Saguaros Revisited

Tucson Botanical Gardens' Porter Hall Gallery hosts an exhibit starring Arizona's iconic cactus

When pioneering photographer Timothy O'Sullivan was roaming Arizona in 1871, he made an image that forever after influenced Arizona photography.

His "Cereus Giganteus," taken on the government Wheeler Expedition, is the first photograph of a saguaro anybody knows of. Terry Etherton, an expert in historical photography, says he's been on a "quest for years" to find an earlier example, to no avail.

The O'Sullivan specimen, in the collection of the Center for Creative Photography, is a fine black-and-white albumen print. His saguaro giant stands front and center in a sea of lesser cacti.

An Etherton-organized show at the Tucson Botanical Gardens, Summer Saguaro Celebration, demonstrates what O'Sullivan's innovation wrought: photographic saguaros here, there and everywhere. In the years after O'Sullivan shot the strange plant, the saguaro became a potent symbol of Arizona, and photographs of it are simple shorthand for the state's prickly beauty.

An anonymous 1940s postcard writ large is the earliest example in this entertaining show. Run through the scanner and printed out on canvas, the untitled work is a painterly confection in the candied greens and pinks typical of the early days of color photography. At left, a classic multi-armed saguaro reaches for the pale-blue heavens; at its side stands a crested saguaro, the rarer armless variety. The postcard's desert paradise is clearly meant to entice tourists.

Most of the 38 cactus renderings here are of more recent vintage, and the artists feel no particular compulsion to advertise the state, as the postcard artist did. Using new technologies and media mixes, they feel as free to raise alarms about environmental desecration as they do to honor its most famous plant. Almost all of the exhibition works are photographs, with the exception of Simon Donovan's fuchsia sculptural "Saguaro," a 6-foot survivor of his memorable Prick show of five years ago, and Stephen Farley's decorative colored tiles "Prickly" and "Juicy."

Among the photogs, Kenn Coplan celebrates the saguaro in his theatrical "1 S Curtain Call," an archival pigmented inkjet print from his 2009 Meus Carnegiea Gigantea series. Coplan set up a red-curtained stage in a dust-dry desert, and digitally added a black-and-white saguaro onto the scene, aligning it with the color images behind. The picture pays homage not only to the saguaro's star power, but to its role in Arizona photography—the "stage" is actually an old-fashioned large-format camera, not unlike one O'Sullivan might have used.

Less reverentially, in "Sole Saguaro Decomposite," 2009, Michael Berman chopped a saguaro up, though not literally. That's a legal no-no. Instead, he broke up his black-and-white image, shattering his single saguaro into small segments and hanging them separately in a vertical column on the wall.

Valerie Galloway works in a small format, too, but each of the tiny photos in her 2010 "Tucson Desert" collages is a complete desert landscape, dominated by saguaros. Lined up in rows and framed together, her pictures are like stills from a miniature movie.

Some artists simply revel in the beauty of the pristine desert. Borrowing a title, and an aesthetic, from Ansel Adams, Gregory P. Cranwell shot "Moonrise Over Towering Saguaro, Vail, Arizona," 2010. An archival pigmented inkjet print, the medium of choice for most of these contemporary photographers, it's a crisp black-and-white image of an elaborately armed saguaro rising up under a full moon.

Jody Forster zeroes in on the complex patterns and textures of the saguaro's skin. Like the postcard shutterbug, Forster photographed a crested saguaro in "Cristated Saguaro, Tucson, Arizona," 1981, but he made a tight close-up of its curves and furrows, turning it into an abstraction of line and shadow. Another Forster close-up, "Saguaros," illuminates the prickers of two wild saguaros standing side by side; it was shot in 1979 in the remote Pinacate region of Sonora.

Saguaros don't fare nearly so well in the city. A subcategory of works depicts the majestic saguaro sadly violated, either ripped from the earth to make way for development, or struggling to survive in the asphalt desert.

Holly Metz recorded an ancient car tire cruelly embedded on a saguaro's arm in "A Good Year," a black-and-white photo from 2007. In an artist's statement, she relates that when she contacted Goodyear, she learned that the company made the model in question only from the late '40s to the early '60s. Despite the attempted strangulation over at least four decades, this hardy saguaro has soldiered on.

In "Vacuum," a precision color inkjet print from 2010, Jeff Smith shot a forlorn specimen eking out a living in a car-wash parking lot. Robert Renfrow captured the dismal destiny awaiting dug-up saguaros in the undated "Transplant (Window on the Future)." The color photo captures a natural, healthy desert in the background, but a construction truck makes an ominous appearance on the left; small uprooted saguaros appear in the foreground. On the trunk of one still-living plant, Renfrow superimposed a dead saguaro's skeleton.

If the saguaro is like the canary in the mine, a bellwether for the well-being of the desert, it also is a ready stand-in for the humans with whom it shares the Sonoran Desert. The lovable cactus even looks like a person, with its tall trunk and expressive long arms, and artists love to push the metaphor.

"Heart of Saguaro, Gates Pass," 2010, a gorgeously colored inkjet print by William Lesch, is a portrait of an aged saguaro at sunset. The old cactus is rutted and decaying but still alive; a patch of its remaining bright-green skin has taken on the shape of a human heart.

"This old relic," Lesch writes in an artist's statement, was "all scarred and gnarly, with holes and gouges you'd think would have killed him. I love the way saguaros deal with adversity; they just scab it over and keep on trucking."

Lesch says he doesn't much care for the "Victoria's Secret" saguaros, young, plump and perfect, but he couldn't resist including a young saguaro here, still green, still pristine, a tiny figure on the horizon, a new life waiting to take the place of the old.

Joe Patronite made a sunset shot, too, but he doesn't mind using model-quality specimens. Four young beauties parade across a Technicolor ridge in his undated "Saguaro, 4." His lush collection of cacti, in a fine stretch of desert, might even call to mind O'Sullivan's unsullied land. But of all the photogs, Patronite has traveled the farthest from O'Sullivan, at least in terms of equipment.

Where the Irishman had to travel in a wagon through the wilderness lugging glass plates, chemicals and large-format cameras, the up-to-date Patronite drove into the desert and photographed it with something far simpler: the iPhone. It yielded up an inkjet print of surpassing quality, proving the opposite of the old saw: The more things stay the same, the more they really change.