Waterfalls are a signature feature of the American West, from the hanging falls of Yosemite Valley to the bridge-framed plunge of Multnomah. Seattle photographer Peter de Lory spent two years documenting our local cataracts, challenging himself to bring a fresh eye to a subject so often recorded. How did he do? KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, joins us with his conclusions.
Things were so much simpler before all the people showed up. Early artistic visions of the western landscape portrayed its epic sweep and dramatic contrasts with only the occasional glimpse of man: the native canoe here, the smoky encampment there. Everywhere in the old pictures nature reigned supreme, snow-capped volcanoes rising like gods over endless evergreen woods.
All that changed with the arrival of industrial civilization, unleashing its dams and power lines, subdivisions and clear cuts. Within a hundred years, sweeping views without man-made scars became almost extinct, buried under a flood of pavement. Artists of recent times often find themselves choosing between extreme poles of denial, continuing to depict nature as though humans were not a factor, and despair, confronting the destructive results of our presence.
Peter de Lory belongs to neither camp. In his dramatic, panoramic black and white photographs of Northwest waterfalls, the vast majority include people, their works, or their actual presence. De Lory’s tone when confronting the intrusion of man on the landscape is neither elegiac nor indifferent; it seems to me to be simply accepting. This is how it is, and this is where we are. He leaves it to us to draw our own conclusions.
The even-handed, non-judgmental aspect of De Lory’s photography is clear in the splendid photograph called simply "Multnomah Falls, OR." An image of visitors at the main falls viewpoint, the picture divides precisely in half. On the right, a visitor, their back turned to us, gazes in rapt attention at the watery spectacle, their body silhouetted precisely against the vertical rush of the cascade. Here is a clear reference to the Romantic Sublime, the European movement of the early 19th Century which first articulated the modern attitude towards nature as a source of the good and the pure. The image of a lone figure contemplating the unspoiled world gained a powerful hold on the artistic imagination, inspiring countless pilgrimages to mountaintops and beaches.
But, the world of the 21st century is radically more crowded and complicated than that experienced by the Romantic poets and painters. To the left of the transfixed spectator, a well-dressed group of Asian visitors smilingly poses for an unseen photographer, their collective gazes directed to our left. The two experiences of the falls do not intersect: no one shows any awareness of anyone else, the family