Alexander Craghead, December 22, 2008
(view all comments by Alexander Craghead)
One of the last things the world likely needs is a photo book on the Columbia River Gorge. This scenic area, with its numerous waterfalls, mountains, scenic vistas, and easy freeway access is probably the most over-photographed region of the Pacific Northwest. One might be pressed to say that there is nothing new left to see. And you'd be right -- but there is a lot left to see that is old, as is proved by the release of Wild Beauty: Photographs of the Columbia River Gorge, 1867-1957.
Wild Beauty places the history of photography in the Gorge at the forefront. The compilers have chosen the period of 1867 to 1957 as their focus, the latter being the date when The Dalles Dam flooded Celilo Falls. The book opens with a broad essay on the river's geological and anthropological history, and the subsequent attempts to use tools of the "industrial revolution" such a photography to record those things. It's a good overview of what the book hopes to illustrate, if a bit over-familiar to the Pacific Northwest reader. The most valuable segment of this text is contained in its last two pages, where we meet some of the Gorge's earliest photographers, such as Joseph Bucthel and Carleton Watkins.
While Buchtel's work is considered to be "unimpressive", Watkins' work is the entirety of the first of five sections of plates in the book. It's a wise and fitting choice, as Watkins is a skilled artist, a man who had cut his teeth making the photographs of Yosemite that would convince Congress to save it as the first national park. It is a miracle that as many prints as shown in the book even exist; the authors point out that many of his glass plate negatives were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Watkins brings his skills to bear on the Columbia Gorge, making images at a time of great transition. Sure, the book's title suggests an emphasis on natural beauty, yet what we see even in these, the earliest photographs of the work is the firm hand of man, altering the landscape. While some of the images will prove familiar, but as local historian Dan Haneckow pointed out to me, others are more obscure or bear re-examination. A prime example of this is Plate 6, a moderately familiar image of one of the old portage railroads during the 1860s. Look closely at the back, however, and you discover a flatcar carrying a Conestoga wagon as used on the Oregon Trail. Was this a late part of the great migration, taking advantage of a more modern alternative to risking the rapids or taking the long and rough Barlow Road? If so, it's a rare glimpse indeed.
Watkins brings us these gems of zeitgeist, but he is not simply a documentary man. Many of his images have a sensitivity and an artistic composition that makes them excellent even today. Their sharpness, their haunting familiarity makes them seem recent rather than distant. This is but the first of many times a reader will find themselves staring into the distant past and yet feeling intimate with it, as if what has changed, great as the changes have been, is less than what is the same.
The next section deals with the images of various local commercial photographers who followed in Watkins' footsteps. The subject matter these photographers chose to shoot tended to concentrate on the more intimate scale of the Gorge, and here we see some of the first images of the native population. It is here where we first glimpse Celilo as a force of nature, rather than an impediment to trade. There are surprises here too, like the great sand dunes that used to lurk on the east side of The Dalles, or vast seas of Canadian ice. A few hand-tinted images pop through, but primarily we are still given monochromes of various tints.
Section three concentrates on the rise of a new phenomenon: the amateur. Thanks to the advances of technology, photography by the turn of the twentieth century was becoming almost common. For the first time it was now possible for someone who was not a professional (or a very very eccentric amateur) to make photographs. Most notably, the two amateurs that the compilers show us are different in yet another way: they are Lily White and Sarah Ladd, women. Professionals had been an all male bastion, but the amateur photography movement gave women something more meaningful to do other than paint china plates or embroider. Yet White & Ladd were not just random photographers in the wilds; they were connected enough in the growing intellectual photography circles that they were members of Alfred Stieglitz's inner circle. Their images are peculiarly timeless, feeling not far removed from images made in our own time. The cause is uncertain -- perhaps it is a certain sharpness and a scope that is not nearly so sweeping as the earlier panorama-mania. Perhaps, too, we see here the first technically proficient pedestrian imagery of the Gorge, the great-grandmother of every amateur's weekend snapshots.
Section four deals with perhaps one of the most familiar aspects of Gorge photography, the tourism oriented image. These photographs were made primarily by commercial photographers for the railroads and the highway promoters. Here are the photographic legends of the area, including the iconic views of waterfalls, scenic highway viaducts, and the view from Crown Point. It is during this time that the modern scenic Columbia River Gorge -- thanks largely to the photographers who promoted it -- acquires its classic identity. No longer is the region a somewhat frightening place, a place of hardship and travail, but instead it is a playground, a quick drive from your suburban bungalow at a bracing 35 miles-per-hour in your Model T. Many of the images are further "gilded" through garish hand coloring.
If such boosterism seems to cheapen the river, the next and final section of the book is the most tragic of all. Titled "The Engineered River", this segment delivers to us in stunning visual images the return of the river to a cruder understanding. The water now is no more than an unharnessed power source, something to be exploited for human advancement. In some ways, however, the images we see here of dynamiting channels, the construction of great concrete dams, and the burial of cultural treasures has more in common with than different from each of the previous understandings of the Gorge; each saw it as a resource to be utilized, whether for transportation, tourism dollars, or energy. From a photographic standpoint, this chapter contains two new developments, the first being the use of true color imagery. The second and perhaps more complex development is the aerial photograph, further detaching the viewer from reality on the ground. It is perhaps appropriate for a time when men tried to drastically alter the river that their point-of-view f choice was from the height of a God's eye view.
The book closes with little further commentary. A brief (one page) epilogue is included, and following this are plate listings (but without thumbnails), notes, and acknowledgments. The latter is lengthy: many of the images scene in the book are from private collectors and have never been seen in public or print before.
Visually, the content of this book is exceptionally good. There are many remarkable plates and they are presented in a logical order that makes their context more evident, both as indicators of how the Columbia Gorge was framed and viewed, as well as how landscape photography developed and grew. That said, the book is not without faults. The introduction, although able, is dry and does not give much of a feel for the flavor of the Gorge; an essay by a writer of regional or topical relevance would have been most welcome. This is even more the case for the epilogue, which felt far too short and left me wanting more.
Fit and finish on the book is excellent. Some other reviews have noted missing pages or other assembly problems; this reviewer's copy had no such defects. This book is hefty -- you could use it as a weapon if needed. It is perhaps as large as was practical to make it, but sometimes you do wish it could have been bigger, for yet more detail in the images. That said, image reproduction is high quality.
I'm tempted to simply give this book an outright recommendation and say to you "you must buy it". However, as I alluded to in the beginning of this review, I have qualms about yet another photography book on the Columbia River Gorge. Does the world need another? More importantly, do you need this one? It is against this skepticism that I come out with the answer, yes, you do. If you are a follower of regional landscape photography, then this book, more than any other, is essential to understanding the nature of the medium. The book has the right balance of historical overview, context, and precious images. If you want a discount coffee table book to send your distant relatives, so they can understand where you live, this is not your book. Rather, Wild Beauty is a chronicle of the inter-relationship between photography and the Columbia Gorge, and thus a must-have for the bookshelf of any serious regional landscape photographer, or followers of the same.