Drowned River: The Death & Rebirth of Glen Canyon on the Colorado
Photography by Mark Klett & Byron Wolfe
Essay by Rebecca Solnit
Radius Books, 2018
Review by Lauren Greenwald
When the Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1963, the water from the Colorado River, flowing through Glen Canyon, began to rise. It took 17 years to fill the reservoir, eventually burying 170 miles of canyon and river beneath a massive lake, Lake Powell. The same year, in an impassioned form of protest, the Sierra Club published a book of photographs by Eliot Porter, titled The Place No One Knew, Glen Canyon on the Colorado. Porter’s vivid color photographs documented the canyon in its final days, as it was on the brink of being swallowed up by the waters of the emerging lake. Over fifty years later, that lake is disappearing, too. By late 2016, it was only around 56% capacity; its surface 75-100 feet lower than it had been at its highest point. And now, at the upper end of the reservoir, about 30 miles of previously flooded land is re-emerging; the drowned river is “waiting to be reborn.”
In 2012, Mark Klett, Byron Wolfe, and Rebecca Solnit began to explore the lake, with Porter’s book in hand, and as Solnit writes in her essay, “our expedition began as a quixotic quest for his sites, which we knew were mostly underwater.” They explored via rented houseboats and powerboats; returning to photograph and observe this environment multiple times over the next six years. The results of those voyages are collected in the book, Drowned River: The Death & Rebirth of Glen Canyon on the Colorado.
Drowned River begins with an introduction and prologue in the form of a facsimile of 18 pages of Porter’s book, and it’s informative and moving, seeing part of the inspiration for this project, and understanding how Porter’s explorations provided a framework for this new documentation of the area. The rich color photographs in The Place No One Knew were supplemented with assorted passages from various writers, with a text passage facing every full cover image. Wallace Stegner, who wrote a wonderful book about Lake Powell’s namesake, John Wesley Powell, is one of the contributors, and while David Brower, then-executive director of the Sierra Club, wrote in his 1963 introduction to the book that Stegner could have written the entire text himself, Stegner agreed with the choice of many authors, “…one person’s words would have been a voice in the wilderness; we have a chorus instead – many voices, not to be dismissed, for the wilderness.” This is an idea that’s even more important today, as we see from the body of work to come.
Once this introduction has been made, and we are given a glimpse of the awesome beauty of the place that was, and the tragedy of its destruction, we enter the fascinating collaborative world of the three artists, Klett, Solnit, and Wolfe. This is their second project as a group, and the seamlessness with which their work merges together is a pleasure to see. One thing I love about books is the way you must travel through them, discovering new things with the turn of each page, and if the book is designed sensitively and imaginatively, you are guided through a singular experience.
Drowned River begins with a single sentence, printed across six pages. It makes you keenly aware of time – it forces you to slow down; to absorb the words, the poetry, of Solnit’s writing.
Over and over again we returned to the big reservoir behind Glen Canyon Dam on the Arizona-Utah border,
to try to understand what this place has been and will be, to try to come to terms with what it means to float on still water
hundreds of feet above where a river once flowed, to watch the place’s fate become clear over the years we explored the unstable
relationship between sky, land, and water. This place with two conflicting names – Glen Canyon for what it had been and will be,
Lake Powell for what it has been for half a century – was a good place to think about the madness of the past and the terror of
the future, amid the epiphanies of beautiful light and majestic space and the contradictions of the present.
According to Stegner, Powell’s expedition first entered the canyon in 1869. They originally called it Monument Canyon, as it was beautiful and calm, a change from the previous wild and noisy canyons they had traversed, and named things like Cataract, and Desolation. Stegner describes it as pure idyll, with soaring sandstone walls above quiet green waters. I find it oddly poetic, imagining the thread connecting the experiences of these three groups: Powell’s explorers, advancing in the face of the unknown, Porter’s elegaiec wandering through the bottoms of the canyon, recording a place he knew would be lost to human eyes forever, and Klett, Solnit and Wolfe, drifting across a steadily diminishing lake, and bearing witness to its disintegration, its drying up, as it becomes a new kind of waste land.
The images chosen for the book come from what I imagine are thousands, and illustrate and reinforce boundaries and borders – horizons, ridgelines, waterlines both current and past, a tumbleweed perched next to the water’s edge. As the reader moves through the book, the images also progress in a conversation of sorts – this reminds me of that, that suggest this … repeated images of sky and sand and water, views through windshields and windows of boats, sunlight dividing a body of water into inky zones of indigo and brilliant turquoise. In one set of images, the water’s edge is rendered by horizontal stripes of rust colored sand and still blue water, and is paired with a cliff face shown reflected, upside down in the waters of a darkened lake. A bright moon above a still lake draws a dagger of light in the water, and on the opposite page, we see an outstretched hand holding the corroded body of a jackknife, along with a bullet, repeating the sphere and dagger shapes. A curious taxonomy of abandoned objects all taking on a similar sun-bleached blue-grey cast are photographed against grounds of dirt the color of pulverized sandstone.
And much like the pairing of writing with Porter’s images, the photographs in this book are punctuated by a wonderful essay by Solnit. She takes the reader through the history of the place, the decisions and events leading up to the drowning of a river, its current state, and the problems facing the region now, while vividly illustrating the experiences the group had, and their observations and conclusions. Viewing the lake over the period of six years, they were able to witness first-hand the progression of its demise, and Solnit writes, “What had seemed an uncertain fate for the reservoir at the outset seemed settled by the time we wound down our work five years after we started – settled in a way that had once seemed outrageous and unlikely. Things change. Our present is a future no one anticipated.” Time is important here, and the normal relationships between past, present, and future seem to not apply. Later she writes, “The future arrived hard and fast, harder and faster than almost anyone imagined. We’re in it; it’s the present.” In addition to the photographs and text, there are several supplements including a delightful “map” of the submerged canyon, comprised of depth soundings from a fish-finder, and a fold-out map representing the canyon and lake as they are now – and illustrating the re-birth of the river, with a slightly altered route. The book is big, but not too big, at 11 x 13 inches, it is about the size of a medium road atlas, and like pretty much every Radius book I’ve ever seen, beautifully constructed and printed. It does the content justice. This is a complex and thought-provoking book, and I feel I’m not able to communicate that adequately here, but I think another sentence of Solnit’s could be applied here as well, “It was an enchanted place in both senses – sublimely beautiful and under a spell that made it something other than itself.”
If Eliot Porter’s book was, as Solnit called it, “an obituary and a protest”, then this book is a reckoning; it is still a lament, a sorrowful chronicling of what was and what has become, but it is more complete – a book about witnessing, understanding, and communicating a terrible reality.
All images © 2018 Mark Klett & Byron Wolfe
Lauren Greenwald is an Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of South Carolina.
She lives and works in Columbia, South Carolina.