Yellowstone, Columbia River, Mount St. Helens
In the unusually dry summer of 1988, the Mississippi River experienced its worst drought in 100 years. Friends told me about the artifacts, boats and the riverbed itself emerging from the receding water. I thought of it as an opportunity to chronicle a storied landscape experienced by riverboat men and documented by historians. One reminiscent of Mark Twain’s river before the improvements to navigation brought about by levees, locks and dams.
From June to November of the same year, wildfires burned 1.2 million acres in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Bozeman reporter Scott Macmillan described the park as a “beloved icon” being destroyed by “a celebrity fire in a celebrity place.”
My idea of Yellowstone was derived from the 19th century photographs of William Henry Jackson, Carleton Watkins, and the 20th century images of Ansel Adams.
Thinking about my photographs taken during the drought, the idea of a changed Yellowstone vista came to mind. In 1991, three years after the fire, I saw Yellowstone’s often hidden geologic and hydrothermal formations as unique moments to be recorded. However, even as Park Rangers explained that regeneration was evident by growth from seeds which need the heat of a fire to germinate, many bemoaned the loss of the familiar.
Carleton Watkins’ mammoth plate and stereo photographs of the West played an essential role in the establishment of our national parks. Of particular interest to me were those of the Columbia River gorge taken between 1867 and 1885. This work depicts the massive landscape etched by the river, and the industries that fostered the growth of fledging cities and outposts.
Over a century later, in 1993 I photographed a Columbia River greatly changed to provide flood control, hydroelectricity, and improved navigation for river commerce.
From Oregon we went on to Mount St. Helens, now designated a National Volcanic Monument. The only ‘memories’ we had of the area were from photographs contemporary to the devastation wrought by the 1980 volcanic eruption.
Thirteen years later it still looked like those pictures. The scattered evidence of new growth did not herald the beginning of renewal, but highlighted the intensity of the change that had happened.