Histories of west, photography connected

Though photos of Grand Canyon tend to speak for themselves, the history of photography here isn't complete without the parallel stories of westward exploration, growth of the conservation movement and the evolution of the medium.

"The story of photography in the Canyon is the story of landscape photography in the west and of photography as a whole. It was an incredible story that needed to be told," said author Stephen Trimble, whose book, "Lasting Light: 125 Years of Grand Canyon Photography," explores those connections through text and 115 photographs dating from the late 1800s to the present.

"We know how spectacular the photos are and how amazing the place is," Trimble said. "What has not been featured are the adventures of the photographers who with passion and skill bring the Grand Canyon home. This is the unique story of the people and experiences, their inspiration, humor and passion."

The book's release is this Sunday at the opening of the Kolb Studio exhibit of the same name. Trimble and several others featured in the book and the exhibit will be present.

Photos of Grand Canyon were among the first taken of the west. Trimble's narrative travels from the adventures of pioneering photographers who captured images from surveying trips on heavy, fragile glass plates to those exploring the as-yet unrealized possibilities of digital photography. Though George Eastman "democratized" photography with his KODAK camera, making it accessible to all, the vision shared by the photographers in the book is much more elusive.

"People find it surprising to look in the Canyon at midday and see that it doesn't look like those in Arizona Highways," Trimble said. "The irony of the (book's) title is how fleeting those moments of light are. I think of it as coyote light, a trickster, leading you on. But when you capture that moment in a photo, it becomes lasting light."

In fact, it was Arizona Highways, which in the 1930s debuted as the first full-color magazine, that set the standard for these photographers. The Canyon, always a spectacular subject, was commonly featured.

The book also documents the activist sensibilities of those photographers, who sought preservation of the landscape itself and not merely images of it. For instance, the first coffee table book was conceived in the early 1960s by photographer David Brower, who compiled images of the region's beauty in a bid to help the Sierra Club fight off the construction of Glen Canyon Dam.

"Brower invented the large format photo book to fight the dam," Trimble said. "(Photographers) Elliot Porter and Phillip Hyde were in the middle of that chapter in the history of landscape photography."

Because the book is more about capturing the landscape than about the landscape itself, Trimble said its content draws from interviews with photographers rather than trips to the field. It contains one of the last interviews with Hyde, who was in his 80s when Trimble spoke to him last fall, not long before he died.

Though the book covers the history of photography dating back to the early surveying days, the exhibit features mostly contemporary photographers.

"The photographs in the exhibit and the book are by a cohort of premier photographers who have established a body of work, and up and coming photographers," Trimble said.

This is a group, he said, who came of age in the 70s influenced by early visits to the Canyon and desiring to continue the conservation work of the earlier photographers. Trimble, who was born in 1950, is part of that group.

"They talk about seeing the Canyon as young people," Trimble said. "They talk about the light and spending the rest of their lives trying to capture that light."

He recounted the story of photographer Tom Till, who visited the Canyon in anticipation of a big snow storm. He waited three days for cloud cover to lift and on a hunch parked himself at Mather Point before dawn to make sure he was there for sunrise.

"He had maybe five seconds of light, an incredible orange glow," said Trimble. "He spent essentially a week. That's the kind of dedication and patience of these photographers."

Encouraging that kind of vision in the recreational photographer was part of Trimble's goal in writing the book.

"I'd love to see them inspired to build their own relationships with landscape to art," he said.

The book briefly touches on digital photography, which, said Trimble, is still in its infancy for landscape photographers. In fact most of the images in the book were rendered in film.

With improving quality and the advantage of being lightweight in the field, Trimble said the digital medium is drawing more photographers to experiment with it.

"Many are still working with 4 by 5 film because you can capture more on film than digitally," he said. "Those who worked with 35 mm have embraced digital much more quickly. We are certainly in the middle of that digital revolution."

The book was conceived by Richard Jackson and Associates in Flagstaff and Pam Frazier at the Grand Canyon Association. They worked with Dave Jenney at Northland Publishing.

"Lasting Light" is Trimble's 20th book. A former park ranger in Utah and Colorado, he was worked as a freelance photographer and writer in the southwest for 25 years. He also worked as director of the Museum of Northern Arizona Press. His own history as a photographer is intertwined with that of an activist with a zeal to build understanding of the southwest's natural wonder and its people. His web site is stephentrimble.net.


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