The Many Forms of Gripping the Rock

Review of

Six centuries ago, the mysterious peoples known today as the Anasazi disappeared from their elaborate cliff dwellings perched high on the rocks above the desert floor of what is now the Southwestern United States. They made their mark on the landscape with intricate architecture and mystical paintings, but the Anasazi lost their grip on those rocks and faded away, leaving their ruined homes and their petroglyphs for us to marvel at.

Time passes and technologies mature. Now, stronger hands grab hold of the land and shape it beyond the wildest dreams of the Anasazi. John Sexton, best known as a landscape photographer (he was a technical consultant to Ansel Adams), has turned his lens away from the wonders of nature to focus on four monumentally beautiful examples of the work of civilization. His new book, Places of Power: The Aesthetics of Technology, draws a thread from those Anasazi cliff dwellings through Hoover Dam and a handful of coal-burning power plants to the Space Shuttle.

Sexton’s previous books, Quiet Light and Listen to the Trees, followed Adams’ tradition of environmentalist photography: pristine rocks and trees bathed in shimmering light. In 1987, Sexton took an unusual leap and began photographing technological artifacts while he was shooting landscapes in the Southwest. He became intrigued by the Anasazi, and saw their structures as monuments to the ingenuity of man. Three years later, when he visited Hoover Dam, he found that the dam shared with the ruins a “sculptural aesthetics of functional form.” He has spent the past thirteen years finding and photographing the structures and machines featured in this book.

Sexton’s black-and-white photographs are richly detailed with a symphonic range of tones, masterfully controlled by the photographer and nicely printed here. (Sexton provides ample technical information about how he made the photographs in an appendix.) He begins each of the book’s four sections with a brief introduction describing the evolution of his relationship to the subject.

The journey begins with the Anasazi. Civilizations use technology to bring order to the chaos of nature, and Sexton’s photos of their ruins reveal that the Anasazi lived intimately with both technology and nature. Geometric patterns of bricks contrast with turbulent, swirling rocks, and buildings look like they are being swallowed by the great maw of the mountain.

Sexton’s photographs show these precarious structures at different scales and from different vantage points, always in relation to the rock. In some of the images the feeling of mystery is accentuated by the tilting, off-balance composition. In other photos, like “Ancient Kiva Ladder Poles,” the physical environment is dizzying enough by itself. A pair of wooden poles climb out of a ceremonial hut, but it’s hard to tell where they lead. Are the swirling shapes above patterns in an overhanging rock ledge, or wispy clouds in the desert sky?

At 726 feet high, Hoover Dam is the tallest concrete arch dam in the United States. The dam provides electricity and water for communities in the surrounding southwest. It impounds Lake Mead, stretching 126 miles up the Colorado River. Sexton writes that when he first saw the dam, he was most interested in its massive structure and the ways it related to the environment. But as he explored its inner workings, he became captivated by the muscular power of the dam’s smaller concrete and metal components: Vaulted tunnels arch through the dark, great walls rise and bend and twist. Most of the photos are close-up shots of twisting tubes, shining turbines, and vertiginous waves of concrete.

There is as much poetry as power in these shapes, but they exist here as abstractions, removed from the natural forces they were built to harness. The thin cascades in “Water Flowing From Nevada Stilling Basin” are a faded remnant of the muddy torrent of the Grand Canyon-carving Colorado River.

It takes a certain amount of courage for a nature photographer to admit that he was “stunned by the power and grace” of an enormous, coal-fired steam turbine. But without a doubt, some of Sexton’s power station pictures are astonishingly beautiful. (There are also a few which are simply dull.) “Worn Coal Pulverizer” shows a piece of well-used industrial equipment, but its sinuous shapes and pearlescent surfaces look more like some natural treasure that surfaced on a beach to be photographed by one of the Westons. In other photographs there are explosions of luminosity, gracefully curving forms, and intricate webs of tubes and ducts leading from one machine to another. These turbines are half Calder and half Rube Goldberg.

It’s hard to get a sense of the scale of these machines. There are no people in any of the pictures, and the machines are so alien-looking that it’s hard to judge their size. There also aren’t many pictures that show how these plants fit into the landscape. The few exterior shots were either taken at night or framed to isolate the buildings from their surroundings.

Sexton expected to feel awed and exhilarated by the Space Shuttle, but he was taken aback by the complex system of scaffolding and cranes that fill its home-away-from-space, the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center. He photographs the building with a feeling of reverence. The infrastructure looks like the buttresses and vaulted ceilings of a gothic cathedral. In “Atlantis Suspended” the shuttle hangs from the ceiling like an angel on ropes. In other pictures the shuttle looks like an awkward young butterfly unfurling its wings.

The Vehicle Assembly Building is pristine, the floor so polished that the Shuttle often looks like it’s floating on a pool of light. It seems as if the more we achieve technologically, the more we are effaced from our own creations. The Anasazi painted handprints on the rock walls where they made their homes, but the Shuttle facilities are scrubbed clean of any individual’s mark.

As the book moves forward from the past, Sexton moves further from the land. It wouldn’t be possible to show the Anasazi dwellings without showing the cliff, but the pictures of the Shuttle were all taken inside a hangar. We are left to wonder how these modern places of power fit into the rest of our world. What do the strip mines where coal comes from look like? What did Black Canyon look like before it was inundated, and what does Lake Mead look like now?

This book made me want to look at pictures of these same subjects by other photographers. There is a wonderful shot by Magnum photographer René Burri of a disused NASA launch pad that shows weeds encroaching on the concrete, like the jungle swallowing a Mayan pyramid. One way to read Places of Power is as part of a mosaic. If you want to see another face of this inhabited landscape, look at Michael Kenna’s hauntingly beautiful images of gardens, factories, and power plants in Night Work (Nazraeli). For an unflinching portrayal of the collision of urban, rural and wild landscapes look at Robert Adams’ work in books like Los Angeles Spring (Aperture). For a more comprehensive (and less beautiful) look at coal power, try David T. Hanson’s Waste Land (Aperture).

And then there’s Eliot Porter’s elegiac The Place Nobody Knew (Gibbs Smith). Porter’s sumptuous color photographs of Glen Canyon are a memorial to a place of astonishing natural beauty that was flooded when the Glen Canyon Dam was built on the Colorado River in 1963, just upstream from Grand Canyon National Park and Hoover Dam. The book was originally published by the Sierra Club to commemorate the loss of the canyon. A new edition was recently issued in conjunction with a group that is lobbying to drain Lake Powell and restore the canyon, leaving the de-commissioned dam as a monument to our ability to learn from our mistakes.

Sexton’s book also made me think about my own entangled relationship with nature and technology. This winter I found myself atop a Vermont ski hill, admiring the natural splendor of the view. Then I realized that the mountain I was on had been clear cut for skiers. These connections can be hard to see up close. Although I don’t mind driving in a car to go to a nature preserve, it somehow goads me that there aren’t any ugly pictures of smoke-belching power plants in Places of Power.

But Sexton is making a subtler point. Civilizations come and go, as our old friends the Anasazi can attest. (In their case, no one is entirely sure where or why they went, but it seems to have been some combination of natural and cultural breakdowns.) The question is, will our civilization learn to live more lightly on the land, or will we keep squeezing harder until we too lose our grip on the rock and slip away, leaving nothing but ruined technological wonders for our descendants to marvel at?

Places of Power closes with one more image from the Anasazi ruins. “Circle of Time” shows a ring of rocks arranged on the rim of an escarpment. The camera is looking out at the desert and the great wide world. It’s looking at us.

Jake Miller is at work on a series of children’s books about the history of the civil rights movement. He writes often about culture, technology and the arts.

You May Also Like:

Published at 12:00 am CST