Today I visited Wild Beauty at the Portland Art Museum. These photographs of the Columbia River Gorge start in the 1800s when the Gorge still looked as Lewis and Clark must have seen it and as the Indians had seen it for thousands of years. The ending date for the exhibition is in the 1950s when work along the Columbia was finished. The dams had been built as had the Great Highway and the railroad and things were never the same.
Right across the street from the museum is the Oregon Historical Society, where I’ve been volunteering a bit as a transcriber for their Oral History Project. My latest project is a transcription of the story of Harry Heising, a pioneer who worked on the building of Celilo Falls - so part of this exhibition seems to narrate Mr. Heising’s life. He tells of great beauty but also of frozen winters when nearly everyone starved, of people who took the law into their own hands. He recalls seeing, as a child, wild horses running by the hundreds like thunder to drink at a river, sometimes drinking till they died. Heising also survived the Great Depression and like so many Oregonians, left his land to work at the shipyards in Portland during the Second War.
The photograph on the website does not begin to capture the expanse and range of this show. It is almost exhaustive and even surprising, which I think is quite a feat for historical landscape photography. The curator Terry Toadtemeier (who along with John Laursen has a book out on the show) gave an amusing account of how he had very little to read, when it came to photography out of the Pacific Northwest, when he began his work on this subject in the 1970s. This exhibition is possible because of his focus over the decades.