Radical Fractures, Basalt, Mollala River, Clackamas County, Oregon 2002, Courtesy Portland Art Museum

He offers for inspection one of his own images, a breathtaking shot of the Haystack Rock near Pacific City, taken from the air. The black monument emerges like the back of a sea monster from the roiling silver water. "I’ve taken a lot of photographs of that rock. As a kid I used to take a fishing boat out there," he explains. Years later, he learned that the basalt headlands of Oregon’s northern coast were probably the fingertips of mantle plumes, extraordinarily rare upwellings of hot rock from the earth’s mantle that produced rock formations stretching from Steens Mountain to the coast. In the mid-’90s, piloted by his friend Herb Hill in a Piper Pacer, a World War II-era light plane, he started taking his 4-by-5 camera aloft to better capture the massive contours of these forms. "I can take the door off the side and just sit there, looking down," he says.

After all, truth and beauty are matters of perspective. Watkins was a minor speck in the photographic canon in 1977, when Toedtemeier submitted a proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts to research his work and that of various of his 19th-century peers. Two years later an album of his photographs–much like the one owned by the Oregon State Archives, but containing 16 more images–was purchased at auction by a consortium of dealers for $101,000, a record for work by a 19th-century photographer. Today that State Archives album, gifted in the 1950s by the California Society of Pioneers for $4.90 in postage, is on loan to the Portland Art Museum and worth at least $3.5 million.

And Toedtemeier is again attempting to reframe history. "Time and again, geologists have been wrong out here. It’s analogous to what’s happened here in art history. Carleton Watkins made some of the best flat-out photographs of the 19th century. We all look somewhere else for something great," he says. "Well, it’s right here." Since about 2003, he and John Laursen, a local book editor and designer, have been raising funds to produce a six-part series of books on the history of photography in the Northwest. The first, Wild Beauty: Photographs of the Columbia River: 1867 to 1957, slated to be published by Oregon State University Press this fall, will contain works by Watkins and others who followed in his riverine wake, concluding with Alfred A. Monner’s depictions of the drowning of Celilo Falls. The final book in the series will feature Toedtemeier’s coastal photographs.

The volume may bring wider recognition to the venerable curator’s own, remarkable oeuvre. Meanwhile, it seems, a self-reappraisal is underway. "If you showed my sea caves to a Freudian or a Jungian, they’d tell you it’s not about geology. It really is Courbet’s Origin of the World," Toedtemeier says with a giddy laugh. The reference to the scandalous 1866 painting–depicting a woman’s lower torso and spread legs, peeking out from tousled bed sheets–is apt; it was painted seven years after Darwin published The Origin of Species and the year before Watkins made his tour of Oregon, a time when old beliefs about the world were being inundated by new ones. "We are part of the landscape."