A Grand Performance

This week in my photography seminar we discussed an article by David Nye on photographic constructions of Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, USA.   Nye discusses how while descriptions of the area appear as early as the 1850s, the Grand Canyon did not become a tourist destination (or national icon) until the 1900s. Nye explains that the reason behind the canyon’s delayed popularity had to do with the difficulties in photographing it, and that photography was crucial to the public imagining/conception of nature. Photography, Nye argues, helped change the perception of the canyon from a landscape of unprofitability to a sublime.

This reading brought to mind a family trip made to Arizona and the Grand Canyon in March of 2006. Nye’s discussion fits well with my own memory, particularly that the canyon’s grandness (for lack of a better word) couldn’t be photographed in a single shot. However, things I remember contrast with Nye’s narrative, particularly that the canyon is no longer perceived as dangerous, or as dangerous as it once was. On our trip I remember my mother’s concern that my Dad and I, in our typically goofy fashion, would get too close to the edge and fall. To be quite honest, if we had been alone, we might just have attempted to pose for a photograph like this one:

Grand Canyon Prank

Also on the trip, I picked up this souvenir, which once again seems to act as a counter-narrative to Nye’s argument that the canyon is primarily perceived as a sublime[1] landscape.

Over the Edge

Thinking about the trip, I felt a need to pull out the scrapbooked pages my Mum had created a few years ago. Our visit to the canyon was made on a larger trip to Arizona, where we visited other sublime landscapes including Meteor Crater. Interestingly, the two pages devoted to our stop at the Grand Canyon only have the dates written on them, as opposed to the other pages which elicited more descriptive captions such as “We were there!” “Over 50,000 years old!” Instead, the Grand Canyon pages are fairly simple, featuring multiple photos of different angles of the canyon. This arrangement reminds me of Scott Kirsch’s discussion of photographs of nuclear explosions distributed by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Kirsch in his article explains that these photos were circulated to the press with no accompanying text, and in a way meant simply to speak for themselves. Similarly my family photos of the canyon, the landscape is taken for granted as recognizable, needing no caption.

Behind the impulse to pull out these scrapbooked pages is what Deborah Chambers in her discussion of family photo albums explains as a desire to self-identify. Chambers discusses how photos (and family albums) are used to “represent ideas about spatial identity and belonging.”[2] For me, these scrapbooked pages do represent part of my identity, one of traveller. So far I’ve been lucky to have travelled and seen more than one sublime landscape, and lugged a camera for the journey. These photos, reminders of journeys and misadventures, are special to me.

I find this identity of traveller is one I’ve been performing more recently, even at this past seminar. My last blog post was also about travel. Martha Langford in her discussion of family photo albums explains that the showing and telling of an album is a performance. In this context, then this post is also a performance. If the world really is a stage, then it seems appropriate to end with to end with a bang.

[1] A sublime landscape is one that inspires awe, admiration, wonder, etc.

[2] Deborah Chambers, “Family as Place: Family Photograph Albums and the Domestication of Public and Private Space,” in Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination, ed. Joan Schwartz, James Ryan (New York: L.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd) 96.

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