Views from the Bottom: A Review of The Grand Canyon by Tom Blagden Jr.
Photo courtesy Rizzoli Publications.
People who know the Grand Canyon well agree that there are in fact two canyons: the one seen from the top, a lifeless, abstract tableau, and the one experienced intimately at the bottom. The typical rim visitor, one of six million per year, stays from five to seven hours and spends an average of 17 minutes looking at the abyss. River runners, conversely, take it in every waking minute, 100 to 200 hours, depending on the duration of their trip. That’s a lot of time to contemplate the succession of eons and our insignificance measured against them. Literally and figuratively, the river perspective immerses you.
You weather furnace or greenhouse temperatures, except in the rapids or under cascades that turn your lips blue. You face sand in your lasagna and sleeping bag, rocks hot as a frying pan or sharp as a cheese grater, gusts that upset dinner tables or take paint off a dory, the canyon’s wooden signature boat … You also might spot blooming cactus gardens and columbines, pink rattlers, submarine-shaped, endangered humpback chubs, white pelicans, or bighorn ewes with lambs bending necks for a late afternoon drink as you drift lazily past.
Timed to this park’s centennial, and following their 2018 photo book by a canyon through-hiker, Rizzoli just released The Grand Canyon, by the veteran, official photographer of one of its oldest river outfits, which may be the next best thing to being “down there.” The foreword by dory boatman and history professor Roderick Nash, author of the environmental classic Wilderness and the American Mind, puts the 175 color photos into their proper context. National parks and designated wilderness areas were “an original American contribution to world civilization.”
Recalling the scheme to build dams inside the Grand Canyon, Nash reminds us that, had it not been for stalwart defenders and public opinion, “almost every point of view Tom Blagden used for his photography in this book would be hundreds of feet under the water of a reservoir.” The canyon, however, remains threatened—by uranium mining and resort development on adjacent lands, by invasive species, South Rim traffic snarls, and beach erosion downstream of Glen Canyon Dam, by coal plant emissions, and by noise from sightseeing flights.
Coffee table books almost by definition embrace the Attenborough-ization of Nature. Who wants to display atrocities in their living room? We seek refuge in such idealizations, as we do in documentaries that show wildlife and untrammeled landscapes enduring. The Grand Canyon, seemingly protected, intact, assures us of the better angels of our nature — hence its symbolic importance.
These images largely sideline human impact, evident only subtly, as trampled sand inside Redwall Cavern, a notoriously difficult-to-shoot locale Blagden aces and which most of the 30,000 annual floaters visit. So, the beauty proclaimed in the book’s subtitle is far from “unseen.” Due to high demand, permits for exploring the canyon on multi-day adventures are limited in number and tightly regulated. “Yet,” Nash writes, “when you push a boat off the beach at Lees Ferry or drop over the rim with a backpack, you are entering one of the most intense wildernesses on the planet.” It’s a place where hikers still disappear without leaving a trace.
As any Grand Canyon river pictorial should, Blagden’s parades the expected motifs and does so with style: artfully blurred, rushing water and graceful stream bends, blue-and-gold river reflections, sky sugared with stars between darker rims, rapids exploding into chandelier spray, flora, fauna, and geology, and even the flute-playing guide in Blacktail Canyon familiar to tourists who’ve taken commercial trips. All popular stops are represented: Elves Chasm in its plashing serenity; baby-blue currents at Havasu and the Little Colorado confluence; Deer Creek’s narrows and thunderous fall; Nankoweap’s pre-Columbian ruins, perched above steely meanders.
But you’ll find surprise shots here too. A dream raven in flight. Sparring, turquoise-splotched lizards. Cobbles green with algae, backed by salmon-pink cliffs. The Grand Canyon impresses as much with details as with grandeur, and these scenes remind us that each river outing is unique. Several photos taken mid-stream and reproduced as two-page, panoramic spreads offer views closed to hikers, let alone rim walkers a mile above. One only wishes the boatmen and camp life had been given more space, since they are as much part of this type of experience as the rapids and terraced walls. Still, Blagden’s visual journey evokes memories from your own or whets the appetite for one if you’ve never gone. “Most of us who have spent a lot of time on rivers think they are alive,” Nash, a boatman since the ’50s, writes. This paean to a glorious gorge sings the praises of a survivor, a river hemmed in but not broken.
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