Patagonia: Images of a Wild Land. David Neilson. Emerald, Australia: Snowgum Press, 1999. Color and black-and-white photos. 96 pages. $37.50.
Australian photographer David Neilson’s Patagonia: Images of a Wild Land is a large-format book containing 43 color and 18 black-and-white plates. These images were culled from photos accumulated during three visits he made to Patagonia in the 1970s. Essays on the exploration, climbing and natural history of Patagonia, along with three memoirs from his journeys, accompany the photos.
Through narrative and photos, Neilson takes us to Tierra del Fuego (not properly in Patagonia), the Paine region, the Fitz Roy/Cerro Torre area, the Southern Patagonia Icecap and a remote valley adjacent to the Northern Patagonia Icecap. Neilson traces the exploration of these lands by Europeans, beginning with Magellan’s epic voyage of discovery. Magellan is said to have bestowed the name “Patagonia” on the native peoples he encountered, though the origin of the word is unclear. As Neilson points out, these people were eventually exterminated. Though not exhaustive, Neilson also sketches out an overview of the climbing history of each area. He recounts in detail Maestri and Egger’s climb on Cerro Torre, offering up the rarely voiced opinion that Maestri is telling the truth.
The scope of this book is one of its virtues. While most visitors to Patagonia limit themselves to the eastern sides of the Fitz Roy and Paine areas, Neilson has ventured into the heart of the matter, most notably on a voyage in 1977 and 1978 that began in Scotland on a sailboat. Neilson and his comrades sailed to Tierra del Fuego for a climbing interlude, then continued up the coast of Chile to an obscure fiord from which three of them launched out across the Southern Patagonia Icecap to traverse east to the Fitz Roy area. The view from out on the icecap looking east toward the clustered and improbable western aspects of Cerro Torre, Fitz Roy, et al, is one of the great transcendent vistas on this planet.
Neilson’s personal stories come from an already bygone era. In 1974, the year of Neilson’s first visit, the ice-sheathed spires of Patagonia were still shrouded in an aura of almost mystic impregnability: Cerro Torre had maybe been climbed twice, the west face only first climbed that year. Any endeavor in these storm-swept mountains and icefields was regarded to be an adventure at the ends of the earth. Though Tierra del Fuego and the fiords of Chile may still not be popular destinations, time and familiarity have stolen some of the magic. The busy village of El Chalten that now sits at the road head below Fitz Roy (where 25 years ago there was only a ranger’s cabin) notwithstanding, not all change is bad. Neilson’s most potentially deadly episode was when he and his friends were arrested by the Argentine army in the bad old days of the military junta for an illegal border crossing out on the icecap.
A good bit of the mountain photography we see from Patagonia comes from climbers standing outside their tent or while on the go. A portion of the photos in this book fall into this category, and they have their own authenticity because of that. But Neilson was in Patagonia with a photographer’s eye, and we are treated to photos that are crafted, taken with a photographer’s patience and tenacity to find that perfect perspective and moment. Familiar vistas are revisited as well as far more esoteric images of remote fiords, valleys, mountain- and icescapes. Patagonia is not necessarily all harsh and edgy; a soft light can suffuse at times. Neilson has not ignored this, nor the wildlife.
Patagonia is things extreme, near earth’s end, where outworldly landscapes are made manifest and primal forces remain unbridled. Some of this Patagonian essence can be experienced vicariously: Neilson’s 25,000 words and 61 plates do a superb job of conveying it. However (and I suspect Neilson might agree with this), there is a dimension to Patagonia, more so than any other place I’ve been, that can only be experienced viscerally. There is nothing like standing out in the middle of the icecap as a big Patagonian storm powers up to full throttle. This you have to go feel for yourself.