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

Wild Beauty, the inaugural volume in the Northwest Photography Series, 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 These rare photographs, most of them previously unpublished, have been meticulously restored and then carefully reproduced in four-color process to capture the nuanced tones and subtle coloring of albumen silver prints,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.

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 emigrants 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, its spectacular basalt formations 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. In Wild Beauty, the authors present some of the finest surviving photographs of the Columbia River Gorge framed by insightful text, offering a portrait of one of the West’s primal landscapes through nearly a century of dramatic change.