Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Artificial & Natural

Like many amateur smartphone photographers (and before smartphones, iPhoto & point-and-shoot aficionados), I take great pleasure in going to beautiful places and snapping eminently editable photos. Not that many areas in the Jackson Hole region need much of a boost in color saturation or sharpness, but still, the small tweaks here and there or the revelation of HDR make me feel that I've somehow done more than aimed and clicked. I've photographed.

Recently, I've been exploring the Gros Ventre region, which is full of pleasurable place names such as the Red and Lavender Hills, and is also the home of the most charming backcountry cabin I've ever encountered. Set betwixt a ridge and a burbling creek at the end of a scenic little dale, its outside was so perfect that I thought it might still be in use by the occasional Forest Service ranger. However, on closer examination, I found the cabin actually split in two and long-abandoned, even though its front windows still wavered with their original glass. In one side sat a 1940's era stove, and on the other, a built-in shelf and table. As to its owner, an hour of feverish internet research produced nothing, though I did uncover a snooty entry from an evaluator criticizing another Gros Ventre cabin's entry in the National Register of Historic Places. Historian snobbery, alive and well.

Klimt Stone

The Gros Ventre is defined by a massive 1925 landslide that brought an entire side of Sheep Mountain down in a crush of tons of rock and trees. The slide, in turn, dammed the Gros Ventre River to form Lower Slide Lake (the "Gros Ventre Slide" is also a locally-beloved breakfast dish at The Bunnery). Two years later, part of the dam gave way, flooding the nearby town of Kelly almost out of existence. Because of its devastation in the flood, Jackson stepped forward to become of the county seat of Teton County.

Evidence of the slide has not dissipated in the ninety odd years since it happened. Huge boulder fields and drowned trees rising eerily from the lake still attest to this past natural violence. Primarily composed of sedimentary Tensleep Sandstone, the rocks and boulders ejected from the mountainside have sometimes an orangish hue and are speckled with bright splotches of many-colored lichen. In my head, I've begun calling it Klimt Stone because this reminds me of Klimt's metallic, speckled, and variegated paint textures.

Burnt trees also lend themselves well to being re-interpreted and morphed into looming, portentous signifiers. The following was on an unnamed ridge (at least, unknown to me) bordering Granite Creek, which is south of Jackson. Against bluer-than-blue skies, the carbonized skin glitters--a stalk of coal.

And this brings us to cloudscapes--perhaps the easiest to manipulate into technicolor visions, mimicking the layering of paint pigment in the depth of the alabaster, the lemon, the champagne. Dialing up a cloudscape brings baroque and rococo heavenly vistas to mind--those windows into ethereality usually guarded by chubby putti with trumpets and garlands. The cherubim don't work for free in Wyoming, however. I've seen plenty of rare animals, including a wolverine (!), but so far, no swirling celestial babies. I'll keep you posted.

As I continue to walk the woods, thinking of my book, and continue to indulge my side interest in documenting new hikes and spectacles, the vividness of real nature and the artificiality of art and nature-translated-to-image continue to inform one another. Sometimes reading is the most vivid thing of all; sometimes writing feels like the shoddiest paintbrush to communicate what is real. Regardless, the richness of a life lived in art and in landscape imparts a reverence for all that hallows, communicates, and beautifies experience. The one is essential to the other.

(Painting: "Adele Bloch Bauer," Gustav Klimt)

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