THE NEW WEST: Path to the Past

By on March 15, 2017

Photographer Bradly Boner’s book is a visual marvel that stirs important discussion.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – I had been waiting months for Bradly Boner’s book to arrive, after making a contribution to his successful request for funding via Kickstarter a while back. When Yellowstone National Park: Through the Lens of Time, finally landed in our living room last week, I was more than pleasantly surprised.

The book has spurred a lot of thinking about the rate of change in Greater Yellowstone’s landscapes; not so much about natural landmarks which weather the elements well and are the primary objects of Boner’s fascination. Rather, change associated with how record numbers of people now are swarming the national parks during high tourist season, inundating front country areas both inside and outside of Yellowstone and Grand Teton, and being accompanied by a rapidly expanding ex-urban footprint as people move here from other regions.

Last Friday I gave a talk, based upon data from demographers, on what the future could look like in Greater Yellowstone 25 and 50 years hence. It was delivered at the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative’s 2017 wildlife symposium held at the Center for the Arts (where I was most impressed by the other speakers at the well-attended event).

While the pace and scale of landscape transformation occurring in Greater Yellowstone’s human-built environment is among the swiftest in rural America, and likely to rapidly accelerate (with climate change potentially spurring even more inward migration), Boner’s book is a stunning reminder of what’s at stake.

Boner, a staffer at the News&Guide, follows in a long line of photographers who have distinguished themselves in Greater Yellowstone. Beginning with pioneering shooters like Civil War veteran William Henry Jackson in 1871, photography has played an important role in advancing conservation of the region, sometimes making visible things that often go unseen or unappreciated.

Together with the romantic and exaggerated paintings of Thomas Moran, Jackson’s images helped convince Congress to set aside Yellowstone as the first national park in the world in March of 1872.

Like Boner and Jackson, many photographers have descended upon the ecosystem, including Ansel Adams and an esteemed fold of mostly nature-oriented lenspeople.

I could offer a list of notable camera artisans, especially were it to include recent transplants doing work for National Geographic and photojournalists who have served on the staffs of local newspapers.

Among them all, however, Boner deserves high praise for innovatively reinterpreting scenes courted by a personal hero. The idea behind his project was simple: revisit locations where W.H. Jackson made many of his historic photographs, take comparison shots and allow the contrasts between then and now to serve as muses for reflection.

As the eminent historian Robert Righter, a part-time resident of Moose, notes in his foreword, the book highlights the difference between how landmarks are faring outside protected areas like the national parks versus those found within them.

“Jackson’s record scenes along the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley in 1871 give an idea of a pristine country. One hundred and forty years later, buildings and roads—the artifices of human occupation—dot the landscape, intruding on our sense of the bucolic. But we are quick to note that Paradise valley is not inside the boundaries of the park,” Righter wrote.

“By contrast,” he added, “there appears to be minimal change in a great deal of the photographs taken within Yellowstone’s borders. This will come as a happy revelation, for we environmental historians are, in the main, declensionists—believing that the world is ‘going to hell in a handbasket’ and we humans are the reason. Some of the Jackson/Boner comparisons tell us that change is not endemic and that a ‘climax’ ecology is possible as long as we humans keep out of the way.”

Boner notes that the book contains all but one of the 109 8-by-10 photographs Jackson produced in Paradise Valley, Montana and Yellowstone in 1871.

Not only is Boner a damned fine photographer, it turns out he is a decent writer and storyteller, who treats us to how photography came to Yellowstone and why and how he retraced Jackson’s path. The sweetest visual rewards come with Jackson’s black and white nature portraits, made via the collodion wet-plate process, placed side by side against Boner’s own color counterpoints.

As intriguing as the seeming impermanence of mountains, waterfalls, and canyons, Yellowstone’s famed geyser fields and travertine terraces have shape-shifted over the last century, some going dormant and in other places the life forces of the Yellowstone geologic hotspot giving rise to new features.

Boner’s book is a rich contribution to the canon of Yellowstone books, which deserve a place in your library and makes for a handsome addition to the coffee table. He deserves our congratulations and praise. PJH

Todd Wilkinson has been writing his award-winning New West column for nearly 30 years. It appears weekly in Planet Jackson Hole. He is author of the recent award winning book, Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Grizzly of Greater Yellowstone only available at mangelsen.com/grizzly.

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