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photo-eye Book Reviews: Shoshone Falls

Shoshone Falls, by Thomas Joshua Cooper & Timothy O'Sullivan.
Published by Radius Books, 2010.
Shoshone Falls
Reviewed by Mary Anne Redding
Thomas Joshua Cooper & Timothy O'Sullivan Shoshone Falls
Photographs by Thomas Joshua Cooper & Timothy O'Sullivan
Radius Books, 2010. Hardbound, 48 pp., 27 tritone illustrations 10-1/2x15".

Shoshone Falls is on the Snake River in southern Idaho just across the border from Nevada and Utah. The Snake River side-winds its way westward from its headwaters in the Grand Teton Mountains in Wyoming through Idaho, Oregon, and Washington before spilling into the Columbia River on its way to the Pacific Ocean. Writing about this landscape makes me long to be more than an armchair traveler armed with a 15-inch screen on my laptop computer. There remains an aura of mystery and romance about the Pacific Northwest that entices this reader, snow-bound in the dry high desert of north central New Mexico, to want to explore the length of the Snake River. Thomas Joshua Copper had more than a dream - he traveled thousands and thousands of miles (many more miles than the mere 845 between Santa Fe, NM and Twin Falls, ID) across the North Atlantic Ocean from his home in Glasgow, Scotland, lured by a photographic conversation that has lasted 130 years.

Shoshone Falls, by Thomas Joshua Cooper & Timothy O'Sullivan. Published by Radius Books, 2010.
Once one of the most spectacular and truly awesome waterways in the American West, at 212 feet Shoshone Falls on the Snake River is higher than the more famous Niagara Falls far to the east. Now depleted by irrigation, 12 dams, and ever increasing demands from a too rapidly growing population, and yes, global warming, the flow of the river has significantly decreased during the summer and fall especially in dry years, which the western United States is experiencing more frequently. Curator Toby Jurovics writes that when Cooper made his first photograph 38 years ago, he entered into an on-going visual dialogue with the photographer Timothy O'Sullivan. O'Sullivan first saw Shoshone Falls in September 1868 and it is the only site in the American interior he photographed twice during all his years in the West. So enraptured with his first 10-day experience of the Falls during the King Expedition, he returned on his own in 1874 to make what would be his last published photographs of the West.

Shoshone Falls, by Thomas Joshua Cooper & Timothy O'Sullivan. Published by Radius Books, 2010.
 What is it about Timothy O'Sullivan's photographs of Shoshone Falls that inspired Thomas Joshua Cooper to venture from his home in Glasgow to a now nearly extinct river in southern Idaho? Of course, Cooper, addicted to extreme geography, is inclined to far-flung places, even traveling to the ends of the earth, lugging his beloved 1898 Agfa Field Camera. For this fearless contemporary explorer, it was his perception of similar qualities in O'Sullivan that inspired him; both interested in the "evidence of the tension found along the edges of the known world," their images become messages to each other across space and time. Both O'Sullivan and Cooper share an acute awareness of photography's capacity for metaphor. As Jurovics writes about their images: "They convey a sense of vulnerability inherent in the experience of wilderness, and a recognition of the fragility of human life." Cooper claims a recognition -- "a mirror in spirit - I felt as if O'Sullivan were on my shoulders" and while in Iceland made a diptych of homage: A Premonitional Work/Message to Timothy O'Sullivan / Gullfoss (Golden Falls) / Iceland. The images of the two photographers speak to each other, and to us as viewers, across time and space from different continents.

Shoshone Falls, by Thomas Joshua Cooper & Timothy O'Sullivan. Published by Radius Books, 2010.
 Cooper's images of Shoshone Falls are not re-photographic, rather than a comparison from GPS point to GPS point strung across time, they allow for the possibility of "parallel experiences" that illuminate "moments of intensity and understanding through beauty." While most of us may not travel to the ends of the earth, to Iceland, and maybe not even to Shoshone Falls, we can appreciate the photographic work of both O'Sullivan and Cooper in this exquisite new publication from Radius Books. The fine reproduction of the photographs, each to a full page, induces another type of reverie, and will perhaps, inspire the visual dialogue to continue with other photographers in other times, other places.—Mary Anne Redding

Mary Anne Redding is the Curator of Photography at the Palace of the Governors/New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe.