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The Place No One Knew

July 20th, 2019

Sunrise over Negit Island, Mono Lake, Eastern Sierra 1980

We seek a renewed stirring of love for the Earth.
We shall urge that what man is capable of doing to the earth
is not always what we ought to do, and we shall plead that all Americans, here, now, determine that a wide, spacious, untrammeled freedom shall remain in the midst of the American earth as living testimony that this generation, our own, had love for the next.
 -David Brower in The Place No One Knew, 1963

The Place No One Knew

© 2000 William Neill, originally published in Outdoor Photographer Magazine in 2000.

In 1963, the Sierra Club published a monumental book which features magnificent photographs of master landscape photographer Eliot Porter.  Glen Canyon, in Utah and now buried under Lake Powell, was once a wild and transcendentally beautiful section of the Colorado River.  Government plans to damn the river just downstream from Glen Canyon became widely known too late to stop the project.  A sacred landscape was lost forever, the book a eulogy its demise. The concept behind the book The Place No One Knew is a vital one for nature photographers to know.

No one knew Glen Canyon.  Years later, a dam plan was slated to be built in the Grand Canyon, but the fame of the park and public knowledge of the proposed dam helped stop the project.  Had Glen Canyon been a national park, cherished by the nation as the Grand Canyon is, it might still be wild and free.  The book relates a now-classic environmental moral:  Be ever vigilant!

This book’s idea was to illustrate, in heartbreaking fashion, the need to continually defend wild places against development and destruction. The message is more relevant than ever before, a lesson vital to any photographer concerned with conservation.  Awareness and appreciation of endangered places are essential before public concern can be raised and action taken. While most significant landscapes in our country are well-known, often-photographed, and reasonably well-protected, thousands of local nature preserves around us also deserve our collective photographic attention.  Photographing local or lesser-known pieces of wildness can remind our viewers that beauty is found all around us both near and far.  The moral of Glen Canyon applies not only to grand and famous landscapes.

Our local woodlands, wetlands, ponds, streams, meadows are most vital to us on a daily basis.  As we drive to work or maybe to the market, that glowing reflection on the neighborhood pond sparks a light in our day, often unconsciously.  I witnessed much destruction of these little landscape niches in the suburbs of San Francisco and Washington, D.C. while growing up. The cumulative impact of thousands of small landscapes being devoured by progress can be surprisingly invisible.  Stop, look around you and try to remember how your area looked five, ten or twenty years ago.  One or two encroachments in the neighborhood may seem tolerable, but few stop to add up the total sum of the whittling of development into natural landscapes in every city around the country over the past 50 years.

I don’t pretend I have the answers, but I do hope to encourage the reader to think about these matters. Consider what use your photographs may have for making sure your local wild places and critters are not unknown.  Publicizing a local landscape could have the added advantage of promoting your artistic reputation or career, as well as making others aware of a place no one knew.

When I first moved to Yosemite in 1977, I spent many weekends photographing nearby Mono Lake camping along the shore with not a soul in sight.  Back then, the lake was not well known as either a photographic location or as an environmental issue.  The water that naturally would normally flow into it from the adjacent Sierra Nevada mountains was being diverted to southern California.  Since the lake has no other source of water, it began to dry up. The diversions were adversely impacting the bird populations that used the lake as a breeding site and a feeding stop along their migration path.

Having a college degree in environmental studies, I always hoped to find ways to use my images to preserve wild places. After photographing Mono Lake for a few years, I took my slides to the Mono Lake Committee, the group active in publicizing Mono Lake’s approaching death.  After sharing my work with them, I learned that they wanted to use one of my images as a notecard.  The image shown here was selected, becoming the first photograph I ever had published.  I was thrilled, of course, and received in payment a bundle of cards for promotional use.  I used the card successfully for years as a marketing tool sent to potential clients (including this magazine at its inception!).  More importantly, my imagery made a small contribution to the successful effort to preserve Mono Lake by making more people aware of its stunning beauty and ecological importance.

Sunrise over Negit Island was made in 1980 with a 35mm film camera and a 300mm lens.  I often use the 200mm to 300mm range focal length for landscapes because they allow me to compose images with more graphic qualities.  I love the use of lines and shapes in my work. When we frame a landscape in our viewfinders, the scenes are generally more complex, and with the graphics being less apparent, options of how to design an image become less obvious.  Try studying a potential scene to find its key shapes.   Do you see the u-shaped river of a glacial valley or the contrasting s-shape of a river against jagged mountain peaks?  These shapes may provide the key to the strongest composition.

My image here shows several shapes that complement each other.  The lake reflects the sunrise sky in a striped pattern due to variable winds out on the water.  Negit Island, a volcanic formation, pops out in its black silhouette against the surrounding pinks and purples.  The receding desert mountains add depth and stature to the landscape.  The fleeting clouds floated blissfully above, touched by the dawn light and then vanished soon after.

Once a place no one knew, the lake remains alive, saved for now by court and governmental decree.  Long live Mono Lake!  Never forget Glen Canyon!

 

11 Responses to “The Place No One Knew”

  1. Bill
    David Brower and the Sierra Club managed to save Dinosaur National Monument from two dams but lost Glen Canyon in return. They should have kept fighting.
    thanks for all you do!
    Randy Fullbright

  2. Bryan says:

    Dear Bill

    Thank-you so much for sharing your story and wonderful image.
    It might have been written just yesterday, as it is all the more relevant today.

    I cherish the short time that I spent with you photographing nature.
    You will always be “the master”.

    Best Wishes
    Bryan

    • Thanks Bryan! We did have fun…

      Some thoughts about the term “master.” From Guy Tal:

      “In the words of Oliver Sacks, “Many creators—whether they are artists, scientists, cooks, teachers, or engineers—are content, after they have achieved a level of mastery, to stay with a form, or play within its bounds, for the rest of their lives, never breaking into anything radically new. Their work may still show mastery and even virtuosity, giving great delight even if it does not take the further step into ‘major’ creativity.” This is one reason I never liked the term, “master,” because, like so many other things in art, it is ambiguous, and not necessarily as worthy of admiration as some (especially those who self-apply it) would like.”

      https://guytal.blog/2019/06/17/the-pitfalls-of-style

    • I guess I’m uncomfortable with that term. Mastering is my goal but it never can be attained!!

  3. In 2017 the New Zealand government settled a case with a Maori tribe to give a river the same gal rights as a human being. There are likely those who would disagree with that rendering; in their eyes the bible says that God gave man dominion over the earth, etc. From the Latin word dominus, it means to master.

    There’s just one tiny little problem with that. Breathe out. Completely now. Okay, now see how long you can go without breathing in. Every molecule of oxygen on this planet comes from plants – whether they be trees, flowers, plankton or bacteria. Still think humans are masters of everything? The Lakota people have a saying: Mitakue oyasin. Roughly translated it means we are all related.

    In 1965 James Lovelock suggested the Gaia hypothesis. He wanted people to understand that the earth is an autopoietic network: self-making. The carbon atoms in your body once composed the dinosaurs. You’re breathing the same air breathed by the ancient civilizations. Without pollination by bees it’s been estimated 100,000 species of plants would disappear. There goes ⅓-½ of what’s in your grocery store. Heat the earth and you change global wind patterns and global ocean currents. That changes Everything.

    But perhaps the best reminder of this was written by astronaut Russell Schweickart. You can find an excerpt in a post I wrote for Earth Day some years ago: https://www.wolfnowl.com/stories/he-says-she-says/he-says-earth-day/

    Anyway, sometimes I talk too much.

    Mike.

  4. Richard Beebe says:

    My wife and I discovered Mono Lake the year after you. Geology field trip.
    1979 was the start of photographic exploration, by attending a workshop with Al Weber. That year I, too, started a relationship with MLC, contributing imagery to the newsletter. They should still have prints on file from David Gaines’ memorial in 1988.
    There aren’t too many places I visit that I know better than here.
    I use the concept of “long term relationships” with students on the idea of growing a rapport through the love of place: learning how the spirit of place changes day to day, month by month, season by season, year after year. It may be place on a grand scale, like a “Yosemite,” or it may be a small scale setting, like one’s own backyard.

    I hold dearly my passion for Mono Lake and its remarkable Basin.

    Best Wishes, Bill…
    …Richard Beebe

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