The Mountains of America: From Alaska to the Great Smokies, by Franklin Russell. Introduction by Edward Abbey. New York: Harry Abrams, 1975 224 pages, 133 photos, 124 in color. Price: $40.00
Not many years ago it was fashionable to talk about cheap Japanese imitations of American goods. I kept quiet after I began using high quality Japanese camera equipment. Now, however, the pendulum isswinging the other way. How long can America keep up with Japan? This is the new question, especially in quality book publishing.
Harry Abrams, the publisher of this book, also published Himalayas, the 12 x 17 photographic extravaganza of the world’s highest mountains. Abrams has published some of the world’s finest art books, and in the case of Himalayas, the combination of high mountains and novel photography produced an important work of art. The photographs were all by the same photographer, Shirakawa, and even those who did not like them had to admit that they represented a distinctive style: through the art of photography a man had given his interpretation of a range of mountains. The Mountains of America, on the other hand, resembles a book assembled by committee. It has no distinctive style, but the photographs share with Himalayas an other-worldly quality. Part of this is due, not coincidentally, to a common publisher that might offer a glint of understanding about the photographs in both books. Himalayas has been controversial because people wondered, “Are the colors real? Shirakawa stated in the book that he used no colored filters and his photographs represented the scene as closely as possible. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Shirakawa had to write those words before he was aware of the final reproductions in his book!
Mountains of America solved the Himalayas enigma for me. The book uses photographs from a large number of American photographers. While working as a photo editor for another publisher, I had seen several of the originals that were eventually used in Mountains. I was particularly familiar with the photos of David Muench, who is probably the top color large-format scenic photographer in the United States today. In Mountains I found Muench’s images reproduced with the same inky purple shadows and harsh contrasts as in the controversial Himalayas. Knowing the originals, the overall effect was not pleasing.
I’m not sure how I would respond to Mountains if I had never seen any of the original photographs or the mountains themselves. Few Americans outside the American Alpine Club have been high in the Himalayas to compare the real sunrises with the reproduced purples. Many Americans, however, have visited their native mountains to compare them with the unfamiliar scenes in Mountains. The photographs in this book do not give a fair representation of different mountain areas. In the search for the unique image, the commonplace has been lost. The book is a gaudy counterpoint to the Sierra Club standby, Gentle Wilderness. The mood of a certain area is not apparent except in the most superficial ways. The emphasis is on ethereal things: streams, clouds, lightning, waterfalls, sunsets. But this soft subject matter is reproduced in grainy harshness. If I had never seen a mountain, and I owned this book, I would probably tilt my head in dog-like bewilderment when I saw the real thing.
The artsy photos are blended with an almost deadpan text on the geography of each region. The subject is too vast, and the book is spotty. Canadian mountains seem to have been included as a token gesture in this bicentennial year. The Rockies have a few quick pages, but Mount Logan, the Selkirks, and the Bugaboos are nowhere to be found.
For the mountaineeer, there are glimpses of many of America’s wildest mountains in the photographs. The text is worthless to a climber. For instance, the crest of the Sierra Nevada is described as “such a tumble of rocks that much of it is virtually inaccessible.” Even National Geographic recognizes that the Pacific Crest Trail runs the length of the range.
This book is a must only for the compulsive collector. My advice? Wait for the Japanese imitation.