Photography has always had a love affair with the American West. Timothy O'Sullivan, Eadward Muybridge, Carlton Watkins, and William Henry Jackson are our great artistic ancestors in this regard. Carrying massive cameras and using the wet collodion process (wet plate) these photographers burned the grandness of the West into the American consciousness. Photography was a different kind of dedication back then. Glass plates had to be exposed still wet, after being coated by hand in makeshift darkrooms.
Today, our digital technology makes it much easier. I fear that the trail blazed by these pioneers is long forgotten by the many tourists that now crowd Grand Canyon's South Rim. It's all automatic these days, with blinking lights and whirring lenses. A single photograph is no longer the careful, albeit laborious event it once was.
The greatness of the land is something photographers have always wrestled with and tried to "capture" on film. The language of photography is curiously aggressive. We shoot, capture, take, and catch our subjects—as if we are grasping to contain them, bottle them forever in our little scrapbook universe. The land is so big, so vast, so achingly magnificent we simply can't leave it alone. So, we reduce it down into thumbnail facsimiles that we can take with us. We need to have it.
Of course, no one can have anything. There is no owning of the land, the American West was never really won. Grand Canyon's age is 50 million years and during it's formative years it's river cut through rock whose years number in the billions. The canyon has seen it all come and go and we and our cameras are a tiny blip on its radar.
The early photographs of our pioneer photographers are already in a state of decay. Soon (in geological ages and perspective) they will be gone forever. The rocks, too, are in constant decay. The canyon is giant testament to the crumbling of icons. Yet, the heroic nature of the early photographers is etched into my consciousness. I envision them with their fedoras and gigantic contraptions, balanced on some precipice as they focus their wheezing bellows. It is romantic stuff and deserving of admiration. Those photographers were fundamental in the foundation and preservation of our national parks. They were there before roll film and memory cards and rechargeable batteries. It was simply the dedication and courage of a few people who went out and did what they needed, in their hearts, to do.