Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 20, 2017
Nicholas Bauch Enchanting the Desert: A Pattern Language for the Production of Space A Stanford Digital Project. Stanford: Stanford University, 2016. (9780804797399)
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In Enchanting the Desert: A Pattern Language for the Production of Space (http://www.enchantingthedesert.com/home/), the inaugural Interactive Scholarly Works publication from Stanford University Press, geographer Nicholas Bauch “revives” as a layered digital map a forty-three-photograph slideshow of the Grand Canyon assembled and narrated by commercial photographer Henry Peabody in the first decades of the twentieth century. Originating in Bauch’s “deep sense of wonder about the landscapes depicted in the photographs” (“Motivation for Enchanting the Desert”) and integrating archival research with theoretical approaches to the production of space, the project addresses and historicizes the ways that images of the Grand Canyon have generated dreams of contact and understanding that exceed any physical or conceptual frame. Although Peabody is not a central figure in the history of western landscape photography and “only traces” of his work are visible in archives, his career as explorer, artist, promoter, and educator reveals critical transitions in photographic practices, landscape aesthetics and ideologies, and western tourism. His work also merits this project’s scholarly investigation and digital reimagining for its ability to expose the commercial demands and popular desires of his era. Bauch approaches Peabody’s illustrated and narrated lecture as a historic effort to grasp the meaning of the sublime western landscape, as well as an opportunity to reflect on our current environmental crisis and practices of visual production and consumption.

Bauch’s broader subject is the role visual technology plays in the process of seeing, imagining, and understanding a place—that is, in developing the kind of regional knowledge geographers call Landeskunde. For this reason Enchanting the Desert is an apt choice for this open-access project sponsored by the Mellon Foundation. Although a printed monograph might have made Bauch’s argument persuasively through chapters contextualizing Peabody’s life and work, annotating his images, and interrogating their implications, the website application—which includes GIS mapping overlays, audio narration, and colorized images—allows for a different kind of immersion and more complex reading. Conceived as a contemporary response to John Muir’s nostalgia for wilderness and Max Weber’s sociological analysis of disenchantment, Enchanting the Desert comes with high expectations that a “born-digital” project can restore wonder in nature and in the stories we continue to tell about it, as well as “produce vocabularies that enable different disciplines to talk to each other” and “open up a new dimension of humanistic inquiry,” as Marisa Parham, Director of the Five College Digital Humanities Project, expressed the potential of digital humanities scholarship in a recent interview (Melissa Dinsman, “The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Marisa Parham,” Los Angeles Review of Books [May 19, 2016]: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/digital-humanities-interview-marisa-parham/). It succeeds in meeting such expectations due to its interdisciplinary framework, its accessible tone, and its beautifully executed design.

The Grand Canyon resisted visual comprehension in the nineteenth century and only gradually emerged as a symbolic national site after the Civil War. When Peabody arrived there in 1899, the great survey photographers—Timothy O’Sullivan, William Henry Jackson, John Hillers, and Carleton Watkins—had already produced an astonishing body of work; published in small editions as part of U.S. Geographical and Geological survey reports or in books for wealthy investors, these images initially reached a limited, elite audience. By the turn of twentieth century, the new ease of image reproduction, the circulation of postcards, and slide lectures such as Peabody’s—as well as the construction of El Tovar and Hopi House on the South Rim—made the Grand Canyon one of the West’s most popular landmarks. Bauch provides detailed descriptions of how Peabody added color, story, and sound to make the slideshow more enticing for potential tourists. He also offers lively retellings of the adventures of other western explorers, including the “prospector-turned-guide” William Bass, the Kolb Brothers (who set themselves up as resident photographers on the South Rim), and Harvey Butchart (who rashly floated down the Colorado River on an air mattress).

The primary focus of the site is the sequence of photographs Peabody finally set in 1931, and Bauch offers a rich array of interactive tools for visualizing them as part of a geographic narrative that reveals what Carl Sauer called the “dynamic relation of life and land” (“Practicing Landscape Interpretation”): topographical maps overlaid with trails, names of landmarks, view angles, and station points; tinted versions of the images; Peabody’s recorded commentary; and Bauch’s own exposition and analysis. The site allows users to manipulate three main windows (text, photograph, and topographical map) and determine which one to enlarge, which trails to layer, and which side notes to pursue. Bauch makes available effective, unobtrusive tools for navigation throughout, including two heading bars, one listing the major chapters of text (Introduction, Toponymy, Exploration, Settlement, Tourism, Infrastructure) and the other displaying thumbnail images in the correct sequence, each of which enlarge according to the topic or frame selected; arrows that move users backward or forward through Peabody’s sequence of images; highlighted names or key words in the text that offer links to other related sections; and prompts at the end of each written section.

One way to begin is with Peabody’s slide lecture itself. Each of Peabody’s photographs is paired with a section of a chapter and a map to orient the viewer in the landscape, and users can listen to Bauch reading from Peabody’s script. Of course, there are many other ways to enter and navigate the site, with many opportunities for close and distant reading. Peabody’s linear arrangement soon yields to Bauch’s spatial plan, created so that “representations of space begin to drive the narrative” (“Spatial Narratives, Part II”; emphasis in original). At its best, the site takes its viewers through multiple time frames and cultural perspectives, digging deep into early geologic and human eras and pushing into the future. While discussing the Colorado River, for example, Bauch juxtaposes John Wesley Powell’s celebrated writing about his journey down the river in 1869 with Peabody’s serene, majestic photograph from 1925 and then introduces the transformation that would occur with the construction of the Hoover Dam in 1936. The section annotating Oza Butte, a landmark borrowing the Paiute word for narrow-necked basket, opens into an account of the six major Native groups in the region and the role Paiute tribal leaders played in guiding Powell and sharing place names. Three sections tell Hopi history, discuss the effects of federal land policies on Hopi sovereignty, and analyze the cultural politics of the tourist encounters staged by Fred Harvey. The multiplicity of potential routes through the site challenges scholarly hierarchies and practices of viewing aesthetic objects.

Some of the most interesting sections of the textual commentary address the conceptual limitations of photography itself. In “Peabody and the Slideshow Genre, Part I,” Bauch writes, “The art of a slideshow lies in its transitions” and proceeds to consider how “a transition is a disjuncture, a space in between.” Each click interrupts efforts at spatial abstraction, punctuating moments of aesthetic appreciation with instants of unthinkable blankness. Thinking through the blankness is one of Bauch’s aims, as is questioning the function of narrative and the stability of geographical formations. He proposes that Peabody’s work “set a pattern of visual abandonment” (“Space and Place in Peabody’s Slideshow”) in which features of the landscape disappeared from view, evoking presence through absence. The last textual entry, “The Vanishing Canyon,” evokes the everyday sounds of erosion (falling rocks and wind) to unsettle the sense of stability produced by photographs. In sections such as these Bauch reveals his commitment to what he calls the “implicit-ness” of the project: the knowledge, stories, sensations, feelings and questions that remain “hidden in plain sight,” present and perhaps even visible but not fully seen. When he applies Jane Bennett’s philosophy of enchantment, he is fully aware of the contradictions inherent in manipulating a keyboard and computer screen as a means of reviving intangible feelings of mystery and infinity.

A major strength of this project lies in the way it enacts the methodological and intellectual issues at the center of Peabody’s Grand Canyon photographs and invites viewers to engage on their own terms with “the intangible, immeasurable world” these images represent. How do we create mental maps from photographs? How can we transform aesthetic responses into land knowledge? What is the true language of cartography? Have we really become so “inured” to the spell cast by spectacular landscape photography “that we can’t see the Grand Canyon anymore” (“Grand Canyon vs. Photography, Part I: Not With Light Alone”; emphasis in original)? Bauch keeps posing these questions in different contexts and refrains from offering definitive conclusions to each section, much less to the project as a whole. Scholars working actively on digital humanities projects will find an effective and fully realized digital monograph here, even if they might seek more transparency about how it was built. Other scholars and users, meanwhile, will discover how a well-designed interactive platform can invigorate not only works of art dormant in the archive but also our ways of thinking about the lands we visit, use, sustain, and imagine.

Audrey Goodman
Professor, Department of English, Georgia State University

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