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James C. Richardson, from “Cascadia: Living on Fire,” May 1998, National Geographic

Yesterday we made one of my favorite day trips to Mount St. Helens—a journey that manages a pitch-perfect harmony of natural beauty, horrifying evidence of destruction, and late capitalist kitsch. The drive to the Johnson Ridge Observatory just near the volcanic crater (a visitor center perpetually overrun with tourists, in a scene that looks exactly like James C. Richardson’s photograph, minus the polarizing filter) culminates in a recently re-envisioned, cracked-out educational film about the eruption, which ends with the screen lifting and the curtain parting to reveal the hissing crater just outside the window.

This dramatic finale is a fascinating play of reality and representation; the presentation and framing of nature; and of interior and exterior spaces. The enormous window that overlooks the mountain is even partitioned into a grid of thick black squares, as if it has been prepared for a public lesson on perspective drawing. When I first visited several years ago, I had the uncanny experience (for which I don’t believe there’s a name) of having walked into a familiar photograph: namely, Rick Dingus’ spot-on panorama of the theater, which I had studied long before ever setting foot in Washington State. [Dingus is no stranger to the application of framing devices onto popular views of the sublime. His major 1978 discovery as part of the Rephotographic Survey Project about Timothy O’Sullivan’s artistic liberties created a sizable ripple on the scholarship of 19th century landscape photography.]

Emmett Gowin, “Mount St. Helens, Washington,” 1980

The area of devastation (and the souvenir/tourist industry that’s sprouted in its wake) is ripe for a new wave of younger landscape photographers to cover. Just off the top of my head, I’d love to see what Jason Fulford, J. Bennett Fitts, or Jungjin Lee would do with a hillside residency. Emmet Gowin made a number of photographs of the mountain decades ago, but only the image of the downed tree and warbonnet stump stands out in my eyes.

Frank Gohlke, ” Aerial view: downed forest near Elk Rock. Approximately ten miles northwest of Mount St. Helens, Washington,” 1981

And then of course there’s Frank Gohlke, whose Mount St. Helens photos re-entered my life yesterday in a most lovely and unexpected way. Browsing the first of a half-dozen gift shops, I stumbled on a cache of still-sealed copies of the monograph that accompanied Gohlke’s Mount St. Helens MoMA show of 2005. Sweeter still—they were all marked down to $14.95, and Christine bought me a copy before I could even protest. When I got home, I was disappointed to learn that the book didn’t contain a proper essay about the photographs, even though John Szarkowski selected and sequenced all of the images. There’s a typically dull introduction by Peter Galassi, brief endnotes on the photos by the artist, and an essay by two scientists about volcanoes (adopted from a chapter in The Earth in Turmoil), which doesn’t even touch in Gohlke’s photographs. Rather than complain about it, I will try to organize a few thoughts about why Gohlke has succeeded in capturing the sublime horror and beauty of the eruption’s aftermath better than any other photographer in a short essay later this week. In the meantime, however, I have a big project to prepare for, so I will leave you with my favorite photograph of May 18, 1980, taken by Robert Krimmel for the US Geological Survey.


One Comment

  1. Great to see this work again!

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