The history of two canyons, in photographs

  • Book covers

  Out of the flood of books on the Colorado River, two recent illustrated volumes caught our eye.

Robert 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," writes Webb.

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.

After 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.

Above 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 periods."

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.

Inskip's 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 sigh.

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.

The Colorado 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.

Jared Farmer is an HCN intern

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