Before Glen Canyon was flooded by a reservoir, photographer Eliot Porter documented its sandstone formations, small rivers, and sculptural chasms. The color photographs were published by the Sierra Club in the 1963 The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado, a eulogy to this place lost to development. Over half a century later, photographers Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe, with author Rebecca Solnit, returned to this disrupted landscape that stretches between Utah and Arizona, setting out to find the places Porter photographed, even though most were underwater. Their discoveries are published in Drowned River: The Death and Rebirth of Glen Canyon on the Colorado, out from Radius Books.
“We found a few,” Klett told Hyperallergic. “But in the end, we made work that referenced Porter’s, not intending to repeat his as we had done in previous projects. … The work became less about the dam and the creation of the lake, and more about what’s happened there since the dam, the outlook for its future, and finally the reemergence of Glen Canyon.”
Klett, Wolfe, and Solnit are longtime collaborators, with work like the 2005 Yosemite in Time: Ice Ages, Tree Clocks, Ghost Rivers, for which they re-photographed some of the most popular images of Yosemite, and the 2012 Reconstructing the View, for which Klett and Wolfe returned to the sites of historic photographs of the Grand Canyon. Due to the changes at Glen Canyon, that kind of study was impossible.
They were asked by Colin Westerbeck, then director of the California Museum of Photography, to take on this investigation. While Glen Canyon and many miles of the Colorado River were transformed into Lake Powell through the dam project, the site is undergoing another metamorphosis attributed to climate change. The lake’s level is dependent on input from the Colorado and San Juan Rivers, and because of drought in recent years, it’s been steadily receding.
“Porter’s book was an elegy for the loss of Glen Canyon and a plea to stop the era of dam building before more natural wonders suffered the same fate,” Wolfe explained. “Our book looks to the future and sees the potential reemergence of what was once lost. But it’s also a warning about climate change and the hubris of playing with the forces of nature.”
The over 150-page Drowned River features 18 pages of Porter’s book, followed by Klett and Wolfe’s photographs that consider the placid lake, with its mirror-like surface reflecting the surrounding red rock, and offers no hints as to the canyons below. Its stillness is in contrast to the constant flux of the landscape around it, where waterfalls tumble down cliffs after rain, and dust storms churn the earth. Solnit’s essay on their years of visiting Glen Canyon, as well as her archival research into the damming projects of the Southwest, are woven throughout the book. She describes what it was like to navigate their powerboat over the submerged canyon:
The scenery around us was wonderful and, if you remembered that about four-fifths of it was underwater, terrible, like seeing a giantess sentenced to stand immersed up to her neck for decades. The depth finder my companions deployed was a way to chart the underwater topography of the world lost below the flat blue water lapping against the red sandstone walls of Glen Canyon. We were floating nearly two hundred feet above the floor, across the broad upper end of the canyon that would’ve looked, in cross section, like a funnel, but from the surface just looked like an inlet or bay.
The book includes maps of Glen Canyon before the dam, and its footprint now that the waters are receding. A sonar diagram visualizes how Dungeon Canyon — a winding formation of red canyon walls that Porter used for his cover — is still there, although covered with silt and inaccessible in the water. Yet now it’s possible to imagine some distant future when the lake will again become a river, perhaps even before the over 700-feet-high concrete dam crumbles. Klett and Wolfe photographed the many disused houseboats up on blocks, casualties of dwindling day-tripper tourism, and the forgotten possessions from old campsites being revealed like layers in time. They also documented the chalky ring circling the lake, these whitewashed sections of stone indicating where water levels have dropped.
“We visited the lake at different times of year, mostly the summer, but also in the fall after the peak tourist season, and we came to feel that we were witness to a scene that was changing,” Klett said. “It felt like the party was ending, and the future of the lake is in question. Towards the end of the project we spent a lot of time at the north end of the lake, where the water drops most of its sediment. There we saw the dead pool, or where plains of river-dropped sediment were forming flats in what were former bays of the lake. Driftwood and debris clung high above the present lake level, where former shorelines had been.”
In 2012 and 2016, they photographed one sediment plain, where lush vegetation is now flourishing along the new channel of the river. As Lake Powell dies, the Colorado River is returning.
“It was a sign that the processes that formed Glen Canyon were at work once again, and that in the future the canyon would reemerge,” Klett stated. “That was the message of the book, that what had been lost would one day reappear. The only question is if we’ll be around to see it.”
Porter’s book was both a beautiful memorial to Glen Canyon, and an activist protest on why such a loss shouldn’t happen again, an environmental statement echoed in Drowned River. As Solnit writes, “This place with two conflicting names — Glen Canyon for what it had been and will be, Lake Powell for what it has been for half a century — was a good place to think about the madness of the past and the terror of the future, amid the epiphanies of beautiful light and majestic space and the contradiction of the present.”