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Book of the Week: Selected by Meggan Gould

Book Review More than Scenery Photographs by Janet L. Pritchard Reviewed by Meggan Gould "It is rare to encounter a book with no context whatsoever, neither publisher’s brief description nor biography of an artist to establish a basic working understanding of who/what/where/why/how..."

More than SceneryBy Janet L. Pritchard.
More than Scenery
Yellowstone, an American Love Story
Photographs by Janet L. Pritchard

George F Thompson Publishing, US, 2023. 240 pp., 170 illustrations.

Breaking news, from the realms of biological and psychological science: awe is good for us. Goosebumps have been measured and tears categorized. The conclusion is definitive: we should experience more awe. Oxytocin is released, heart rates are slowed, inflammatory immune responses cooled. In other words: to feel insignificant is to heal; to experience majesty and wonder beyond language is to liberate us from the self. Awe is a wonder drug, free for the taking, in the guise of a state of consciousness that we can (sometimes) directly influence, that we can learn to cultivate within our daily realities. Or, we could drop everything and go directly to Yellowstone National Park. Awe would ensue.

Disclaimer: I have never been to Yellowstone. The closest I have come was at age nineteen, driving cross-country on a whim after freshman year of college (cue requisite Janis Joplin soundtrack). Skeptical of spectacle, the RV legions we encountered and entry fees, we made it only as far as the park’s entrance before moving on with our tiny tent. To the Badlands of South Dakota instead, where I photographed a lonely bison in front of a rainbow (definitive awe) and almost stepped on a rattlesnake (definitive terror), wielding a camera that I cannot recall. In the resultant photo, printed as 4x6 color doubles from the drugstore, the rainbow is barely visible.

Much of photography’s two-century history can be reduced to attempts at a photographic translation of landscape’s grandeur. The photograph as vicarious awe, mostly in vain. Is this the ultimate provocation of the photographic medium — the arrogant suggestion that it might render a two-dimensional facsimile of an encounter with a place that could similarly slow a pulse, cool inflamed nerves, heal?

Janet Pritchard’s new book, More than Scenery: Yellowstone, an American Love Story, packages a complex experience of awe — well beyond that of the surface value of the iconic landscape. Eat your heart out, William Henry Jackson: it can get much more awe-inspiring than you might ever have imagined, as you lugged that heavy camera from peak to Teton peak. Or, a lot has changed in 150 years.

The book is divided into three primary portfolios. In the first, “Views from Wonderland,” we watch visitors to the park engaged in exactly the act referred to above: an attempt, however futile, to memorialize the view, to rectangularly package the feeling of awe they are experiencing. Pritchard frames these tourists and their casual production of jpegs in saturated, rich tableaux. We watch memory card after memory card become the vessels for awe-retrieval/future-attempts-at-awe-medication. Tools of enhanced looking abound; some squint through a spotting scope, some through binoculars, others hold cameras aloft in contemporary image prayer. I feel a twinge of awe, myself, in the face of the sheer power of (or belief in) photography on display.

In the second portfolio, “Collecting Yellowstone,” we move on to Yellowstone, the myth. Yellowstone, Yellowstone, Yellowstone: emblazoned on stacks of identical t-shirts in a Montana gift shop. Yellowstone: postcards strewn on a car’s dash, awaiting activation of the postal system to disseminate the legendary peaks and geysers to friends and family. Yellowstone: a billboard in Chicago, bison staring out over the words LONG MAY YOU ROAM FREE, tucked unironically in under the El platform and behind the public parking. Yellowstone: pointed bison references in a bar in, well, Buffalo.

In this second portfolio, we also confront the complexities of visual research that Pritchard engaged during her years of studying and photographing in Yellowstone National Park. We are given the privilege of Pritchard’s roaming, and nimble, perspective, and we never stray from the institutional context for the shaping of knowledge, memory, and myth. We examine sketches, laptop screens, maps, gloved hands holding a glass plate negative over a lightbox, books splayed. We travel from archive to archive, we poke around in each. A snowy owl supervises a room full of likewise taxidermized peers from a table perch in a Natural History Museum’s questionably named “Living Laboratory.” Hands fold back plastic sheeting to hint at a plastic-encased Bighorn Sheep, stacks of closed drawers rebuff any hints of their specimen depths. I keep coming back to one badger, staring over the edge of its metal shelf. In one spread, we divide our attention between a collection of vintage ammunition on the left, neatly boxed and labeled, and souvenir spoons on the right. Violence and ornament — the superpowers of myth creation.

The third portfolio, “Stories from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” gives us what we might have come for: geysers! Also, snow-traced conifers, rivers snaking away into distant blues, aspen leaves aglow. Beware the title, however: by this point, we might suspect that Pritchard doesn’t pull any punches or shield us from complications, implications. This ecosystem is not the pristine, mythic wilderness we might like to pretend it is (or frame it as, in our default tourist vistas), and here Pritchard looks, unflinching, at the human imprint on the land. A miniature Teton of emptied propane bottles, a backhoe, a surveyor’s solitary tripod. Here, a traffic jam indulges the Bighorn Sheep that stroll across a curved road; there, a deer is crumpled on the grass, forever stilled by an unpictured automobile. Pritchard is matter of fact in the face of both the grandeur and the human encroachment thereupon; somehow, she pulls this off without a hint of didacticism.

Three accompanying essays contextualize the mystique — and reality — of Yellowstone, on both personal and societal levels. An introduction by Lucy Lippard is followed by Pritchard’s own reflection on her very specific romance with the landscapes of the West, and the photographic journey that led her back, again and again. Extensive notes on the photographs tease out both historical framework and personal experience, while privileging neither. There is an explicit acknowledgment that the weight of photographic history looms large over any project within a space this iconic. The book ends, fittingly, with four images of graveyards in summer — the scattered resting places of four artists who were instrumental in establishing Yellowstone as we visually know it: Ferdinand V. Hayden, Thomas Moran, William Henry Jackson and Frank Jay Haynes.

A thousand miles away, longing for a modicum of awe, I try to load the Old Faithful webcam. Eruption is imminently predicted in my browser window. A glitch: it will not load. Instead, I settle for a winter view of the North Entrance, quiet on a Sunday afternoon. No grizzlies, elk or wolves, just a desolate road. The refresh rate, one frame per minute, makes for insanely slow cinema. I wander away on the internet; when I return to the open tab, I find that a herd of bison has wandered onto the road. I take a screenshot. Awe.

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Meggan Gould is an artist living and working outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she is an Associate Professor of Art at the University of New Mexico. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,, the SALT Institute for Documentary Studies, and Speos (Paris Photographic Institute), where she finally began her studies in photography. She received an MFA in photography from the University of Massachusetts — Dartmouth. She recently wrote a book, Sorry, No Pictures, about her own relationship to photography.