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The Mighty Sierra

The Mighty Sierra, by Paul Webster. Palo Alto: American West Publishing Co. 1972. 287 pages, over 200 illustrations, 70 color plates. $17.50

Gentle Wilderness, The Sierra Nevada was published almost a decade ago by the Sierra Club as part of their award-winning Exhibit Format Series. The color photographs were of simple scenes, the kind that the average tourist, whether armed with an Instamatic or a Nikon, would walk past without thinking about his camera. Through the eye of Richard Kauffman, the commonplace became unique. The effect of his superbly reproduced images matched with quotations from John Muir was a rare glimpse into the subjective beauty of the Sierra.

Beginning with the title, The Mighty Sierra is precisely the opposite. The dust jacket presents it as an all-inclusive book of facts:

“All of the pleasant images that come to mind when you hear the word Sierra have been captured, in words and pictures, in this one great book … crammed with factual information.”

Coffee table books are rarely read. They are casually thumbed through by guests in those idle moments before the first martini. Admittedly, my first encounter with this book was exactly in the above fashion. I looked at the photographs. Many of them were black and whites by Ed Cooper. I had seen original prints of some of them, yet I did not recognize his work or a single picture until I saw the photo credits in the back. Why? Because the definitive Cooper trademark was missing. His photos of mountains are bold views with clean lines, almost harsh appearing, shot with strong filters on large format cameras. Middle tones are weak; powerful blacks and whites glare with almost a lunar quality. But his photos in this book are washed out beyond recognition as anything more or less than an average snapshot reproduced on newsprint. The sharpness from his huge 8- × 10-inch negatives is lost.

In contrast are the seventy color prints, bound together in glossy signatures and distributed throughout the book. They are very good and some, especially those of David Muench, approach perfection. The shock came when I began to read captions.

First I came across a photograph of a gnarled tree, captioned: “It is hard to believe that this dwarf pine, rootbound and prostrate on a boulder, is actually a lodgepole. …” I found it very hard indeed, since the pine in the picture was obviously another species. Convinced that I had found a single oversight I continued to scan the pages. Coming to a chapter entitled, “The Granite Peaks,” I found the title placed opposite a picture of the Minarets, which are in an area devoid of granite. Studying the chapter more carefully I recognized “Checkered Demon,” a mountain with a prominent horn near its summit and a gigantic band of white marble running across its rusty metamorphic face. The caption read: “Chunks of granite, broken from the peaks, have rolled down to form huge talus piles in the Humphreys Basin, east of the Sierran crest and north of Kings Canyon National Park.” Firstly, the rock was not granite; secondly, the talus slopes in the photo were not in Humphreys Basin and thirdly, Humphreys Basin is west, not east of the crest. Some book of facts!

A few weeks later I sat down and read the text. It bore little relation to the photos and captions. It really was a book of facts. Paul Webster’s writing was informative and factually correct, if not inspiring. His text was highly slanted toward geology and it was soon obvious that he was well aware that the Minarets, and other mountains called “granite” in the captions, were no such thing. If anything, too aware, as evidenced by the following hyper-technical quotation:

“Mount Morrison … has rock in it that is much older than the granite on which the Sierra rests—the 400-million-year-old mixture going back to the Ordovician age, which even to geologists was a long time ago. These pre-granitic rocks are estimated to be 32,000 feet thick. Since Mount Morrison is 12,268 feet above sea level, these ancient slates, marbles, hornfels, metacherts, and thick-bedded calcareous orthoquartzites reach almost four miles into the earth.”

I came to the conclusion that the editorial “we” really was plural and suffered from a failure to communicate. This failure to harmonize the various aspects of the book destroys its value as a book of facts, especially when one considers the dubious captions and high price. The original Sierra Club coffee-table books are works of high culture and uniform quality. The cheaper imitations that followed, Sunset books for example, were at least unpretentious and aimed at a general audience. The Mighty Sierra claims to be comprehensive, but in overall effect reminds me of Dwight Macdonald’s comments on Life Magazine: “Nine color pages of Renoir paintings followed by a roller-skating horse”.

Galen A. Rowell