Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Focusing on the Columbia Gorge: Photography, Geology, and the Pioneer West

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Focusing on the Columbia Gorge: Photography, Geology, and the Pioneer West

Article excerpt

LEWIS AND CLARK WERE SUCH CAREFUL OBSERVERS of the landscape that they set a "methodological precedent" for future surveys and explorations of the American West, as Jim E. O'Conner explains in this issue. The rigorous observations in their journal entries were, in essence, proto-photographic, presaging the role photography would play in documenting the West during the U.S. Geologic Surveys over a half century later. Since the 1860s, photographers have continually taken images of the landscapes from just above Celilo Falls west to Crown Point, and scores of images exist that qualify as de facto illustrations for Lewis and Clark's journals during their travels through the gorge. Many of them document features that Lewis and Clark would have seen but that are submerged today, and many depict significant geologic features.

In the American West, geology and photography have been intimately linked ever since substantial placer gold deposits were discovered in Coloma, California, in January 1848. Although the medium of photography was only a decade old in 1849, the California Gold Rush was the first major event in American history to be recorded in photographs. The geologists who established the California Geological Survey in 1860 were eager to obtain photographs to support their field studies and findings; and in 1867, Congress approved a series of geologic explorations of the West that included funds for photographic documentation. Not coincidentally, on July 12 of that same year the now-legendary Carleton Watkins arrived in Portland, Oregon, to photograph along the Willamette River from Oregon City to Portland and along the Columbia from Vancouver, Washington, to Celilo east of The Dalles. Much like Lewis and Clark, Watkins's vision was informed by a deep appreciation and awareness of geologic form.

Prior to his arrival in Oregon, Watkins had established close ties with contacts at the California Geological Survey. On numerous occasions, he produced photographs of the Yosemite Valley at the request of survey director Josiah Dwight Whitney and his assistant, William Henry Brewer. These geologists, historian Peter Palmquist has noted," were soon to become Watkins' greatest champions." (1) Whitney's interest in the geology of the Northwest was a driving force in the California Geological Society's support of Watkins's 1867 travels along the Columbia River. Although Whitney did not accompany Watkins on the journey, he had every confidence in the photographer's ability to recognize significant geologic subjects and create the best possible images of their features. From Rooster Rock east to Celilo Falls, Watkins produced thirty-six mammoth plate negatives in approximately three months. Measuring eighteen by twenty-two inches, the collodion wet-plate glass negatives he made required a correspondingly large camera. Further, the negatives had to be prepared and, following their lengthy exposure, processed in the field. After his return to San Francisco in late November 1867, there were so few sunlit days suitable for contact printing the negatives that it took until mid-April the following year to produce a full set of prints for exhibition.

Over the past several decades, Watkins's 1867 photographs of the Columbia River Gorge have gone from near-total obscurity to being hailed as icons of the history of photography. In 2002, the U.S. Postal Service chose to reproduce one of Watkins's gorge images in a series of twenty Masters of American Photography commemorative stamps. Had the stamps been horizontally rather than vertically formatted, my vote would have been for one of the most remarkable geologic landscape photographs ever made: Passage of The Dalles. Although we know this photograph was made in 1867, the image allows our imagination to transcend time and space. Had the technology been available, it could have been made in the time of Lewis and Clark. In choice of camera placement and framing, Watkins depicted with a kind of glacial purity only rock, water, and sky--the elemental states of solid, liquid, and vapor. …

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