gems that are now in the process of being discarded.” Much to his credit, McBride does not shy from “non-traditional” motifs that challenge viewer expectations: tangled fence-wire, South Rim light pollution, Havasupai protesters, or a composite of jetboats and choppers clogging the river section called “Heli Alley.” “From every point on the compass, from the air above as well as the ground below, the integrity of the Grand Canyon is under threat from people seeking to profit from its wonders,” Fedarko writes in the introduction. Encroaching uranium mines, the din from sightseeing flights, and the proposed 10,000-visitors-per-day Escalade cable tramway and resort (which has been, for now, rejected) are duly mentioned. The overall impression, however — reinforced by grit-and-dirt adventure photography — is that the Grand Canyon still offers much-needed relief and refuge, and not just to Homo sapiens.

Where The Grand Canyon impresses with intimate below-the-rim vignettes, Bears Ears brims with minimalist, wide-angle “architectural” takes. Stephen Strom, a longtime research astronomer and the photographer behind Bears Ears, belongs in the more formal, somewhat academic Fine Arts camp. In previous projects, Strom’s photos complemented poetry, and his publisher’s advisers include renowned cultural critic, curator, and landscape theorist Lucy Lippard. Strom’s compositions frequently favor sky above low-slung horizon lines, which along with the canyons’ Martian-red warp lend an otherworldly quality to the images. Humans or artifacts appear as afterthoughts, and angles often are bird’s-eye views, presenting sights unknown to people who lived here before the advent of aircraft. Though they paint too barren a picture of this region, Strom’s panoramas and close-ups of textures and structural elements will delight geology buffs and abstract art lovers. The book’s poem by Mvskoke Nation (Oklahoma) poet Joy Harjo is both a moving prayer to Shash Jaa (“Bears Ears”), and a trenchant warning.

Already reduced in acreage by the current administration, Strom’s “drama of expansive landscapes and skies” remains a target of resource extraction and development, as well as of pothunting and other vandalism. Law enforcement remains spotty.

In the struggle to save treasured places, some pictures are worth more than a thousand words and, as neural shortcuts, appeal directly to emotion. John Wesley Powell agreed, bringing photographers on his own expeditions: “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself.” As rationalistic, economical and ecological arguments for conservation alone seem to fail, aesthetic and “spiritual” motives must come to their aid. Engaged landscape photography — augmented by films and articles, as were the Sierra Club books — can help fill that void. Celebrating “the foresight of visionary leaders” — Roosevelt’s in 1908, and Obama’s in 2016 — both new folios are worth their price. In different ways, both break the mold of landscape photography books as simply exercises in prettiness, building on their predecessors’ stylistic repertoire.  

Note: This story has been updated to correct the name of author Stephen E. Strom.

Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon and of American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean. An anthropologist and wilderness guide, he also dabbles in photography.