One hundred thirty years ago, every member of the United States Congress was presented with a portfolio of photographs by William Henry Jackson, documenting the extraordinary beauty of the northwestern Wyoming wilderness then known as "Coulter's Hell."
The purpose of the presentation was to convince Congress to set aside and protect these lands in perpetuity, for the delight of generations yet to be born. And as we know, Congress did exactly that, creating Yellowstone National Park.
I've often wondered what it must have been like to see Yellowstone for the first time through the eyes of the greatest photographer of the American West. After so many years, Jackson's mammoth prints are still as powerful and majestic as they were when first created.
And now I think I know what those congressmen must have felt. Looking at Brian Doan's large-format panoramic photographs of scenes in and around Colorado Springs at Phototroph, I saw works of such extraordinary, unearthly beauty that I was literally struck dumb.
Here's Doan's story. Born in Vietnam, "when the Vietnam War ended, my dad was taken away to the 're-education' camps by the new regime, and my family was forced to leave the city, wandering from place to place. We lived mostly in the countryside or jungles, surviving by the generous gifts of the wilderness. Ever since, Nature has become my nourishing mother and biggest teacher."
Doan immigrated to America in 1991, lived in suburban Los Angeles for nine years, and then came to Colorado Springs. He was struck both by our city's beauty and closeness to nature and by the rapid and destructive pace of development.
Twenty-five of Doan's remarkable photographs will be on display at Phototroph from Sept. 10 to Sept. 25. Titled Memories of Colorado Springs, this is both a gift and a warning to his adopted community.
Photographed with a panoramic Hasselblad, and printed on a kind of metallic/pearlescent paper, the prints are radiantly alive and present. Each photograph is calm and authoritative; and each image conveys, subtly and unobtrusively, Doan's affectionate warning.
Look at "Bog'-a Fall," a landscape of still water, dried reeds, and the brown surge of the prairie coming down to water's edge. But off on the right, a couple of roofs dent the horizon -- development's tide that may eventually overwhelm prairie, reeds and water.
Or consider "Old Train Station," a view of the former DRG & W station (now Giuseppe's Depot Restaurant) taken from the north. It's one of the first developed sites in Colorado Springs, dating to the founding of the city in 1871 -- the station, the tracks, a Southern Pacific locomotive and caboose, and the unchanging mountains to the west. Seen through Doan's eyes, it's calm, serene, and timeless -- part of an ancient landscape.
"Carnival," depicting a street fair on Powers Boulevard, is a garish, lively scene, full of the sparkly brilliance of any amusement park. But like all of Doan's works, it has a timeless, motionless quality, as if it were an island of light in a sea of darkness.
Let us hope that his images of our home -- so beautiful, so familiar, so strange -- will have the same impact upon us as did Jackson's photographs upon the lawmakers gathered in Washington so many years ago.
"With this very humble photographic documentary project, it is my hope to capture the area's remaining beauty and my memories of some special places," he says. "More importantly, this project is a call for awareness to Colorado Springs authorities and residents: to recognize the full effects of current urbanization and to preserve the area's nature; to maintain the characteristics which made Colorado Springs well known; and to protect the harmony between the residents and nature for many generations to come."
Doan is leaving Colorado Springs for Boston, at least for a while. He says he'll be back -- let's hope so! Meanwhile, his book on the Vietnamese diaspora, The Forgotten Ones, is being published this fall; hopefully, there will be a book signing at Phototroph to mark the occasion. In any case, this is another "don't miss" show from Phototroph; it'll only be up for a couple of weeks, so you'd best go to the opening Friday night.
-- John Hazlehurst
Memories of Colorado Springs
by Vietnamese-born photographer Brain Doan
Phototroph Gallery, 218 W. Colorado Ave., under the Colorado Avenue bridge
Gallery hours: noon to 5 p.m., Saturdays
Opening reception Friday, Sept. 10, 5 to 8 p.m.