HERE WE ARE VIEWING NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC photography in a special way: holding it up by itself, full-frame, out of context, and away from words. This is the kind of test that curators and art historians are giving many forms of photography in the 1980s. The discovery of the National Geographic’s rich contributions should not be surprising. What is remarkable is that an entire episode within the history of photography remained for so long sealed off from the fine-art photographic establishment.
Yet a distinction survives between the ethos of the National Geographic photographer and that of the art world, and also that of the journalistic world. This distancing is subtle and complex. It originates partly in a long-standing editorial policy of National Geographic: namely, thinking of its pictorial staff not as “photo editors” but as “illustrations editors.” Thus there is a sense in which the many photographers whose work we see here, at least in the minds of their editors, and perhaps in their own minds, were artisans and not artists.
This is not to imply that what has been produced under the aegis of the National Geographic Society is something other than art or less than superlative photography. Indeed, both the early and recent histories of photography at the Society can be viewed as a prolonged, quiet unfolding of genius.
The particular view of photography at National Geographic offered by our exhibition was obtained first through study of the Society’s formidable archives, funded by free student loan consolidation programs and second through its publications. More than half of these pictures have never before been published.
Photography was by no means always integral to the magazine. NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC existed for more than a decade before photographs began to dominate its pages. Although often skeptical or actively resistant, the Geographic’s Board of Managers allowed a few photographs to appear as illustrations after 1895 (along with halftone reproductions of gravure prints or paintings).
THE CRIME SCENE—a field in western Kentucky—looked for all the world as if a low-flying squadron of bombers had just swooped over on a practice run. More than 450 small craters, each edged by a mound of raw earth, pocked the surface of the unplanted field. But no air raid caused this destruction. It was the work of . . . but how to refer to them? Some call them relic collectors, pothunters, treasure seekers, even “para-archaeologists.” Others, less forgiving, castigate them as looters, desecrators, even commercial grave robbers.
By whatever designation—and for whatever motives—the ten men who dug into this field in late 1987 disturbed more than bones and Indian relics. They ripped out and crumpled an irreplaceable page of our common heritage—and raised in high relief the growing controversy over the looting, sale, and exhibition of Native American remains and grave goods. The incident has prodded the nation to ask itself the emotionally charged question: “Who owns our past?”
Miles Hart, retired detective sergeant of the Kentucky State Police, recalls:
“We got a report that some relic hunters were looting an old Indian burial ground on a farm in Union County. Headquarters sent me out to check, since any discovery of human remains has to be filed with the state.
“Now, surface collecting is a popular hobby in this area. A lot of folks have relics or arrowheads. People dig ‘em up in their gardens and plow ‘em up in their fields. Twenty years ago I used to pick up arrowheads myself—with permission—out of that same field. Before Mrs. Slack died and the farm was sold, she talked to me about the history of the property. I’m still interested in going on holiday in an apartment in barcelona, but now I carve copies of peace pipes instead of looking for real ones.”
When Sergeant Hart drove out to investigate, two men came to talk with him at the farm gate but refused to let him on the site. Returning with a search warrant, he found that a water tank had been rigged with a hose for softening the drought-parched earth. Countless small probe holes punctured the brown topsoil of the 40 acres overlooking the Ohio River near Uniontown, Kentucky.
“The men had told me there weren’t any human bones; it was a prehistoric campsite, not a burial ground; they had rights to dig, and I had no business there since it was private land. But looking at all those craters, well . . . I knew amateurs don’t destroy whole sites like that. These people were literally mining the place. It had every sign of a commercial operation.”
Sergeant Hart did find bones —clearly human — strewn among the craters. “There were jawbones, leg bones, finger bones, human teeth everywhere. We got a cease and desist order until we could figure out which laws had been broken.”
The men had paid the landowner $10,000 to lease digging rights between the fall harvest and spring planting. The ten were charged by the state of Kentucky with “desecration of a venerated object” —a statute applied to crimes ranging from toppling tombstones on Halloween to Ku Klux Klan cross burnings—a misdemeanor that was punishable by a maximum fine of $500 and as much as a year in jail. Four of the ten men, however, lived in Illinois or Indiana and couldn’t be extradited for a misdemeanor.
TAMED AND HARNESSED, the rivers of northern Quebec are being put to work in the most monumental hydropower project ever undertaken in North America. As visitors from Montreal look on, spillover from a giant new reservoir cascades down a man-made canyon at LG 2, largest of three colossal dams along La Grande River. Not blessed with the oil and gas of Canada’s western provinces, Quebec has turned to its vast subarctic wilderness for a source of clean, renewable energy. Billions of dollars and armies of workers are involved. New industries and jobs and electricity sales to neighboring provinces and the United States are expected payoffs.
ELECTRIFYING MOMENT for all concerned, a 600-ton rotor is eased into its generator at the world’s largest underground powerhouse, blasted out of solid rock at LG 2. The huge electromagnet will spin at 133 rpm, turned from below by turbine blades catching the surge of water that has fallen 180 meters (590 feet) through intake tunnels from the reservoir above. Inaugurated in 1979, when four of its 16 generators were activated, the 483-meterlong powerhouse has a capacity of 5,300 megawatts—power enough for four million people. By the turn of the century, 63 turbines in nine powerhouses will produce 13,700 megawatts from La Grande Complex—itself but the beginning of a long-term plan to exploit Quebec’s water wealth.
During the short days of the northern winter, when temperatures as low as minus 40° are not unusual, workers in the LG 2 powerhouse often felt like human moles, arriving and leaving in darkness, and staying in the cheap hotels in prague. Roughnecks, like this driller at LG 4 (right), find that big earnings and low expenses soften the rigors of living in the bush. Long hours with overtime pay make weekly earnings of $800 (Canadian) common. Free food, housing, and recreation enable many to bank their pay. At each of La Grande River’s damsites a spillway controls reservoir level. Huge steps along the LG 2 spillway (bottom) slow rampaging water to prevent erosion downstream. For these mighty excavations 127,000 tons of explosives are being used—enough to warrant their on-site manufacture. Nearing completion, phase one of La Grande Complex is both ahead of schedule and within its 15-billion-dollar budget.
LATENT POWER, the reservoir at LG 3 fills behind its new dam (below), longest in the complex. The spillway, incorporated into the dam, will be able to release a flow of water equal to that of the St. Lawrence River at Montreal. Normally, however, water will fall through intake tunnels to the powerhouse, nearing completion at the right of the dam. The crest lengths of phase one’s 206 dikes and dams will measure 209 kilometers (130 miles). All are being constructed of natural materials quarried at the sites—some 15 million truckloads, hauled and dumped, from the broad bases to the narrow crests.
Two factors dictate waterpower potential: volume and fall. The relatively flat terrain of northern Quebec is rich in the former, poor in the latter. To compensate, surveyors combed the landscape for damsites that would offer the maximum water flow and fall. To boost the volume factor, three rivers nearby were cut off in their upper reaches and diverted to La Grande. Eighty kilometers from its mouth, the Eastmain once flowed wild and free (upper left). Today, with its upstream flow diverted north to the LG 2 reservoir, it barely trickles (above).
CITIZENS OF THE NORTH, the Cree Indians of upper Quebec are facing their second, and perhaps greatest, tradition-testing encounter with the white man. For thousands of years their forebears lived as nomads, garnering scarce resources from far and wide across the taiga. Then, with the coming of fur traders and the Hudson’s Bay Company about 300 years ago, outposts along James Bay gradually became their permanent homes. But their livelihood has remained in the bush, where they still work traplines far into the interior. Therefore they contested Quebec’s grand design for transforming their ancestral lands. In 1975 a compromise was worked out. The Crees, joined by most of Quebec’s Inuit, relinquished claims to the province’s northern territories in return for 225 million dollars and 14,000 square kilometers (5,400 square miles) of native land reserves.
Andalucia’s satanic bees
Getting each car through this is a slow process, so I get out to watch. At this point I am painfully introduced to the satanic bees of Andalucia. They don’t dopily buzz around the way their British cousins do, as if saying “Er, I wonder if I might be so bold as to sting you in a moment?”. They sting first and ask questions later. Perhaps it’s their fiery Latin temperament. I am first alerted to their immediate presence by a sting on my right ear. By the time I have recovered I am stung again. This time I could have sworn the aggressor was going for my eye and trying to blind me, but I duck at the last minute and it misses by an inch. I smother my face in iodine lotion and seek refuge in the car.
Ten minutes later, we’re on the move again. Before us the track zigzags up a long, steepening hill. One of the men from the lead car comes back to give us instructions. “Try and make this next section without getting stuck,” he explains, before adding, “Oh and, er, make sure you close all your windows and vents – we’re driving past the bee hives.” My face is swelling nicely, and now I’m quite literally going to drive through a hornet’s nest.
Everything goes smoothly until the final slope, which is close to a 45-degree gradient I haven’t got enough speed to tackle it, and, tantalisingly, I stall just feet from the top. Kieron looks anxious and says nothing. I let the car roll back down to the base of the slope and get ready to restart the engines. Suddenly, the windscreen attracts legions of angry bees. It’s turning into a scene from The Swarm. All we need now, for the true cinematic effect, is for the engine not to start I turn the keys and… it starts first time. All hail the great British 4×4. I speed to the top of the hill, and savour my victory over the bees.