IT MAY SEEM ridiculous to think that a coffee-table book could give you a true sense of the grandeur of the Columbia River Gorge. After all, wouldn’t a short drive provide the opportunity to witness the awe-inspiring landscape in person? But sometimes pictures and words can reveal more than the eye alone. Artfully composed scenes of serenity and chaos, untamed wilderness juxtaposed with feats of engineering, familiar sites, and forgotten realms inform the history of the 1,200-mile-long Columbia River and its relationship with man in Wild Beauty: Photographs of the Columbia River Gorge, 1867-1957 (Oregon State University Press). It’s a marvelous and meditative collection of pictures from some of the region’s most respected artists, including 19th-century pictorial pioneer Carleton Watkins and Benjamin A. Gifford, a photographer from The Dalles whose prolific studies of the Gorge are part of a valuable visual record of the area as it existed in the early 20th century. As good as the pictures are, it’s their pacing that elevates the book beyond a mere assemblage of photos. While leafing through the pages, it becomes apparent that editors Terry Toedtemeier and John Laursen have laced subtle commentary about the price of progress into the austere footage: In one image, net fishermen are starkly captured in front of the then-raging, now-flooded Celilo Falls; in another, dynamite blasts and dam construction take place alongside scenic stretches of winding river. Although a drive may do the trick for the casual sightseer, anyone would benefit from perusing this volume, which brings a humbling geologic creation into profound focus.
(Terry Toedtemeier and John Laursen will read from Wild Beauty on Dec 2 at 7:30 at Powell’s City of Books.)