The Colorado River in San Marino

Posted on | June 16, 2009 | No Comments

THIS  kind of discretion could put a reporter out of business, or in court, but the essay by photography curator Jennifer A. Watts introducing the “Downstream” exhibit at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens is too beautiful to bowdlerize. Better to lift it intact: 


Karen Halverson, Davis Gulch, Lake Powell, Utah from the Downstream series, 1994-1995. Archival pigment print. 24 x 20 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

ONE WINTRY MORNING IN 1994, KAREN HALVERSON (b. 1941) awoke convinced she needed to photograph the Colorado River. 

An accomplished artist who had already spent 20 years exploring the American West, she set off on a two-year encounter with the vast, breathtaking terrain along the river’s serpentine route. “The impulse to photograph the Colorado River came to me out of the blue,” she writes, “but I acted on it as if it were my destiny.” Personal destiny and the Colorado River have long been linked in the lives of the explorers, scientists, writers, artists, and thrill seekers who have sought to under- symbol of the American West. Once wild, the river has been tamed by dams built to slake the arid West’s demand for water and power; 30 million people are dependent on it today. 

Halverson’s large-format color photography alludes to a 19th-century era of exploration when photographers fanned out across the West to make pictures for scientific and commercial ends. Iconic views by William H. Bell (1830–1910), John K. Hillers (1843–1925), Timothy O’Sullivan (ca. 1840–1882) , and others captured timeless landscapes of fierce, often forbidding, beauty. Halverson western lands. Sprawling cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas owe their existence almost entirely to the importation of water from the Colorado River. As Halverson rightly claims, today the river is a “water delivery system,” with its dozens of reservoirs, dams, and diversions ensuring the allocation of virtually every drop for human needs. 

Yet Downstream is no visual jeremiad railing against environmental abuse. Nor is it a dispassionate travelogue of the two years Halverson spent hiking, driving, and rafting along the Colorado. The wild terrain that flabbergasted early explorers is still here in the Paleozoic strata of gigantic rock outcroppings, the ancient calm of ghostly canyons, the dizzying heights overlooking a ribbon of water far below. And the colors—ocher, cerulean blue, deep red, electric green—are all inten-sified against the palette of a dammed river running colder and deeper than if it flowed freely. A modern-day beauty even finds itself inscribed in steel and concrete, whether in the sleek form of a pipeline or the still surface of an irrigation canal.

But it is in the bizarre, sometimes humorous, intersections of past and present that Downstream gains its potency. Cheap plastic lawn chairs, sitting vacant, look puny and ridiculous against a looming canyon wall. Weekend revelers pump fists skyward on the shores of Lake Mead, a giant reservoir held in place by Hoover Dam. A garden hose waters a scrawny palm tree in a desert oasis populated by rows of RVs.

….What is gained and what is lost by controlling the Colorado River? And what are the river’s limits?  Halverson’s Downstream series asks the viewer to contemplate these questions in a time when the arid West’s thirsty population threatens to overwhelm technological as well as natural resources, and when our well-watered urban lives remain utterly disconnected from riparian realities. Through her resonant imagery, Halverson speaks to the immutability of the river’s past while confronting its complex, contested present and future. 

“Downstream: Colorado River Photographs of Karen Halverson,” will be on view through Sept. 28 at The Huntington

This post has been updated.



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