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Pictures at an Exhibition

Pano 5 V1For the record, I am shamelessly borrowing the title from an 1874 piano composition performed by the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky.  The story goes that Mussorgsky attended an art exhibition and was inspired to set the exhibit to music.  In 1971, the band Emerson, Lake & Palmer performed their interpretation of Mussorgsky’s composition under the same title.  So, I don’t feel too bad about using the title yet one more time.  But my use of the title isn’t about an exhibition, it is the exhibition.

CompositeThe new exhibit at the Dubuque Museum of Art in Dubuque, Iowa is titled Remnants of the West:  Edward Curtis and Mark James.  It runs from September 1 to January 7, 2018.  By all accounts, the presentation is excellent with my photographs contrasting nicely with Curtis, yet complimenting his work in a timeless manner.  We are separated by about 100 years.  It is interesting to consider that many of my photographs, visually, seem to reveal the absence of the North American Indian, the very thing Curtis sought to document and preserve.  It is revealed in the architecture of the photograph.  Susan Sontag in her book On Photography said “What renders a photograph surreal is its irrefutable pathos as a message from time past…”


Due credit must be given to Stacy Peterson, the curator at the museum.  In pairing my photographs with those of Curtis, Stacy took particular interest in the similarity of light and form.  A striking example is the Curtis photograph titled Blanket Weaver – Navajo.  A woman is weaving a blanket while sitting at her loom which rests against a cottonwood  tree.  A large branch reaches to the ground.  My photograph, Poudre River Branch, shares the same architecture.  It is almost as if the woman and her loom simply vanished leaving behind the artifact of nature.  This transcendent aspect is revealed throughout the exhibit.

Composite View

Going forward, there will be more Remnants of the West exhibits to come.  Additionally, the Edwin James Bicentennial Project is gaining momentum.  Check out some of the past blog posts for more information starting with the August 26 post “A Fork in the Road.”  I want to extend my appreciation to family, friends, and the exceedingly professional staff at the Dubuque Museum of Art for making this exhibit possible.  It is truly an honor to have my name and photographs associated with such a renowned photographer as Edward Curtis.

Who Is Edwin James? Part 2

Originally, my plan of posting these blogs concerning the history of Edwin James was to follow a linear path and doing so on a reliable timetable.  I guess I write blogs like I climb mountains:  slow and with a lot of distractions.  Thus, this second installment concerning Edwin’s climb of Pikes Peak will mostly set the stage to help the reader understand the challenge faced when he and two companions began their historic journey.


“We now began to credit the assertions of the guide, who had conducted us to the foot of the peak, and there left us, with the assurance that the whole of the mountain to its summit was covered with loose sand and gravel; so that, though many attempts had been made by the Indians and by hunters to ascend it, none had ever proved successful”  — Edwin James

In the fall of 2015, I climbed to the 14,114 foot summit of Pikes Peak  following the Barr Trail leading out of Manitou Springs.  Keeping me company was my nephew, Garrett Adrian and his father, Ken.  The Barr trail rises 7500 vertical feet over the space of just under 13 miles.  In the middle is a little cabin called the Barr Camp.  They offer lodging in either the cabin itself or a campsite nearby.  The Barr Camp has the feel of a mountain chalet where weary hikers can trade mountaineering stories beside a warm fire, drinking tea, and eating spaghetti.  Dinner at the Barr Camp is exactly the same meal every day, all year long:  spaghetti.  In the morning, to send you on your way to the summit, the Camp serves the exact same breakfast all year long:  pancakes.


On my short backpack trip to the top of Pikes, I had my usual lightweight gear, to wit, my Kelty backpack with plenty of hip and shoulder padding, sleeping bag, tent, Jet Boil stove, water purifier, solar powered reading light (Thanks to my kind nephew Garrett), and all kinds of modern synthetic materials to keep me cozy and warm at night.  Of course, we spent two nights at the aforementioned Barr Camp eating our spaghetti and listening to Cat Stevens songs provided by a fellow mountaineer on a dusty guitar found in the corner of the cabin.


To make things even more decadent and comfortable, my wife, Patricia and her sister, Betty, drove to the summit and were waiting for us with beer and sandwiches.  So, why climb?  I figured if Edwin James could attain the summit of Pikes Peak in 1820, and I intend to do a photographic project marking the bicentennial year of his climb in 2020, then the least I could do is climb the mountain myself and get a feel for the adventure.


Let’s wind the clock backwards to July 1820.  The Barr Camp, spaghetti, and pancakes are all gone.  There is no tent, no sleeping bag, no map, and certainly no solar powered light.  Edwin’s boots were probably heavy leather and there is some question as to whether footwear from that era distinguished the right foot from the left.  Historians are reasonably certain that no one was waiting for Edwin and his companions at the summit with sandwiches, chips, and beer.  His only comforts were a wool blanket and a shank of buffalo meat.  For all purposes, what we call ‘fun’ in this age was a grueling test of courage, strength, and endurance for the James party.

The Long Expedition was camped at a place just south of present day Colorado Springs. They could easily see the “High Peake” from their vantage point.  James noted “… all but the upper part was visible, with patches of snow extending down to the commencement of the woody region.”   As a mostly scientific expedition charged, in part, with identifying plant and animal life, the decision was made to climb the mountain and investigate the terrain above the “woody region”.  It would appear to be a spur-of-the-moment decision as opposed to a planned mountain expedition.

pikes-tundra    Climbing Pikes Peak in 1820 put Edwin James and his companions as the lone individuals to successfully summit a mountain above 14,000 feet in North America.  It would take another 34 years, in 1854, to break Edwin’s elevation record when Elias Pearce and eight others climbed Mount Shasta (14,179) in the Cascades for the first time.  And, it was yet an additional 14 years before John Wesley Powell claimed the next fourteener, Longs Peak (14,255), in 1868.  Edwin’s achievement was remarkable considering that the decision to climb Pikes Peak was not planned as an expedition, but literally, as the expression goes, “because it was there.”


Who is Edwin James? Part 1

The first post, dated August 26, provided a little background for a new photographic project centered on my ancestor, Edwin James, the first documented person to have ascended Pikes Peak.  In 2020, the bicentennial of Edwin’s climb, I will mount an exhibition of photographs from the Pikes Peak area and attempt to follow his route to the summit based on the historical account.

So, who is Edwin James?   Edwin has a fascinating, yet obscure history.  In the family tree, he is my uncle four generations removed.  Thus Edwin was born in 1797, the last of thirteen children.  My direct line branches off at Edwin’s brother, Nathaniel James (1772 – 1844), making Edwin a distant uncle.  My thanks go to Douglas James who has provided an abundance of information and family history.

Edwin was a true Renaissance man in every sense of the word.  He was a doctor, surgeon, botanist, prolific writer, explorer, and abolitionist.  Oh, and one more thing:  Edwin was the first documented ascent to the summit of Pikes Peak on July 14, 1820.  Major Stephen Long, for whom Longs Peak is named, noted:

“Dr. James, having accomplished this difficult task, I have thought proper to call the Peak after his name… Pike has indeed given us notice that there is such a Peak, but only saw it at a distance.”

On maps produced at the conclusion of the Long Expedition, Pikes was officially designated as James Peak.  However, after a period of years, with some cartographers identifying the mountain as ‘Pikes’ and others calling it ‘James’, it was finally agreed to let it rest as Pikes Peak.

longs-map-1822-highlightedThe details of the Long Expedition are well documented and it was Edwin who wrote the official two-volume report.  However, a controversy over the report erupted when both Edwin and Long concluded that the Rocky Mountain West was a desert wasteland.  James quoted Long in the official report:  “In regard to this extensive section of the country, I do not hesitate in giving the opinion, that it is almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people dependent on agriculture for their subsistence.”  Indeed, maps of the area called it the Great American Desert.  For an expanding nation, his description didn’t sit well politically and, in fact, delayed settlement in the West for several decades.


In the recent movie The Revenant, the main character was a trapper in the Rocky Mountain wilderness of 1822 named Hugh Glass who was mauled by a bear and left for dead.  It is worth noting that Glass and other mountain men of the time used the maps of the West that were produced by James and Long following the Expedition.


View of James Peak in the rain, Samuel Seymore, Expedition Illustrator

A Fork in the Road

Yogi Bera once said “If you come to a fork in the road, take it”

Twenty-one years ago, with the help of an Artist-in-Residence grant in Rocky Mountain National Park, I began a project to photograph the landscape using a pinhole camera and blue sensitive film.  Created with a classical, Pictorialist composition, the black and white photographs were soft, ethereal, and enduring.  Time itself slowed down with long exposures and old-fashioned development of film.  In a digital age, tools of cardboard, wood, tape, and hand craftsmanship prevailed over a key stroke or artificial effect generated by software.  The body of work expanded to an extensive study of the wilderness landscape with hundreds of photographs spread over several states and mountain ranges.

Path Photo_Blog

In the winter of 2014 I had a serious heart operation to replace two heart valves.  It’s always amusing to describe a heart operation as ‘serious’ because anytime someone opens your chest, it’s serious.  The main thing to derive from this bit of information is that, having experienced such an operation, I expected to have a renewed sense of photography, a creative burst of energy in having lived to fight another day.

On the contrary, I found myself uninspired and flat.  My lack of enthusiasm, of ‘seeing’ the photograph, turned into a bit of a crisis.  Had I lost the ability to compose a photograph?  Had I lost the passion that has always driven my photography?  Was I at an end instead of a new beginning?  How could that happen?

Sometimes we simply fail to see the larger picture and the spiritual forces at work in our lives.  Lamenting my fate one afternoon with family, the hard truth of my situation became clear:  the long pinhole landscape project was coming to close.  Sometimes it’s hard to let go of that which is comfortable and familiar.

Yet, as one door closes, another door opens.  A quiet voice was beckoning from the wilderness of 1820.  That voice belonged to my distant ancestor, Edwin James.  A little-known fact of Colorado history is that Edwin was the first successful, documented ascent of Pikes Peak in 1820 while on the Major Long Expedition.  Zebulon Pike tried to gain the summit, but failed.  The bicentennial year of Edwin’s accomplishment will be in 2020.  I offered a proposal to a museum in Colorado Springs to produce an exhibit of photographs that will recreate the wilderness of Pikes Peak that Edwin might have encountered on his climb.  This new project will require an entirely different photographic aesthetic quite different from the pinhole.

Thus begins a new project and a new blog.  Future posts will provide the history of Edwin James, report on the progress of this endeavor, introduce the various artists that have come together, anecdotes of the photo journey, fund-raising success, and just about everything else that will bring this project to a successful conclusion in 2020.

In consideration of all of the above, I am pleased to announce the Edwin James Bicentennial Project:  1820 – 2020.

Edwin James_Blog

Homage to an Old Kelty Pack


    After 44 years of faithful service, the time has come to put my Kelty backpack out to pasture.

    I purchased my Kelty model D-4 pack from REI in 1971, just after my sixteenth birthday.   Back then, REI was a strictly membership mail-order house out of Seattle for outdoor equipment.  Kelty backpacks were considered the finest that money could buy.  It was a backpack loaded with innovations like a contoured aluminum external frame, clevis-pin attachments, padded hip and shoulder straps, and quick release buckles.  Not only was the Kelty a marvel of late 20th century technology, but it had seen action in Antarctica as well as the first successful American assault on Mount Everest in 1963.  If the Kelty pack was good enough for Jim Whittaker on the slopes of Everest, it was the pack of choice for my third climb on Mount Whitney.

    My Kelty and I became close friends immediately and we have seen many adventures together over the years.  In 1972, I moved out on my own at the age of seventeen with literally the pack on my back after a terrible argument.  I was young, obstinate, and angry.  It wasn’t a smart decision but I had too much pride to come crawling back, so I found myself living on the streets with my Kelty.  To be homeless with the Cadillac of backpacks was an odd combination and I am certain that it made the difference one early morning when a cop wanted to arrest me for vagrancy.  As I was explaining my circumstances, he noted the pack, which turned into an amicable discussion of backpacking, which in turn caused him to reconsider and let me off with a warning.  It was a rocky start to my recent emancipation.

    A few months later, I was to meet a friend at Mirror Lake along the trail to Mount Whitney.  I took a bus up to the desert town of Lone Pine and hitchhiked to the trailhead.  It was on that trip that my Kelty fell victim to a marmot that gnawed a hole in the pack to get my food.  My repair job has withstood the test of time and is still evident in the upper right corner of my pack.  Meanwhile, my friend  never showed up and after lingering for a few days, I made the longest continuous hike of my life from Mirror Lake to just outside of Lone Pine, about 16 miles.  The next morning, barely able to walk, I finished my hike into Lone Pine and ate two breakfasts at a local cafe.


    In June of 1975, I moved to Fort Collins to attend school at Colorado State University.  As it was with my sudden departure from home in 1972, I arrived at the Greyhound bus station on the corner of Olive and College with no real plan and my meager possessions stuffed in my Kelty.  The scene was like something out of a Clint Eastwood western.  The wind was blowing and kicking up a bit of a dust storm.  I half expected to see tumbleweeds rolling down the street.  As they say, when a stranger comes to town, the locals have to decide whether to kill you or serve you a drink.  So began my Colorado adventure.

    The beauty of an external frame pack is that it can haul a lot of stuff.  In my early days of backpacking, I fell in with a group that was not afraid of packing heavy objects to gain bragging rights.  We packed in all sorts of things like cast iron skillets, golf clubs, bottles of champagne, and even a television.  His name was Mike Vogel and he had a portable TV called a Ranger 7 that was powered by something like a dozen ‘D’ cell batteries.  He dragged it the top of Iron Mountain and got zero reception, but won the admiration of us all.  For my part, I managed to lash seven six-packs of beer onto my Kelty.  Yes, I realize that hauling that much beer probably violated some wilderness mountaineering code, but that’s what true rebels of the late 70’s counterculture did in those days, even if it was stupid.

    So now, it’s the spring of 2015 and the old Kelty shows the tears and scars of many miles.  The waterproofing of the nylon pack has long since worn off and the nylon material is getting paper-thin.  The hip belt needs to be replaced for, I think, the third time, maybe fourth.  The zippers are metal and losing their ability to open and close efficiently.  Over the last decade, my Kelty certainly has been the subject of many trailside comments about being ‘retro’ or ‘low tech’.  Like people, even a backpack gets old.  If there was a nursing home for backpacks, my Kelty could tell some stories!  Together, we have weathered many seasons of storms in the mountains as well as the storms of life.  We have shared many miles through thick and thin, but it’s time to retire the Model D-4.

    My new backpack?  It is a red Kelty Trekker external frame pack!