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Local author reveals Grand Canyon’s history through repeat photography

Kevin Schindler, astronomer-in-residence at Grand Canyon National Park
Melissa Sevigny
Kevin Schindler, astronomer-in-residence at Grand Canyon National Park

Tourists have been snapping photos of Grand Canyon National Park for more than a century. A new book pairs historic photographs with brand-new ones to see what’s changed and what hasn’t in that time.

KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with Flagstaff author Kevin Schindler about how the repeat photography project reveals not just the canyon’s spectacular scenery but its human history, too.

So you had to stroll around Grand Canyon National Park and find these places that were in old historic photographs?

Right, it’s a really tough job.

Hard work!

There’s certainly challenges with it. But how many of us have done that: where was this picture taken? And you try to narrow it down. It was really a fun project, and then I like learning the history about different things, so a lot of the things that I wasn’t too familiar with, like the barns and stuff like that you drive by, but what’s the story behind this?

I was struck by some of the buildings actually how little they had changed. Some of the historic — like El Tovar Hotel, Bright Angel Lodge — really look quite similar today.

There’s some pictures taken from 1905, 1920s, if you made it black and white it could be the same time.

Do you have a favorite historical story that came up for you while doing this research?

One of my favorite things in the Grand Canyon in terms of modern human history—because there’s so much with the rocks, and the Indigenous people who live there, there’s so many different stories—but one of my favorite modern things is the swimming pool that was down at Phantom Ranch. I remember the first time, years ago, that I heard about that and went down and tried to line up where it was. … Thankfully there’s some buildings and rocks in the background that you can line up because otherwise, you walk there and you kind of see a depression but you would never think it was a swimming pool. You’d never think that under that little layer of dirt, there’s a pool table, and maybe a washer and dryer. Because when they filled it in, they just filled it in with stuff that had been hauled all the way down the canyon and wasn’t going to be hauled back up.

A piano, right?  

Yeah. Right. It would be fun to dig it up now and look at those artifacts. It would be really nice to have the pool again.

You’ve gotten to form a personal connection with the Canyon yourself over the years, most recently as the Astronomer in Residence at the Grand Canyon. You got to actually got to live up there for a while.

It was a great experience. The Grand Canyon Conservancy sponsors this program, both Astronomer in Residence and Artist in Residence…The main project I had was documenting and rephotographing where the Apollo astronauts trained up there. The last section of this new book has some of those pictures. There’s a couple I’ve been trying to track down for years. One is a silhouette of Neil Armstrong. You can tell it’s him because of the hat he’s wearing and everything. There’s a real distinct shadow, and a very distinct background, rock features. I never realized exactly where it was. I was hiking down, and I stopped for a second thinking I’ve got to be close, and then right next to me, here’s this big rock.

Was there a photo you wanted to include where you couldn’t find the spot?

There’s one of Buffalo Bill when he visited the canyon. It’s uncertain if the description is actually where he’s at or not. I was able to cheat a little bit, because the chapter introductions are a single photo without a repeat, so I snuck it in there…. But I was pretty happy overall with them…. You know, I really liked the project because… you know, not just gawking at everything—like no matter how many times you go down there you gawk at the scenery—but be gawking for something in particular, and trying to find it and the satisfaction of: that’s it! … It’s kind of a fun exploration of sorts.

Kevin Schindler, thanks so much for speaking with me today.

Thanks for chatting.

Kevin will speak about the book The Grand Canyon: Past & Present at 6 p.m. on Feb. 20 at Bright Side Bookshop in Flagstaff.

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.