Saturday, January 03, 2009

Columbia Gorge: Recent History

I had the good fortune to hear John Laursen tell us some the stories behind his Wild Beauty: Photographs of the Columbia River Gorge, 1867–1957. He spoke and showed slides in the Portland Art Museum's main auditorium (same venue as The Power of Nightmares, also Wendy and Lucy). Good seeing Gordon Hoffman again.

This exhibit is soon to close, and such a wealth of material is unlikely to be reassembled given co-author and curator Terry Toedtemeier's unparalleled knowledge and relationships with collectors of Pacific Northwest photographs. Terry died just a few days back in Hood River, having presented one last time on the subject he loved. The memorial service is tomorrow.

Carleton Watkins begins our story, having trained in San Francisco in landscape photography (still a new art) and proved his metal in Yosemite, his stunning pictures helping stimulate and sustain an environmentalist mindset even in busy cities with lots of light pollution. He hoped to do the same for the Gorge.

Watkins for awhile had the largest custom built camera in the United States, with matching dark tent and chemicals, and got the steam boat and railroad companies to sponsor his way, lugging literally tons of equipment around Cascade Falls (no Bonneville Dam yet) out to The Dalles, where the river "turned on its side" (became very deep and narrow) -- no dam there yet either, just Celilo Falls, a wonder of the world, submerged on March 10, 1957, the end of an era.

Ironically, the industry sponsoring his work was consumed with Manifest Destiny fantasies, was busy changing the basic geometry of the Gorge, first with navigable locks in the late 1800s, then with highways (Sam Hill gets a lot of credit for those) and then with the most game-changing public works projects of all: the dams.

Subsequent photographers chronicled these changes, including a team of two women, Lily White & Sarah Ladd, based in a well-equipped houseboat, who did some of the best atmospheric shots (more attention to mood).

With changes in mode of transportation came changes in vantage point, as well as photochemistry. The collection ends with aerial shots by the US Army Corps of Engineers, in Kodachrome.

After the lecture and some time in the gallery, the captain and I joined Linda Richards and her fellow scholars from OSU, Mary E. Braun and Elissa Curcio, for some interesting lunch conversation, wherein I learned of the Confluence Project, directed by Maya Linn.

I wish Tara could have joined us, am glad of the Portland Art Museum's new admissions policy: free to those 17 and under. The exhibit's last day is January 11, and spreads out over two floors. Attendance this weekend seemed high, with a line out the door sometimes.

Sponsors of the above work include: the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde, Umatilla, Warm Springs, Nez Perce, Chinook and Wasco tribes.