Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman
The year is 1861.
John Muir is 23 years old. He is attending the University of Wisconsin, where he will develop an interest in botany.
In California, photographer Carleton Watkins, a contemporary of Muir, straps his 40-pound camera and accompanying paraphernalia to his mules and ventures into Yosemite Valley.
At some point Muir and Watkins will meet and become friends, connected by their love of Yosemite, their avid environmentalism, and photography.
Why Yosemite? Watkins will publish a book of his Yosemite photos that will prompt President Abraham Lincoln to pass a law designating Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove as a California state park.
Muir, as his career develops, will direct much of his advocacy towards establishing Yosemite as a national park.
Why photography? Watkins will create a portrait of Muir. Muir will walk the photographic route of Watkins book.
Portrait of John Muir (c. 1875) by Carleton Watkins
Which brings me to part 2 Muir’s quote.
Part 2: Who reports and works the ways of the clouds, those wondrous creations coming into being every day like freshly upheaved mountains? And what record is kept of Nature’s colors – – the clothes she wears – of her birds, her beasts, her live-stock? (John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, pp. 220-221).
By asking these questions, was Muir commenting on the state of wilderness photography in 1875?
While Watkins was able to record great detail in his landscape photographs, clouds, and any sky detail, are conspicuously missing from his work.
This seems typical of photographs of this era, which hints at a limitation in the capabilities of the cameras at that time.
Example: Photo taken by Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904)
And then there is Muir’s question about Nature’s colors.
Color photography was in an experimental phase in 1875 when Muir wrote those words. Techniques had not yet evolved that could reliably capture and preserve color in a photograph.
For Muir, nature’s colors, all the tones nameless and numberless, as he once described them when writing about the Grand Canyon, (John of the Mountains, p. 363) were essential to the authentic wilderness experience. (I wonder how he would respond to the photos of Ansel Adams.)
And then there was Muir the inventor. In addition to his gift as chronicler of nature, Muir was endowed with mechanical prowess and imagination. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that he would lament the lack of technological advancements in photography that could have opened up the possibilities for recording clouds and displaying Nature’s colors.
When I think of Muir’s desire for technological advancement, however, I think of the expression, be careful what you wish for.
Now that we have the technical skill to capture images of nature in a way that Muir might possibly never have imagined, there is the danger of the virtual experience replacing the natural, ironically, deepening our disconnection from nature. But that would be the subject of a future blog.
In the meantime, watch this film of starling murmuration (thank you Joe Frank) and ask yourself, does this make you want to experience this live, or is this enough. How do you think Muir would respond to this? (Here’s some information about murmuration.)