Read an Excerpt
From: "Nature Exposed" by Hampton Sides
FOR THOSE OF US who are drawn to the Desert Southwest, and especially for those of us who’re lucky enough to live in its abiding magnificence, this book is not only a work of art—it’s a reaffirmation of a love affair, a kind of renewal of vows. When I first came to live in New Mexico, fifteen years ago, I went around for months with a dumbfounded expression on my face. I couldn’t believe I lived here, amongst all this surreal and spectral beauty. I couldn’t shake my enchantment with this high and dry landscape—a landscape so different from the South where I was raised, or from the East where I’d lived most of my young adulthood. There was something about it, some delicate combination of the light, the latitude, the altitude, and the bone-dryness of the air, that was ineffably powerful. I really felt I’d landed in a part of heaven. Nearly every day, I saw dramas of geology and meteorology, dramas of wind and erosion, that slayed me. My stupefaction eventually wore off, of course. New Mexico became my home, and its strange and dynamic beauty became—not ho-hum, by any means—but part of the daily panorama of my life.
The places that Jake Rajs has captured with such power and grace in these pages take me back to that first feeling of being utterly smitten with a landscape. There’s no place like the Desert Southwest. It is real estate without peer, without comparison, sui generis. It’s a land of parched canyons, bleached solitudes, and bulwarks of intoxicating rock. A land of sky islands, cinder cones, and mesas the size of battleships, crisscrossed by two great river drainages, the Colorado and the Rio Grande. It’s the country made famous by Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and Georgia O’Keeffe, a queer world of upheaval and stark finality cooked in an unforgiving forge. The scale of it dwarfs human beings, not only spatially but also chronologically, suggesting chasms of time that mock our relevance in the story of creation. Walking over it, rafting through it, camping amongst it, we feel squishably insignificant—a feeling that I find paradoxically uplifting. To me, it’s a source of solace to know that we’re nothing, that nature always wins, and that, in the end, we homo not so sapiens are mere spore-specks in the record of time.
People didn’t always regard this country as beautiful or uplifting—at least not Americans coming from the “civilized” East. When the Southwest became part of the United States, shortly after the Mexican War and the 1849 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, most visitors from the East found the place ugly, scary, and vaguely threatening: an alien slagheap. Early expeditions of the U.S. topographical corps found little to recommend, declaring it a “cursed land” and a “broken country.” Senators in Washington seriously proposed giving it all back to Mexico. What was the point of it? You couldn’t farm it, you couldn’t settle it, and the land looked just plain weird. It was, they said, a dead place—geology without biology. People from greener, wetter climes seemed to lack the retinal nerve allowing them to see, and appreciate, the aesthetic of this high, arid world. It would take several generations before artists, poets, painters, photographers, and scientists (people like Edward Curtis, John Wesley Powell, Aldo Leopold, Ansel Adams, as well as O’Keeffe) began to put this strange country in proper perspective—and, finally, to call it beautiful.
JAKE RAJS has been coming out to the Southwest, and renewing his vows with the landscape, since 1976. His first visit took him to Monument Valley, that iconic place that over the decades has inspired John Ford films, Roadrunner cartoons, and countless artists. Monument Valley changed him forever, and helped shape him to become what he is today—one of America’s preeminent landscape photographers. “In Monument Valley, I was transported,” he says. “The light was clear and crisp, and had a vibrancy you don’t get anywhere else. It was a landscape that took me out of myself.”
Jake, who was born in Poland, lived as boy in Israel, and came to America on an immigrant ship, carries a bit of the outsider’s perspective everywhere he goes. I see in these pages a freshness of wonder, a sense of the visitor forever encountering something new. I see glimmerings of that same dumbfoundedness I felt when I first moved here. In Chaco Canyon, in Arches and Mesa Verde and Zion—places that are no strangers to the lenses of great photographers—Jake manages to find fresh perspective and a note of hushed splendor. He sees life in rocks and ruins; he comes upon ancient things as though they were something entirely new. On some level, he’s still an immigrant kid, enchanted by the novel spectacle in his viewfinder. “Beauty, when you stumble upon it, is the most powerful emotion,” he says.
. . .
In these pictures, I see the hand of time and the patient but relentless creativity of nature. And I remain smitten in the face of these bold buildings of the Southwest—buildings conjured by God, masoned by the epochs, and kissed by clear desert light.