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Wild Beauty: Photographs of the Columbia River Gorge, 1867–1957

Wild Beauty illuminates the rich photographic heritage of one of the most magnificent landforms of the American West with 134 images by three dozen photographers, including Carleton Watkins, Benjamin Gifford, Fred Kiser, Lily White, Sarah Ladd, Alfred Monner, and Ray Atkeson. These rare photographs, most of them previously unpublished, have been meticulously restored and then carefully reproduced in four-color process to capture the nuanced tones and subtle coloring of albumen silver prints, gelatin silver prints, platinum prints, hand-colored photographs, and early Kodachromes.

Watknis Image ........................ Watkins Image
The Columbia Gorge exerts a powerful influence on the lives and imaginations of those who live in the region, and those who visit. As the only near-sea-level passage through the Cascade Range, it was a corridor of trade and a center of culture for Native Americans for thousands of years. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Lewis and Clark traced their westward path of exploration through the Gorge, and half a century later the early emigrant wagon trains followed the same course to the Pacific Northwest.

On expeditions to the Gorge in 1867 and again in the early 1880s, Carleton Watkins produced what are widely considered to be some of the greatest landscape photographs ever made. The place Watkins saw still looked much as it had when the first Euro-Americans arrived, and indeed as it had for centuries before: the Columbia River was a wild and powerful free-flowing torrent, the basalt formations of the Gorge vulnerable to the ceaseless erosions of water and weather but seemingly impervious to the effects of human presence.

The newcomers, though, had a penchant for revision. The landscape of the Gorge was altered in the nineteenth century by the advent of rail and early in the twentieth by the Columbia River Highway. And the river itself was transformed, incrementally at first by the construction of locks and canals, and then fundamentally by hydroelectric dams.

Much of the extraordinary work created during this period by Watkins and his successors had never been available to public view. The original prints or negatives are fragile; they exist today primarily because they have been preserved in archival collections. Now, in Wild Beauty, the authors present some of the finest surviving photographs of the Columbia River Gorge framed by insightful text, offering us a portrait of one of the West’s primal landscapes through nearly a century of dramatic change.

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LIBRARIAN SURVEY (for librarians at Oregon's public libraries)
Kiser Image

About the Authors

John Laursen is a writer, designer, editor, and typographer. For four decades he has owned and operated Press-22, a Portland studio specializing in the design and production of high-quality books and text-based public art projects. Among the institutions for which he has produced books and art catalogues are the Oregon Historical Society, the Portland Art Museum, Whitman College, Reed College, Marylhurst University, and the Regional Arts & Culture Council. His work in public art includes the creation of commemorative installations for the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission and serving on the design team for the Oregon Holocaust Memorial. The Special Collections archive at the University of Oregon’s Knight Library maintains a collection of works on paper from Press-22, which is updated annually.

Laursen was born in Tacoma, Washington; as a child he lived in Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Arizona, and California. He first experienced the Columbia Gorge on his family’s many trips back and forth across the country. Laursen came to Oregon in the 1960s to attend Reed College, where he became further enthralled with the varied landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. He holds a master’s degree in political science from UCLA.

Terry Toedtemeier
was a native Portlander who traced his ancestry back to the pioneer migration along the Oregon Trail in the 1850s. In 1975 he was a co-founder of Portland’s Blue Sky photography gallery; a decade later he became the first curator of photography at the Portland Art Museum. In that position, Toedtemeier assembled a collection of more than five thousand works for the Museum and mounted a wide variety of exhibitions. For more than thirty years he studied the history of photography in the American West, with a particular focus on the photography of the Columbia River Gorge. Toedtemeier passed away in December 2008 not long after the publication of Wild Beauty.

Toedtemeier was himself an accomplished photographer whose work was deeply informed by his study of the geology of the Northwest. He earned a degree in earth sciences from Oregon State University and received numerous grants and awards for his ongoing photographic exploration of the region’s basalt formations. His awards include fellowships from the Flintridge Foundation and the Regional Arts & Culture Council, and a master’s fellowship from the Oregon Arts Commission.


In 2002, Toedtemeier and Laursen founded the Northwest Photography Archive as an outlet for their enormous enthusiasm for the photography of this region. Wild Beauty is the first in a series of books that they conceived of at the outset of their work together. In December 2008, just three months after the publication of Wild Beauty, Toedtemeier died following a lecture that the two gave about the book to an audience in Hood River. The Northwest Photography Archive continues to honor the commitment to the photography of the Pacific Northwest that Toedtemeier envisioned when he and Laursen founded the Archive. To read more about Toedtemeier and his many contributions to art community throughout the region click here.

Kinsey Image ........................ Weister Image

Praise for Wild Beauty

Wild Beauty was well-reviewed in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Wall Street Journal and The Oregonian, where it was named the best Northwest book of 2008. It also received the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award for 2009 and was a finalist for the 2009 Oregon Book Award in non-fiction. Co-authors Toedtemeier and Laursen were interviewed by Jody Seay on her cable access program Back Page.


In Wild Beauty Terry Toedtemeier and John Laursen provide an affectionate and enlightening study of photography in earlier times in the Columbia River Gorge. This book is a first-class pleasure, both for its wonderful pictures and for the authors’ clear and compelling writing about the photographs’ geographical and historical context. It is an achievement that gives hope to all who want art to engage the world.

~Robert Adams
, photographer

This is an important book. Well researched and gracefully informative, Wild Beauty offers the opportunity to see images by many photographers who might otherwise have been forgotten. It will astonish those of us who thought we knew the great work of Carleton Watkins, and those who believed he was the only artist of consequence to visit the Columbia Gorge. Wild Beauty deserves the same serious and sympathetic attention that the authors themselves give to this remarkable landscape and to the photographers who took it as a principal subject.

~Sandra Phillips, Curator of Photography, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The story of the American West is written across the surface of the Columbia River. Wild Beauty captures not only the spectacular landscapes that draw us to the river’s shores, but the complex and conflicting histories that have played out in the Columbia River Gorge over the past two centuries. Most important, these photographs reveal what has been hidden beneath the waters, unfolding the distinctive geology of the Gorge and bringing back to life a Columbia we can now only imagine. Wild Beauty is a gift to the Columbia and to all who love this majestic and elegant river.

~Toby Jurovics, Curator of Photography, Smithsonian American Art Museum

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