Slow Seeing

How a 'rephotography' project taught me to go beyond looking

| May / June 2004

On July 31, 1870, the geologist Joseph LeConte got up 'at peep of day' to see the sun rise from Glacier Point on the south rim of Yosemite Valley. He and his students from the young University of California had left the Bay Area 10 days before. They traveled by horseback, camping along the way, even though railroad service most of the way there had recently opened. LeConte went alone to Glacier Point to watch the sunrise, and after 'about one and a half hour's rapturous gaze,' he went back to the camp for breakfast. Then, he reports, the whole party 'returned to Glacier Point, and spent the whole of the beautiful Sunday morning in the presence of grand mountains, yawning chasms, and magnificent falls.'

How long does it take to see something? I've wondered about that for a long time, watching people stroll through art museums, or stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon for a few minutes or so, then turn around to whatever's next. If there's one thing our culture's given us, it's the opportunity to have something else that's next, or just multitaskable right now. The way one casually meets people at parties is how we mostly meet the world's places nowadays. But LeConte's long vigil on the rim of the valley represented a desire and then perhaps a realization of that desire to know the place more deeply.

I too have been spending time in Yosemite, working on a project with the photographers Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe for a couple of years now, and one of the singular pleasures has been sitting around while they make photographs. Because of the technical nature of the work, we spend from a couple of hours to a couple of days at each location, and while they're working I'm mostly doing what LeConte was doing, the hardest thing to do in this culture, that thing often only done when sitting in a stalled car or waiting for the doctor to see you: nothing. Of course anyone who's ever tried to do nothing knows that you can't do nothing, but you can slow down and pay attention.

In LeConte's time, even those who could afford to have lots of next things they could be doing were good at doing nothing, or rather at doing something very slowly, as he himself did on the rim of Yosemite Valley. The great fad for panoramas and dioramas of the late 18th through the mid-19th century came out of a visual appetite that didn't need anything to happen: There was a lot of scenery you paid admission to see, and when you got in you looked at it. In Europe these theaters were often 360-degree spectacles -- the I-Max of their day -- that viewers walked around; in vast new America people sat in their seats as mile-long rolls of canvas painted with the Mississippi or some other appropriate

subject rolled by. No car chases, no emotional dramas, no uplifting moral, no narrative, except to the extent that travel itself, space itself, is narrative. It was as though they inhabited a world in which nothing was enough, as long as it was beautiful.

Of course the perception that nothing is happening usually means that the observer is moving faster than the observed; something is always happening, even if it's on the timescale of light changing, trees growing, rocks eroding. Only in paintings and photographs is there real stillness, but up in Yosemite we have been pursuing the changes between one photograph and another, the exacting art of rephotography. Mark and Byron are rephoto-graphing some of the definitive photo-graphs of the place, an astounding technique for understanding what Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston were up to, and how the ecology has changed in the time between their pictures and ours, down to the trajectories of individual trees.