LEXINGTON — The subtitle of “Lasting Light: 125 Years of Grand Canyon Photography” is a misnomer. The show, which was organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibtion Service, runs through Jan. 6 at the National Heritage Museum. Yes, people have been photographing the canyon for well over a century. Timothy O’Sullivan was the first, in 1872. But the 60 frequently spectacular examples in “Lasting Light” come from just a slice of that span. The earliest one dates from 1972, the latest from 2006.
The canyon presents an irresistible subject to photographers, with its range and delicacy of color, variety of terrain, breathtaking scale, and sheer uniqueness. Does the planet offer a more astonishing sight — or site? “The canyon is so operatic — everything is so over the top there,” writes George H.H. Huey, one of the 27 photographers with work in “Lasting Light.”
Yet the subject also presents an enormous, perhaps unmeetable, challenge. Something as magnificent as the Grand Canyon can’t help but overwhelm any attempt at rendering it visually. “Nowhere else in the world are the pages of time so clearly opened up,” said John Wesley Powell, the first man to lead an expedition down the Colorado River through the canyon, in 1869. Just try copying some of the lines from those pages!
There isn’t an unattractive photograph in “Lasting Light,” and many are outright stunning. But awesomeness fatigue inevitably sets in. Worse, perhaps, is the phenomenon one might call the Postcard Perplex. “Pretty as a postcard” long ago became a verbal cliche, but it’s a cliche that originates in a vexing visual truth. There’s a certain kind of clean, crisp, head-on beauty that our culture almost reflexively associates with picture postcards. The “postcards” in “Lasting Light” are a lot bigger and far more artistically impressive than the kind you find in a display carousel at a National Park Service gift shop, but there’s an unignorable kinship. One argument for having included earlier images would be that their black-and-white chasteness (all the pictures in “Lasting Light” are in color) would have provided variety and contrast.
The canyon’s sheer stupendousnesscan reduce people to poetical and/or pretentious folly. One photograph here, showing buttes (known as temples) in smog, has for a title “Solomon Temple, Zoroaster Temple, Shiva Temple: Ships Sailing in Fog.” That subtitle’s almost as irksome as another title, “North Canyon Reflections: Mother Earth and Father Sky.” What about Daughter Lens and Son Viewfinder?
There’s also an understandable, if no less unsettling, tendency to treat the canyon as the ultimate stage set. Jerry Jacka provides this description for his photo “Deer Creek Camp, Mile 136”: “The setting sun illuminated the horizon and lightning flashed as thunder rolled through the canyon. Everyone grabbed their cameras and scrambled for a position. I heard shutters clicking, motor drives whirring, and shrieks of delight as the storm and sunset continued as if on cue. . . .” Anyone who’s visited a national park knows exactly what Jacka means by those final four words, which are in their own way as distressing as a bunch of beer cans along the South Rim.
Each of the images is accompanied by comments from the photographer. A few, like Jacka’s, allude to larger issues. Some offer technical comments that will be both interesting and useful to amateur nature photographers. For the most part, the comments alternate between being gee whiz and pompous. They trivialize and even detract from the images. The best course of action for viewers would be to wander from picture to picture, ignoring the words, and revel in the sheer visual feast these men and women have captured. Visiting Niagara Falls, Oscar Wilde took aim at American honeymooners and geology alike: “[T]he sight of that waterfall must be one of the earliest and keenest disappointments in American married life.” Had he made it to Arizona, the sight of that canyon would have left even the divine Oscar speechless.