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Still Grand: On the Canyon's 'Lasting Light'

"Solomon Temple, Angels Gate, Zoroaster Temple, Shiva Temple: Ships Sailing in Fog" by Robert McDonald | Photo: Courtesy Grand Canyon Association and Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service

The Grand Canyon has the unnerving capacity to shut us up.

Native peoples have lived in and around it for millennia, with varying degrees of intimacy. For many of them it has served as sacred ground from whence life began; approachable on pilgrimage, held at a distance. Others, such as the Havasupai and Hualapai, have lived comfortably within its contours for centuries.

Not so the Spanish: when its explorers arrived in 1540, they took one look around, and skedaddled -- and no European came back for another 200 years or so.

One of those who explored this riparian labyrinth was John Wesley Powell. In 1869, with a small crew, he led an expedition down the Colorado River, the erosive power of which had been cutting through layers of sediment for millions of years. As he ran its rapids, mapped its breadth, volume, and length, and ogled its staggering geological record encompassing two billion years, his scientific lexicon failed him. Only a biblical metaphor would do: the Grand Canyon was earth's Book of Revelations.

"Boats on the water, Marble Canyon" by Dugald Bremner. | Photo: Courtesy Grand Canyon Association and Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service

Forester Gifford Pinchot had a similar response. In 1891, he walked up to the canyon's south rim, and, lo and behold, the usually gregarious young man could not speak. "Awe-struck and silent, I strove to grasp the vastness and beauty of the greatest sight this world has to offer." On impulse, he began to sing the Doxology -- "Praise God, from whom all blessings flow" -- a spiritual spell that his guide, a fellow by the name of Doran, broke with his repeated mantra: "My, ain't it pretty." At that instant, Pinchot laughed later, "I wanted to throw him in."

How are we to comprehend this spell-binding chasm which puts us at such a loss for words? Since the late-19th-c., one tool artists have adopted in an attempt to bridge this gap between the emotional and verbal, and to communicate the canyon's mystery and meaning, has been the camera. Their adoption of this technology of representation, historian Finis Dunaway argues in Natural Visions, a superb look at environmental image-making, was not (and is not) solely aesthetic.

In their steady hands, figures such as Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter sought to shape the American imagination, sculpting our responses to and need for the wild. Working from within this artistic tradition is a new generation of photographers, a sampling of whose work makes up the core of the Smithsonian Institution's traveling exhibit, "Lasting Light: 125 Years of Grand Canyon Photography."

In collaboration with the Grand Canyon Association, and curated by the photographic staff at Eastman Kodak and National Geographic, the show contains 60 stunning photographs, beautifully reproduced, well displayed, and nicely contextualized. As a bonus, many of the images are accompanied with their creators' oft-stammered explanations for their decision to turn their gaze on the indescribable.

"Lasting Light" is on display at the Ontario (CA) Museum of History and Art until September 23; it then travels to the National Heritage Museum in Lexington MA and ends its run at Discovery Place in Texarkana TX. Wherever you are, go see it.

Robert McDonald's photo is used in the poster for "Lasting Light: 125 Years of Grand Canyon Photography."

Like the canyon, the exhibit is crowded with surprises. Begin with its title panel (which due to the configurations of the Ontario museum's available space actually is in the second of three linked rooms devoted to the exhibit). Its backdrop is Robert McDonald's striking photograph, "Ships Sailing in Fog," the production of which is a remarkable as the image itself.

The day in question was hardly optimal: gale-force winds howled across the southern rim; buffeted, McDonald held his ground, waiting for the perfect light, for shade, hue, and image to line up just right, as if in a crosshair. When it happened, his 4x5 camera caught a late afternoon glimpse of the canyon's iconic landmarks -- Solomon Temple, Angel's Gate, Zoroaster Temple, Shiva Temple.

In a sense, his photograph is a trope, an expected visual of the stacked layering of canyon walls and exposed outcroppings that recede into the background. A nice added touch is the mist that swirls around these hardrock facades, softening them with what seems to be a translucent film, a scrim.

Then you read McDonald's off-hand comment about the haze that isn't. It was smog. Our smog. Blown east from the greater Los Angeles, befouling the viewshed of an inspiring landscape whose virtues President Theodore Roosevelt challenged his generation to defend: "In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which, so far as I know, is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world. I want to ask you to do one thing in connection with it in your own interest and in the interest of the country -- to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is."

And to pay it forward -- handle the site, he urged after signing legislation establishing the canyon as an inviolable national monument, "so that your children's children will get the benefit of it."

The whirl of particulate matter in McDonald's photo confirms we've mishandled this cross-generational responsibility.

Yet the source of pollution, curiously enough, offers us the chance for reparation. As the car drives, Grand Canyon National Park is roughly 460 miles from the Ontario museum, but despite that distance the prevailing breezes intimately bind us to the cavernous site. McDonald's image becomes a mirror in which we can see the deleterious consequences of our driven culture, an insight that might help us turn the corner, becoming better stewards of the air and land, here and there.

Adding to that reflective prospect is the seductive capacity of the photographic lens to open our eyes to the canyon's flood of light, an illuminating power to wow.

That was an inescapable conclusion I reached after my wife and I slowly explored the jammed-packed space, set within Ontario's former city hall, and its display of the work of 26 contemporary photographers. (A kibitz: despite the exhibit's subtitle, it does not feature any photographs earlier than the mid-20th-c.; when pioneering photographers are included they serve to illustrate the informational placards).

This misdirection aside, the collection rocks the senses.

Color: turquoise and tangerine, sandstone, blood-orange red, blinding white, ochre and lavender, washed limestone, and needle green; crystalline blue, liquid amber.

Smell: which you cannot inhale but somehow waft off the prints -- rain on sun-baked stone; sticky pine resin; snow on chilled cone.

Movement: river rush, dust whorls, eddied backwater, fading contrails.

Feel: pitch-dark silence, slivered moon; a big-horn in silhouette.

"Mood is what elicits impact and emotion," observes Jack Dykinga, many of whose photographs grace the show. Creating that deeper, affective response is what he and his peers shoot for: "Ansel Adams said that when you can not only show someone a place, but let them feel what you felt that's the highest mark of success." Most hit that mark.

They do so not with a panoramic sweep so beloved of their 19th-c. predecessors, whose wide-angled effort to encompass all ended up shrinking their massive subject. Instead, the modern photographers tend to more tightly frame their field of vision, making the small seem voluminous.

"Reflection, Mouth of Cathedral Wash" by Gary Ladd. | Photo: Courtesy Grand Canyon Association and Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service

At this, Gary Ladd is particularly effective. "Reflection, Mouth of Cathedral Wash" is a beguiling abstract of gravel, rock, and water. A snapshot in miniature of the elemental forces that over eons have made the canyon grand; a delicate composition of geologic energy unleashed. But look carefully at that pool: in its flat surface is the solar-lit reflection of the jagged walls above, a scale set in earthen time.

Then there is Dugald Bremner's "Boats on the Water, Marble Canyon": an eerie scene in which the dory in question, its oars and huddled passengers illuminated with light emanating from stage left, appears to be floating on air, a trompe l'oeil effect courtesy of the thick craggy shadow cast up on the facing canyon wall. A moment of little moment, perhaps, except that Bremner has given it an intensely meditative feel.

"Sculptured Schist" by Liz Hyman. | Photo: Courtesy Grand Canyon Association and Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service

So too for some of Liz Hyman's diminutive canvases -- "Sculptured Schist," in which metamorphic rock that the sediment-rich river has worn down and grooved is caught so that it looks like a Henry Moore abstraction; "Sacred Dátura," a close-up of its pin-wheeled flower reminds immediately of Georgia O'Keeffe.

It also contains an echo of Aldo Leopold. In Sand County Almanac(1949), the great conservationist writes a prayerful ode to Draba, a tiny flower with a short life-cycle. "He who hopes for spring with upturned eyes never sees so small a thing as Draba. He who despairs of spring with downcast eye steps on it, unknowing. He who searches for spring with his knees in the mud finds it, in abundance."

For Leopold and Hymans, the singular contains the multitude; the petite evokes the whole.

In this declaration of nature's universality, this faith that everything is connected (thanks, Emerson). In the presumption that all we need to do is to look carefully to identify the tissue of associations -- therein lies the exhibit's most poignant claim; it is not entitled "Lasting Light" for nothing.

Even the deft framing of the individual photographs -- borders that contain and restrain -- contributes to the feeling we can know what we see, even of a place as inexpressibly immense as the Grand Canyon. We can transcend this place.

Eliot Porter did not share such unbrooked confidence. No photographer did more to express his adoration of nature's wildness to a mid-century audience hungry for such evocations. Yet in 1960 when he rafted down the Colorado a la John Wesley Powell, he was "overwhelmed by the scenery -- both in prospect and in description grossly underrated."

Nothing he had read or seen prepared him for what he encountered. "The monumental structure of the towering walls" he wrote, "defied comprehension. I didn't know where to look, what to focus on, and in my confusion, photographic opportunities slipped by."

His admission of failure is comforting. Surely it is a good thing that there are some experiences that resist our studied effort to comprehend them, that some scenes leave us speechless.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

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