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Reconstructing The View: The Grand Canyon Photographs Of Mark Klett And Byron Wolfe

Author : Rebecca A. Senf
Published : 2012-10-30

How many of us would, if we had the chance, step into the past? To experience a time so very different than the one we live in, to take in sights before they were transformed by society in some form or another.

We can't of course, though we can compare the past and the present through photography. This approach to sorting and blending the past and the present of Grand Canyon National Park are on display in a new book from the University of California Press.

In Reconstructing the View: The Grand Canyon Photographs of Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe we are treated to a Jigsaw puzzle of sorts that spans 150 years of Grand Canyon photography, paintings, sketches, and even postcards, a seamless melding of the past and present as seen through works of such giants as Ansel Adams and Thomas Moran and paired with images from Klett and Wolfe.

This was no easy task, as the two photographers first had to build a database of materials they wanted to match their own photographs to. Some of this assembling was done in restaurants and bars in the park where the two had Wi-Fi access. Some came from the photographers' personal collections. Klett, for instance, had over the years built a nice collection of postcard views of the canyon.

This compilation of source materials resulted in a flurry of folders sorted either by location (Marble Canyon, for instance, or Yavapai Point), or artist (Moran) or photographer (Adams). Once they filtered these materials, Klett and Wolfe had to head out into the park to find the precise spot where they thought the historic sketches, paintings, or photographs had been made.

In taking their own photographs, the men had to decide how they would combine them with the historic images: would they embed theirs in another, or piece it together like two Jigsaw puzzle pieces, or wrap theirs around a historic photo? Complicating their work was how natural lighting throughout the day can seemingly alter the landscape before your eyes.

"On our first trip to the Grand Canyon, it seemed as if all the canyon views looked the same and it felt nearly impossible to match our images to the terrain," Mr. Klett noted in the book. "Standing at the canyon's edge, the same place looks completely different when the sunlight comes from the opposite direction, or the sky is overcast and the lighting is flat. It was frustratingly difficult to tell the landforms apart by comparing pictures since they flattten the great depth of the space.

The final product is an incredible work of art, and not simply due to the vast collection of historic and present-day images, sketches, and paintings that fill the book. Just as important, if not more so, as assembling images from the past was how Klett and Wolfe present their matching works.

In one case they took a stereoview of Perched Rock that William Bell photographed in 1872 and paired it with side-by-side photos of the same rock they took in 2008. In another, they took an expansive view of the canyon from Yavapai Point and seamlessly placed within it a shot from the point taken in 1942 by Frederick Sommer.

Many others have compiled books of photographs from the past and present taken from the same vantage point. But the uniquess of this book lies in the exquisite mixing of mediums the two did: photographs appended to photographs, 19th-century stereoviews compared with present-day photos, sketches and paintings intertwined with photographs.

Perhaps their artistic genius is best realized in taking pieces of Thomas Moran's 1872 painting of the Grand Canyon (and some of the artist's field sketches of that scene) and perfectly reassembling the view not only with their own panoramic photography from Dutton Point, but also with part of what was considered to be the first photograph ever made from that location, by J.K. Hillers in 1872.

A measure of whimsy is infused within the book's covers, too. In piecing together an image from the canyon, Klett and Wolfe utilized one of their own shots puzzled together with half of a late-19th century or early 20th century stereoview of a man on his hands and knees looking down into the canyon with a shot taken by Alvin Landgon Corburn around 1911. In another compilation, they pieced together slices of an historic stereoview picturing a woman and a man on an outcrop looking down upon present-day reclining figures near the Sinking Ship.

Such are the surprises that materialize as you turn the pages of this 208-page hard-cover book that contains 129 color illustrations.

Complementing the photographic puzzling are an essay by Rebecca A. Senf, who dissected the approach Klett and Wolfe took on this work, and one by Stephen J. Pyne, who attaches some valuable human history to the canyon to help place the images in perspective.

Whether Grand Canyon National Park is your favorite, or if you're intrigued by history, or simply appreciate the flexibility of modern media, Reconstructing The View is a wonderful book to return to time and again to see what you might have missed the previous times or simply to appreciate the genius that went into it.

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