Field Manual for Enchanting the Desert
Enchanting the Desert is a research project conceived from the imaginative moment when the eye meets a graphic representation of space. While it is common to hear people claim their love of maps, it is less common to hear an in depth explanation of why poring over laid-out plan views is so captivating. I believe the magnetism that holds the eye to the map can be described by the document’s capacity to engage feelings of wonder, adventure, and exploration – all without leaving the cozy confines of a library or home. We use maps to define ourselves; choosing one place on a map as ideal over another is a claim – even if only subtly, tacitly to ourselves – about who we are and what we want to become. Deeply personal, we use maps to plant seeds in our being, letting them define where we want to end up in life, where the grass is greener. Cartographers spend lifetimes making hard decisions about what to include on maps, and what to leave out. And while excluding information from a map can be frustrating to its maker, it opens up the possibility for its user to dream, to imagine what might be there. Crafting stories, images, interactions, sensations, or feelings about a place is, in my view, the true language of cartography. Wondering if our ideations match the mundane leads us to travel and explore the surface of the earth, to be alive, curious, geographical beings.
When I encountered the set of landscape photographs taken by Henry Peabody between 1899-1910 at the Grand Canyon, I felt a deep sense of wonder about the landscapes depicted in the photographs, in much the same way as I feel when I look at a good map. Since the onset of American research expeditions in the mid-nineteenth-century, the Grand Canyon has remained one of the most textually, pictorially, diagrammatically, and cartographically represented landscapes in the world. Interestingly, however, this set of 40 photographs stood out to me almost immediately because of the nakedness, the honesty, the simplicity, and the lack of contrivance found in the images. The photos allowed me to dream about what might be there, about who I might become should I go there and enter into these scenes. Within these photos I see an openness to time: I imagine a collection of others’ interpretations and meanings, I see people climbing up and down the cliff walls, I hear the conversations of the early riverboat explorers, and I learn about the natural history of the Canyon. Peabody is also there, but somehow I trust his biases, agendas, and calculations, or at least find them benign. Through his photos he presents himself to me as clunky, even a little dorky, technically proficient yet without grand artistic aspirations. While far from irrelevant, his unobtrusive intentions allow a certain freedom to make the photos one’s own, to let the mind wander through the landscapes more so than do the Western photographs of such masters as Ansel Adams or Carleton Watkins. Without the cutting-edge technical wizardry (how did he do that?) obscuring one’s experience of the images, Peabody’s photographs leave space for the mind to wo(a)nder about the content of the scene itself, much like a map. His photographs fuel the lust for touching the mundane, to acting out our aspirations – however big or small – to perform the geography of our being human.
While certainly an end product in itself, this book is a launching pad to aid in the collaborative field expedition to the Grand Canyon conducted by members of the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA) at Stanford University during September 2013. Filmmaker David Lynch writes about how the look of a scene always drives his creative work. He says you have to trust the original vision of some small nugget you imagined to guide all subsequent decisions for making the work of art. Following Lynch’s advice, this field work campaign has been put together to help collect the information that will populate, or as I prefer it, enchant, these landscape scenes in a way that plays with, while doing homage to, the slideshow genre which Peabody helped to concretize. Looking at the precise territories captured in Peabody’s negatives from a cartographic perspective brings the slideshow out of a linear, disorienting context, and into a spatial context, complete with the freedom for the eye to move about the landscape. What we fill these photographs with is the open question. After the trip, I will have a much clearer sense of how to wade through the voluminous warehouses of information about the Grand Canyon, about which stories are canonical, and which stories need to be made. I will, in short, be closer to knowing the content that enchants this landscape.
You are likely reading this book because you are a member of the CESTA research team. You might even be standing on the rim of the Canyon right now. It is sometimes hard to conjure the tone of what we are supposed to be doing here all together. It might feel like a regular vacation, or an annoyingly large number of people to contend with, far from notions of enchantedness or anything out of the ordinary. On the contrary, however, we are all part of something quite unique. That is, we are conducting collaborative field work for a project the first year of which was spent in archives, in front of computers, and with heads buried in books. The methods for embodying and performing this type of research in situ is undeveloped in an intellectual tradition – the humanities – that is based in ideas. While scientific practice is founded on the act of walking out into the world, empirics in the humanities is airy at best. This trip is an effort to help define what it looks like to lay big ideas over a real landscape. In June 2013 we conducted a formal planning session for this trip, which included an exercise that gathered our thoughts about what we could “give and get” from participating in such an event. To remind us all of why we are here, and to guide our affect on the trip, I briefly include some of those responses here.
• We said we would give: questions, curiosities, knowledge, and criticism.
• We said we would get: experience participating in collaborative humanities fieldwork, CESTA community building, and ideas for our own research projects.
What follows in this Field Manual are the photographs taken by Peabody at the Grand Canyon. Alone, they are geographically disorienting. When viewed in their original format – as a lantern slide show – the advance from one image to the next erases any spatial context, with the station point, heading, pitch, elevation, and even focal length instantaneously altered in front of the viewers’ eyes. The average person’s capacity to keep up with the mental map that is unfurled with each click of the projector is quite low; we can appreciate the aesthetic beauty of an individual frame, but are challenged to relate it with all the other frames in any coherent way. Given that the purpose of the slideshow was to educate, entertain, and offer a form of vicarious travel, this poses a major problem. Pictorially describing the grandness of the Canyon was, and is still not, possible with a single photograph. It seems, then, that Peabody had the right genre in mind with the narrated slideshow format, as it allowed him the freedom to say many things with his camera and voice in a single showing. But with the revival of this slideshow in Enchanting the Desert, the viewer is aided by a series of viewshed maps, which describe in cartographic detail the visual scene being presented in each photograph. These maps were made as an endpoint, but also as a tool that clarifies which parts of the Grand Canyon are made visible in the photographs that were taken – in large part – from lookouts which are still today considered among the most iconic vantage points at the National Park. Understanding the Canyon as plural – as a collection of particular places with their own meanings and histories – is made possible by understanding what one is actually looking at in the photographs. The Grand Canyon is better conceived not as a single place that one can snap a picture of, but rather as a broad region within which are complex relationships among the elements – both living and non – that remain hidden in plain sight. Uncovering, presenting, describing, and offering end users the power to manipulate placed-information in this awesome region is the goal of our work at the Canyon.