Thursday, April 17, 2008

Yosemite as you've never seen it, through the lens of Chico State University's Byron Wolfe


"Yosemite in Time: Ice Ages, Tree Clocks, Ghost Rivers" ($29.95 in large-size paperback from Trinity University Press) is the just-released softcover version of a book first published in 2005. It's an extraordinary "rephotography" tour, courtesy of Byron Wolfe, Associate Professor of Photography and Digital Imaging at Chico State University, and Mark Klett, Regents Professor of Art at Arizona State University in Tempe.

What is rephotography? According to Rebecca Solnit, a San Francisco-based writer who contributes three major essays to the volume, "by standing in the same place at the same time of day and year (which is necessary to get the angle of the light right) you return to the site of the photographer's choices--how he went onto the very lip of a cliff, what he chose to crop out and what he chose to show of the landscape. . . ." The photographers in this instance are Carlton Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge, who photographed Yosemite in the 1860's and '70's; Edward Weston (1973), and Ansel Adams (mid-twentieth century).

Klett and Wolfe have taken their own stunning panoramas from the present day and overlaid them with precisely aligned images from the earlier photographers. The "Four Views from Four Times and One Shoreline" shows Lake Tenaya in 2002 with black and white photographs from Muybridge, Adams and Weston. The hills and mountains have changed little; the shoreline itself, once studded with boulders and trees, is smooth. It's as if little holes in time have opened up, and the reader can gaze in awe at what once was.

Solnit, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, writes that "truth is like rock. But meaning is like the pines." In her essay on the "politics of the place," Solnit notes John Muir's vision of the Sierra Nevada as forever "virgin wilderness . . . a place apart . . . a place hitched to everything else in the universe except other people. . . . But a century later Muir's vision needs radical revision." The book explores just what that new vision might be. Truth endures; meanings change.

The writing is superb, the photographs high art with just a touch of whimsy: Yosemite in all its glory.

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