Photo Cascadia Blog
Posts Tagged ‘history’
Grand Teton National Park is a photographer’s dream, and one place in particular draws photographers from all over the world: Mormon Row. It’s such a distinctly American vista: the craggy, dramatic Teton range looming majestically over a symbol of settlers’ dreams and tenacity in a harsh landscape. There’s such beauty in the simplicity, in the Moulton Barns in particular; the way the warm light hits the wooden beams, some vertical, some horizontal. I’ve wondered over my years of visiting the park about the history of the area, but I never knew much besides a vague idea.
Basically, the Homestead Act of 1862, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, said that people could migrate West and set up a homestead and get 160 acres of public land to own, free. In the 1890s, Mormon settlers from Salt Lake set up homesteads in what is now called Mormon Row. They named the village Grovont, after the Gros Ventre river (which is actually named for the Indian tribe, and means “big belly” in French). All in all, there were 27 homesteads, clustered close together, unlike most Western homesteads, which tended to be quite isolated. The closeness helped the people of Grovont share work duties and community. In addition to the ranches and homes, Grovont also had a schoolhouse and a church.
The land and the climate are harsh. The soil was sandy and rocky. Winters in the area are long and brutal, and farming season is relatively short. The people of Grovont dealt with these conditions by digging a network of ditches, to supply water to the community. Water still flows in some of these ditches.
Probably the most famous structure in Grovont still standing is the John Moulton barn. Pictured above, it stands near the more modern, arguably less attractive, pink stucco house that belonged to John and Bertha Moulton. The Moultons originally lived in a log cabin on the site, but replaced it with the distinctive pink house after living there for many years. I mean, who wouldn’t want to live in a pink house in the Tetons?
Nearby, John Moulton’s brother, T.A. Moulton, set up a homestead with his wife Lucille, and built a very similar barn. This barn looks a bit newer as it took T.A. Moulton over 30 years to build.
Several other barns and structures remain in the former village, which is basically a ghost town, if you think about it.
In the early 1900s, tourism in the Jackson Hole area began to take off, particularly “dude ranches.” Wealthy Easterners wanted to travel to the Tetons and have a taste of living the adventurous cowboy life. I had no idea that dude ranches were wildly popular in the 1910s and 1920s. But as tourism took off, so did people’s concerns about development and protecting the environment. Congress created Grand Teton National Park in 1929, much smaller than it is today. John D. Rockefeller Jr. in particular wanted to preserve the natural beauty of the area and began purchasing land, eventually buying 35,000 acres, which he donated to help expand Grand Teton National Park. Many former homesteads were donated or bought by the national park, some with agreements that the homesteaders or their descendents would continue to live there until their deaths. The former village of Grovont was acquired by the park in the mid-1900s, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.
There are a number of reasons I’m drawn to photographing ghost towns. Perhaps it’s something to do for a change of pace, maybe it’s photographing the history of a bygone era, or possibly it’s my fascination with dystopian literature. But mostly it’s just fun. I’ve photographed ghost towns from Alaska to Mexico. Most of them exist from the boom-and-bust of the mining era, while others are from the days of Manifest Destiny gone awry; leftovers from a time when Americans thought if we moved to arid lands for cultivation then the rain would follow.
The ruins these people left behind are in different states of disrepair. Some are preserved as parks, some are not and are left to crumble, and others are resurrected as artist colonies for an affordable place to work and live. Whatever their state, there is always something to explore and photograph.
I’ve explored and photographed the well-known ghost towns (i.e. Bodie) to the little-known towns (i.e.) Farlin. Hell, I even did a ghost town long-distance walk across the Yukon and Northwest Territories on the 221 mile (355km) Canol Heritage Trail, and followed a World War II oil pipeline through the wilderness. The walk past little-used and abandoned autos, pump-house towns, and work stations was fascinating. Additionally, I walked the 33-mile (53km) Chilkoot Trail from Dyea, Alaska to Bennett, British Columbia that follows a land of artifacts and relics from the Klondike Gold Rush. But you don’t need to walk long distances for most ghost towns; they’re on maps and a good AWD vehicle will get you to most of them. Just remember that the majority of ghost towns are at a higher elevation and not lowland valleys, so you might need to wait until summer for access.
Upon arriving for the first time, I like to get that establishing shot. Maybe it’s an overview of the entire town from a nearby highpoint, or possibly it’s a shot of one of the more prominent buildings in town like the mine itself. If the light is not right, I’ll come back to that establishing image as the light improves, but at least I’ve found what represents the town as a whole. Once I have the establishing shot, I begin to look for the intimate. Ghost towns are known for what’s left behind. It could be a table setting, an old poster still on the wall, or implements hanging from the ceiling, but I look for those things that might tell more of the story of the place I’m photographing.
Ghost towns usually have plenty of texture and plenty of rust that can create interesting patterns of shape and color. I look at the old boards for details of pattern and rusted old cars with peeling paint can offer a myriad of abstract compositions too. If artists are moving into the area, look for the weird. Near a Nevada ghost town I photographed, there was a whole field of cars planted in the ground grill first. The exposed sections of the autos were covered with graffiti art exploring life, politics, and the exotic.
Since this is a ghost town, also look for the creepy. I had one ghost town all to myself in the middle of Montana. I walked into an old abandoned hotel to look around and then heard something upstairs. When I walked upstairs I just saw a long hallway of light and dark, and thought to myself, “I’m not going down there.” But I did try to capture in a photo the way I felt at the time.
Also when you’re visiting a ghost town look for the cemetery; there is always one nearby. Some can be quaint, others historic, and still others a bit spooky. Any way you capture them, the images can be interesting and will also help tell the story of place. Ghost towns are also a great place for night photography, and light painting the old buildings while photographing the stars overhead can make for a fun evening shoot. If you’re photographing at night, use common sense and leave the steel wool at home. Sparks from these efforts can level a whole town, and enough historic relics from California to Florida have already been lost to photographer’s fire.
In 2017 I’ll be returning to Montana to conduct a photographic loop of the western ghost town locales. I hope you can join me. You can click here for more information.
There are many photographers who worry that exposure to photographs by others will contaminate the purity of their own creative vision, that they will never find their own voice if they are working under the influence, so to speak. Creativity involves choice, however. The late, great art historian Michael Baxandall famously demolished the idea that artists can ‘influence’ other artists in the true sense of that word. He rightly pointed out that the notion of influence describes the effect of an active power exerting itself on a passive subject, and that the nature of artistic intention actually runs the other way around. He offered up some alternative vocabulary that better explains the process of working in any medium, actual possibilities for what an artist can do in light of another’s work:
“Draw on, resort to, avail oneself of, appropriate from, engage with, react to, quote, differentiate oneself from, assimilate oneself to, assimilate, align oneself with, copy, address, paraphrase, absorb, make a variation on, revive, continue, remodel, resist, simplify, reconstitute, elaborate on, develop, face up to, master, subvert, perpetuate, reduce, promote, respond to, transform, tackle…—everyone will be able to think of others.” (Patterns of Intention, pg. 58)
It is important for photographers to keep in mind that they have all of these options and more for creating their own photographs after viewing other images. It is also important to acknowledge that no photographer exists in a vacuum. One of the great plagues of history is the idea of pure creative genius, that an artwork can spring fully formed out of the head of an artist without any external input. On the contrary, we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and even so-called “naive” artists absorb the visual solutions of whatever imagery they do encounter. Promoting the idea of purity in creativity is not only absurd but is also detrimental to the creative spirit in that it sets up a false premise. That premise posits that what ultimately matters is difference, the extent to which a photograph or a body of work can stand apart from everything that came before it. What really matters, however, is not difference but substance—not standing apart, but making a contribution. As I have written before, the pursuit of difference puts the emphasis on what to avoid rather than what to create, an emphasis that is ultimately counterproductive.
One of the most helpful ideas about viewing photographs that I have encountered is to consider how they might be “extending the conversation” established by photographs that came before them. How is a given photograph in dialogue with what preceded it, and what has it contributed to that conversation? As Brooks Jensen explains, the more that we view other photographs and get to know the history of photography, the better able we will be to appreciate “the subtleties of the currents that drift through the medium” (Looking at Images, pg. 102). That level of appreciation will serve any photographer far better than the impossible pursuit of visual ignorance—burying your head in the sand only cuts off an important avenue for personal development. If we think about existing photographs positively, as foundational elements for all that follows, then we will be more likely to process this visual input in creative ways. We don’t have to try to ‘un-see’ other photographs or fear how they might affect our own work if we embrace the idea that we can ‘own’ our responses to them.
So my answer to the question in the title of this article is a resounding “yes”. Explore and enjoy the images of other photographers! Even photographs that cause us to be overwhelmed with admiration can advance our progress as individuals by helping us to identify what moves and motivates us, which is ultimately a point of personal discovery. If we keep in mind that visual literacy will inform the work of a photographer, not ‘influence’ it, then we can remain focused on productive goals rather than getting hung up on being different. Viewing the works of others is one avenue that can lead in a positive direction as we respond to what we see. Ultimately, anything that can put you in touch with your own interests, reservations, emotions, and experiences is going to help to place your focus where it belongs: on you.
Do you find yourself conflicted by the idea of viewing the images of other photographers? Do you have any favorite strategies for responding to visual input? Please feel free to chime in on this important topic by leaving a comment below. Thanks for reading!
Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Slovenia, traveling and photographing extensively from home bases in both locations. Make sure to bookmark Erin’s site at www.erinbabnik.com. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter and 500px.
Book Review of Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher
by David Cobb
In early American photographic history there were a handful of giants, including Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, William Henry Jackson, and Edward Curtis. To improve and learn more about one’s own photography, I believe it’s important to learn about photographers who came before. So when I picked up a new book about Edward Curtis (1869-1962) I was eager to learn what it had to say.
Curtis’ life was a Horatio Alger story in a way, with more of a rags-to-riches-to- rags twist. He hobnobbed with the Seattle elite as a photographer of the rich and famous, he photographed the family of President Teddy Roosevelt, bargained with America’s richest man J.P. Morgan, and met and photographed the famous Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. But for his life-long work (a 20-volume set depicting the North American Indian) he was never paid a dime.
In Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, author Timothy Egan delivers an insightful biography of this great American photographer. The book covers Curtis’ early childhood on the plains of Minnesota, his years of back-breaking work along Seattle’s harbors, his time as Seattle’s famous society photographer, and his interest and obsession with photographing the vanishing American Indian. It was this latter project that brought him his fame, and also his financial woes.
The direction of his photographic career took shape on a climb up Washington’s Mount Rainier. While photographing glacial ice, Curtis befriended a group of men descending the mountain who were some of the leading scientists of the time. They were so impressed with Curtis’ knowledge and confidence they invited him to be expedition photographer on a trip to Alaska. Not only did Curtis earn the respect of his peers on this expedition he also made important contacts that would further his quest to photograph the endangered Native American. From there his career took shape and his legacy changed.
Curtis himself had little formal education, so support was hard to come by and his projects were met with skepticism, especially from institutions such as the Smithsonian. But Curtis’ knowledge of the lives and plight of the American Indian was vast. The real so-called experts of the time seldom strayed from their ivory towers; comparatively Curtis lived constantly in the field gathering hands-on knowledge. In one odd meeting in the book, a leading “expert” on Native Americans asked Curtis what it was like to meet a real Indian.
Today his 20-volume set is valued by collectors, with a collection recently selling for 1.4 million dollars. Curtis’ images continue to fetch high prices in galleries as well. Native Americans also value his photographs as a way to reconnect with their heritage, and his sound recordings are sometimes used as an aid in relearning their languages.
In this beautifully written and well-researched biography, Egan covers not only Curtis the photographer but also Curtis the human being—faults and all. He delves into the photographer’s friendships, financial woes, marital difficulties, and blame of the U.S. Government and Christian missionaries for the treatment of Native Americans. Using letters and diaries, Egan explores Curtis’ friendships with longtime friend Ed Meany (who always supported Curtis through thick and thin) and Alexander Upshaw (his Native American interpreter and right-hand man). Egan tracks Curtis’ upheavals in life through letters exchanged by Curtis and Meany, and details his frustrations with racism through his recorded observations of Upshaw’s difficulties as an educated Indian in a white man’s world.
Author Timothy Egan (winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award) portrays the life and work of Edward Curtis with insight and compassion. As a photographer, I found Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher not only fascinating, but also a page-turner. This book on Edward Curtis is for anyone with an interest in photography, and also with an interest in great people of American history. If you’re a photographer it’s important to study what’s come before, and Egan’s Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher comes highly recommended.