Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Honesty isn't everything

Last night I watched The River They Saw on OPB. Timed to coincide with the massive photo exhibition currently at Portland Art Museum (the book produced for the exhibition weighs in at 9 lbs), the show chronicles the early history of photography in the Columbia River Gorge.

Cape Horn, 1867, by Carleton Watkins

Naturally the first photographer profiled was Watkins, whose steamship trip upriver in 1867 was the first major photographic exploration of the gorge. Within just a few weeks we was able to make several photographs that remain iconic more than a century later.

Cape Horn Near Celilo, 1867, by Carleton Watkins

As much as I love Watkins' photographs, they've always left me uneasy. There's something strange about them, some surreal quality which until last night I'd never been able to pinpoint. It wasn't until about midway through the program, during the profile of Sarah Ladd and Lily White, that I realized what it was. Watkins' photos have no clouds!

Now this might not seem at first like a big deal. Much of early Western photography featured cloudless skies.

Timothy O'Sullivan's darkroom shot by him in the Nevada desert under cloudless skies, 1867

The blue-sensitive emulsions used in this period helped heighten the effect, turning skies into blank featureless shapes which landforms could play against. And when existing skies weren't suitable photographers back then weren't shy about mixing and matching different negatives to get whatever effect they wanted. So it shouldn't be a big deal if Watkins showed calm white skies in his gorge photos. The choice was his, right?

The Dalles, 1867, by Carleton Watkins

And yet anyone who's spent any time in the gorge knows that it's virtually never cloudless. It rains a lot, and if it's not raining chances are it's overcast. I mean, there's a reason that the mountain range which creates the gorge is called The Cascades. It's a rainforest. The fact that Watkins' photographs make it look like the Nevada desert leaves me uneasy.

It wasn't until last night that these thoughts really began to precipitate, and it was brought on by show's feature of Sarah Ladd and Lily White, two Portland photographers who explored the gorge in the early 20th century.

A Storm in the Palisades, by Lily White

Their photographs seem to me much closer to the reality of the gorge: misty, hidden, and wet. What's interesting is that Ladd and White use many of Watkins' same devices, such as the monumental form reflected in water, the deliberate use of small foreground branches to break up the background, the symmetrical but not too symmetrical framing of glorious wild nature, etc. I think all three photographers must've had similar influences. But Ladd and White's photos seem more honest.

An Early Morning Scene Above Vancouver, by Sarah Ladd

I realize that honesty in photography isn't everything. I think Lewis Hine was right when he said, "photographs don't lie, photographers lie." Photographers have been twisting the truth for years, to good effect. In the case of Watkins, I think much of the power in his gorge photos comes from the uneasy feeling produced by their blank skies. To any northwesterner, they seem downright weird. Surely Ladd and White's photos were a much truer reflection of reality, and yet it's Watkins who has become part of photography's canon while the other two remain footnotes. A good lesson there.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps you have not spent much time past Cascade Locks and Hood River, because sun is more abundant that rain or clouds. The east end of the Gorge gets less than 10 total inches of a rain a year...it can't be cloudy very much!

Blake Andrews said...

You're right. I'll let Watkins have a pass on his photo of The Dalles, but Cape Horn is definitely in the rain belt. When was the last time it was cloudless there? June maybe?

wolf said...

was the 1867 trip in the summer? We all know the summer can be full of sunny days, even west of the cascades--

you're probably onto something about the blue sensitive emulsions and likelihood of overexposure too, but did you notice if his other trip--in the snowy months--had any clouds?

I agree however that the images by the two women were much more "real" seeming-- They had a wonderful mood brought about by their celebration of our NW weather!

Thanks to Carole Glauber for her study of these women.