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Earth Notes: ‘The Great Unknown’ Photography Exhibit

Melissa Sevigny

Photographers have long been drawn to Glen Canyon’s unique landscape, both before and after it disappeared beneath the waters of Lake Powell. Now, the work of generations of photographers is on display at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, showcasing an otherworldly place forever changed by a dam.

The exhibit is called “The Great Unknown,” a phrase borrowed from John Wesley Powell. The oldest photographs on display come from Powell’s second expedition down the Colorado River in 1871. The most recent show visitors recreating on the drought-stricken waters of the reservoir.

Some portraits, like those of environmentalist Eliot Porter, offer an intimate glimpse of the hidden springs and twisty slot canyons that made Glen Canyon famous for its beauty. These stand in sharp contrast to the photographs of Martin Stupich, whose work focuses on the extraordinary architecture of Glen Canyon Dam. All of the artwork taps into the deep connection between people and the land—but the exhibit also reveals an uneasy tension in the many different ways people view Glen Canyon.

Some photographs show climate change happening in real time, with stranded boats and the white “bathtub ring” around the reservoir as stark reminders of the decades-long drought.

“The Great Unknown” was first displayed at the New Mexico Museum of Art. It opened in Flagstaff this month and will remain on display through November. It’s a chance for visitors to explore, through photographs, the beautiful and diverse topic of a lost canyon and a diminishing reservoir.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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