Great Chasm

Reyner Banham

  • Corridors of Time by Ron Redfern and Carl Sagan
    Orbis, 198 pp, £25.00, March 1981, ISBN 0 85613 316 7

‘The Great Chasm of the Colorado’, as awe-struck admirers of the Sublime used to call it, is one of the unquestioned show-pieces of North American geology. The word ‘show-piece’ seems appropriate because the Grand Canyon, to give it the name canonised by the advertising of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, is a kind of permanent media-event whose skilful presentation to the viewing public is almost as important as the substance of its topography. The basic packaging of the Grand Canyon (in which the railroad was brilliantly assisted by a remarkable woman architect, Mary Colter), much elaborated since by the National Parks Service and a host of other entities, public and private, is good – but does not reach the level of such masterpieces as Niagara Falls.

At Niagara, a natural phenomenon so unnerving as to be almost beyond close contemplation was turned into a really spectacular piece of theatre, and thus tamed and made digestible, by the genius of Frederick Law Olmsted, who has been described as ‘the last great 18th-century landscaper of the 19th century’. Olmsted restored the natural ecology, rendered it proof against destruction by constant and massive visitation, and opened up the views of the Falls to ordinary tourists. In the process, he denied most visitors the gasping horror of the sublime vision that greeted early explorers, and can be regained nowadays only during the climatic chaos of early spring when one stumbles and fumbles through the ice and mist, the brain as numbed as the fingers by the infernal stanchless thunder of the half-visible cataract under the cliff’s edge.

The Grand Canyon, by contrast, is unfathomably still. For all its statistical immensity, it is much less impressive at first sight and sound. It lacks a central dramatic focus like the Falls, and its vast depths are unmeasurable to the unaided eye. Many visitors must feel like the unabashed Sydneysider I once over-heard, turning back from the hand-rail at the edge of the abyss and announcing to all who cared to listen: ‘Justa neffin great ole in the grahn, mite!’ Old canyonists, and others who will not hear Nature spoken of without respect, will not only respond to such statements with shock and horror, but will also point out that one cannot properly appreciate the Great Chasm by merely peering over the South Rim, but should make the endless, saddle-sore muleback descent to the canyon floor a mile below or – better still – whitewater one’s way through the rapids of the Colorado River itself on a boat or raft.

While the air thickens with flying misquotations from Major John Wesley Powell’s pioneer navigation of the Canyon in 1869, the less committed among us may reflect that these approved ways of seeing the place are extremely time-consuming, and require the setting aside of three or more days of one’s time, and the advance booking of guides, livestock or equipment. That may, indeed, be the only ultimately proper way of viewing the Canyon: Mary Colter’s designs clearly imply a contemplative approach which includes (as did Powell’s exploration) the native peoples of the area, as well as the spectacle of its geology. But it is an approach that is no use to the average tourist or cross-country driver, who hopes to see the Canyon and then get on to Las Vegas or Flagstaff for dinner. So the Canyon tends to remain an enigma or warily-confessed disappointment to a very large proportion of its visitors: something to be seen, gaped at and left to its own devices, because it does not even photograph convincingly with average amateur equipment. Yet it also has the potential to be an enormous mass-media success, something far beyond mere picture-postcards and packaged sets of colour-slides – and it was presumably with an eye to the profits within such a potential that the complex enterprise of producing Corridors of Time was mounted.

The whole book, with its 12"-by-12" format and 46" gatefolds, has more the air of a promotion than a publication, the hard-back equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster with endless credit-titles to match: ‘Designed by Irwin Glusker with Kristen Reilly and Christian van Rosenvinge. Manufacture directed by Arthur Hamparian and Stuart Benick. Production editing by Rosalyn T. Badalamenti’ etc. The resemblance to Close Encounters of a Geological Kind is reinforced by the reader’s discovery that the special effects were done in England: ‘Geological colour graphics by Gary Hincks’ (of Diss, Norfolk).

If one misses the name of a Kubrick or Coppola in all this, the loss is effectively made good by a before-the-credit-titles introduction by Carl Sagan, American television’s equivalent of James Burke and Patrick Moore, combining Burke’s Flash Harry glibness with Moore’s manic enthusiasm. In rhapsodic prose, Sagan sets the Grand Canyon in the perspective of terrestrial and even extra-terrestrial geology, pointing out that, a mere 350 km in length, it is puny stuff compared to the 5000 km of Vallis Marineris on Mars. Chiefly, however, he concentrates on selling the book, emphasising that ‘much of the history of our planet can be found in the Grand Canyon section of the Colorado Plateau,’ and that ‘Ron Redfern is an amateur in the best sense of the word. For more than a decade he has been pursuing and nurturing a love for this exquisite geological feature ... ’

The Redfern photographs seem to be the occasion or excuse for publishing Corridors of Time, though they form a small part of the book’s total bulk, in spite of their Cinemascope presentation. They are comparatively distortion-free wide-angle panoramas, produced by a technique that Redfern claims to have invented, though, with astute British modesty, he refrains from revealing it. The text appears to be credited to Redfern as well, but most of it is so sloppy and over-written that it would be reassuring to be able to blame it on someone other than this seemingly fastidious photographer. One chapter begins: ‘A towering neck of sculpted basalt, the eroded remnant of a volcanic pyramid of a bygone age stands in solitude near the north-western limit of the state of New Mexico. For fifty miles around it, the country is arid, barren undulating desert ... ’ Even if you are not the sort of person who reaches for his gun when he hears the words ‘bygone age’, this travel-brochure prose makes clogged reading. Worse, it travesties what it affects to describe: the outcrop in question – never named in the text – is the Shiprock, the wonder of early explorers and the most magical and romantic of all the rock-formations in the area, its pinnacled outline and buttressed faces fully deserving its older name of Cathedral Rock. It isn’t even part of the argument of the chapter that follows, serving merely to maintain the air of unsleeping geological awareness that spikes the whole text.

The writing, frankly, I find a puzzle. I don’t doubt that it truly reflects Redfern’s interests and intentions, but he doesn’t sound the type who would naturally write such plastic padding, nor so much of it: some 40,000 words of straight text, and square feet of captioning to Hincks’s geological graphics, redrawn diagrams from Scientific American, and the like. The suspicion grows that all this wordage is simply wrapping for the photographs.

Anyone who knows America knows that you can always sell photographs of Arizona: the sustained and publicly applauded success of the monthly Arizona Highways is proof of that. As it happens, Arizona boasts scenery that is as stunning as it is varied, but the magazine’s photographers, process-engravers and printers have got the presentation of that scenery down to a fine art, or superlative craft, establishing a standard of high-gloss super-realism that all other representations of Arizona must now equal, or perish.

If Redfern partially perishes, it may not be entirely his fault. His credentials as a maker of great scenic photographs seem sound, and some of the views in this book are entirely successful, both as representations and as works of photographic art, especially in this very large format. There are, however, peculiarities of panoramic optics, human perception and Redfern’s photographic technique that work against him on occasion, and some oddities and faults of print work which combine to frustrate his apparent intentions.

It is in the nature of panoramic presentation that extreme angular displacements produce effects that will strain the viewer’s credulity when laid out flat on the page. With angular sweeps that can be as wide as 270 degrees, Redfern often finds himself in the rather ridiculous position of having the sun shine in opposite directions in different parts of the picture. On pages 66-67, for instance, shadows fall to the right on the left-hand side of the view, and to the left at the other side. The same kind of thing happens on pages 8-9, on the otherwise splendid double-gatefold on pages 15-18, but is usually less noticeable elsewhere, except for pages 172-173, where it is the more disturbing for not being immediately legible for what it is.

Of course, this effect would not be so troublesome were the pictures set up on a curved surface with one’s eyes at about the same relative location as the camera was, and required to make the same degrees of angular sweep. On pages 172-173, for instance, the reader’s eye, at normal book-scanning distance, is asked to sweep only about 40 degrees, as compared with the 200 degrees swept by the camera. Once one has worked all this out, and made the necessary mental adjustments and imaginative leaps, the mystery of the reversible shadow-fall explains itself: the camera has its back to the sun, as in an old-fashioned holiday snap, and the extremes of the view are, so to speak, parallel with the fall of the light, but to left and right of the camera.

This sun-behind-camera viewpoint also seems to exaggerate one of the less agreeable aspects of the way the book has been designed and printed, because it tends to produce large areas of heavy shadow at the two extremes of the picture-spread. These are not only distracting – unlike the coulisses of traditional landscape presentations, they do little to establish recession or distance – but they also form conspicuous pools of incompetence where the faults of the printwork are glaringly evident. For a start, they are often noticeably short of detail (not uncommon in shaded areas, after all) and therefore visually boring, because too large to be so null. The roots of the problem may well go back to Redfern’s originals, the time of day they were photographed and the viewpoints chosen, but more proximate causes are, obviously, page design, since much of the shadow could have been cropped off in a number of cases, and – less obviously than in the review copy, I trust – poor preparation of colour-separations and careless machining and inking.

Something in the ink employed lies badly on the surface of the semi-matt paper-stock employed, producing a muddy cast of colour in the darker areas, or a kind of surface scumminess which destroys subtle tonal contrasts that may be divined as having been present in the originals. The effect, in either case, is to compound the vacuity of imagery in the shadowed areas, so that they become like holes in the page. Beyond that, however, there are clearly gross faults in both machining and quality-control: in the review copy (and in one other of which I have been told) runs, smears and blobs of surplus ink spoil several pages, usually from the blue inking, but page 160 has a 5/8" wide stripe of what appears to be 10W/40 motor oil smeared down it.

This is not just a storm in an inkpot. Leaving aside the folly of publishers who send out such ropey review copies, the whole business is commercially self-defeating because Redfern’s panoramas are clearly intended to be the prime selling point of the publication (or does the Sagan introduction signal a failure of nerve up at ‘command level’ somewhere?). Much of the rest of both text and illustrations can be found in other accessible publications and institutions. To sell Redfern short on the reproductions is a disservice to him, the book, the reader – and even the Great Chasm itself.

Those who know the Grand Canyon beyond a superficial tourist over-look will know that it is, indeed, one of the great wonders of the world, mysterious, alarming, incomprehensible, serene, beautiful. The slice the river has cut through immemorial depths of geological strata is probably the finest free view of the perspective of the corridors of time that we have. The ecological and climatic progression from the windswept rim at 7,000 feet to the sheltered desert microclimates in the hot canyon bottom is almost beyond belief, and the vast, still profundity of the whole fully justifies the 18th-century understanding of the word ‘sublime’ in the naming of the prime viewpoint on the north side: Point Sublime.

In a landscape where words cannot but ‘fail’, memory must rely on visual presentation, and so must all those who cannot be so fortunate as to see it with their own eyes. But that landscape also responds handsomely to purely visual presentation, and whoever stage-managed the production of Corridors of Time suicidally proves the point by including in the last chapter reproductions of topographical drawings done in the last century by William Henry Holmes and Turner’s supposed student, Thomas Moran. They may be faulted on minutiae of physical detail, but Holmes’s sense of the material structure of the Canyon is uncanny, and Moran, had he been reproduced in colour, would have practically destroyed the book. His enormous canvas, ‘The Chasm of the Colorado’, is a kind of synthetic vision of everything that the Grand Canyon might mean to a well-trained painterly sensibility, and is best described in the words of John Wesley Powell, at whose instance it was done: ‘The scene before me was awful, sublime and glorious – awful in profound depths, sublime in massive and strange forms, and glorious in colours.’