A 2010 residency at Devils Tower allowed Chavawn Kelley to experiment with photography, and later inspired her written works here.
Red Beds Trail
Idiot naturalist, that is not a bird. The skull lying at the foot of the ponderosa pine comes to a beak-like point, but at its apex is a pair of teeth. What unwary prairie dog climbed up to the sandstone of the Spearfish Formation? One who slipped out for a smoke? This is evidence of the fox. And a reminder that individual obliteration is more dramatic than species eradication.
The Tower is the fixed point around which all trails run. Now the path is a two-track through low oak wood. Browned leaves prismatic with rain reinforce the line that loops like today’s refrain. “Margaret, are you grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving?” The light is flat. The line is from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “Spring and Fall,” which continues, “Leaves, like the things of man, you/With your fresh thoughts care for…”
Remove the cover, frame the photo, adjust the focus. Choices: a torso (for leaves), three persons (for a small family), or a jagged mountain made scenic by distance. The shutter release is a lever beside the lens. Press it, listen for a perceptible duration. In two shakes of a prairie dog’s tail, it springs back into place. Advance the film by hand. The Holga is innocent of high tech idolatry. It doesn’t even have a battery.
Media mentor Marshall McLuhan observed, “One doesn’t commit photography alone.” The complicity in a portrait is clear, but how does the subject’s involvement extend to place? If allowed to, photography pirates real experience, producing a twodimensional stand-in. Alternately, the act of photography engages us in an uncanny reverse-making. The camera is a dark room with a tiny door. The photographer lets the exterior world in, and astonishingly, something of the individual taking the picture is revealed. (An exchange of souls?)
Approaching the broken columns of the Tower is like coming upon the ruins of an empire. Beyond these colossal boulders, intact pilings soar in a bundle that is the Tower. Its top is lenticular, as if the Tower pushed an arc of earth up when it broke through. Potassium argon dating suggests the event occurred 40.5 million years ago. The rock, phonolite, is named for the way it rings when struck. Its crystalline structure is known as porphyry. Of course I don’t know this when I show up.
In the chamber of the Holga camera, the film is a slow stream of consciousness. The objective is not faithful reproduction but hopeful recognition, perhaps some pooled memory. San Francisco journalist Hiya Swanhuyser called the Holga the Rocky Horror Picture Show of cameras. “Both are cheap…yet hold images… of enduring beauty and…cultworthy absurdity.” In the summer, Crow Indians tied prayer bundles in the silence of the trees, and strips of faded cloth flutter. What makes melancholy so delicious? My descent is in the rain.
Valley View Trail
The cattle at the river bellow. Cautious chirps and cries punctuate the sueded sky as I circuit the town of a thousand eyes. October, with its supreme clemency blazing against the inevitability of winter, seems apt for an experiment in expiration. I advance the dial with my thumb and the film scrolls between spools. The film, 120 Tri-X Pan, expired in 1989.
A fox at a hole spins like a twister before falling away defeated and lopes across the blacktop road. Security prevails in the black-tail’s Gotham. An apologist’s sign at the Belle Fouche Campground states that Loop A is closed to accommodate the prairie dogs’ sprawl. This, as their Endangered Species listing appears imminent. The blue above is tipping to violet in this year of Kodachrome’s demise. By Sunday snow will arrive.
William Henry Jackson stood across the Belle Fouche River in 1872 to burn the first image of Devils Tower into colloidal emulsion on a glass plate. The railroad had connected the continent, and the sentinels of modernism proclaimed the annihilation of time and space. The West’s rapid passing seen from the windows of the Union Pacific passenger car leant urgency to fixing the view in the frame.
Joyner Ridge Trail
William Henry Jackson’s outfit was cumbersome—weighty cameras on stilts, 8x10 glass plates in wooden crates, jugs of chemicals, and a black canvas tent. Icarry the Holga in a bread sack beneath my Gore-Tex jacket. The focus is set to scenic (the Sioux “Ghost Mountain”). Clouds and snow add to the obscuring effects of the expired film and plastic lens. I embrace their occlusion as a counter to too much high def.
Circumambulating Devils Tower is like winding onto a spool. Outside the electronic circuitry of normal life, I join, for a moment, the big, cosmic swirling the ancients knew. I circle back to my white car, which is waiting in the white storm, packed for the long drive home. I turn the tiny crank to disengage the film from its 1980s spool. A shudder of grief accompanies its release.
The first “instant” camera, the Kodak, was introduced in 1888. George Eastman invented it to go with his patented rolled film. Ads for the Kodak heralded, “Photography reduced to three motions,” “Anyone can use it,” and “One hundred shots before reloading.” When the photographer completed the roll, the entire camera was sent to Rochester, New York. The pictures were developed and printed, and the camera was returned, reloaded, to the owner.
The Holga is not so different. I mail the film to Kansas and wait. I don’t enjoy this antidote to instantaneousness. At least in the age of one-hour processing, nervous anticipation was tempered by nearly instant relief. But sixty minutes is up, and one-hour processing is doomed. The Photo Express at Devils Tower Junction is closed and I suspect the condition is permanent.
William Henry Jackson photographed Devils Tower in 1872, fixing the image in a chemistry of egg white (albumen) and silver. In 1904, the Belle Fourche River, which curved broadly in the foreground of the Jackson photo, was dammed. What Shakespeare called the “the dark backward and abysm of time” is the purview of the photograph. It is the illusion of the extant that enthralls us.
In the end, my experiment with expired film is something of a failure. Most of the frames are gray, exposed to the point of oblivion. The emulsion is not blotched and fascinating, just thin and neutral, a dull fading. In Paul Simon’s, “Kodachrome,” everything looks worse in black and white. These are not worse, I think, not harsh, but tender and insufficient like memory. Still, if time is what we are running from, photography offers a means to console us.
“One Hour Photo” was not written during the time gifted to me by the Artist in Residence program at Devils Tower National Monument but as a later reflection of that time and place. The residency provided a creative laboratory in which to experiment with image and imagination. Time took on a different shape, undiffused by obligation and distraction, and elongated to take in a broader scope than day-to-day living usually allows. The Tower itself provided a literal and figurative touchstone for contemplating how we occupy and interact with extraordinary spaces. Even living in the compact, utilitarian apartment gave me a sense of connection with generations of park service employees who have known the Tower and used the clothesline. Thank you for letting me share these snapshots of the experience.
Last updated: January 2, 2020