BILL JENKINS, A highly respected photographer and prof up at ASU, takes a dim view of most contemporary Arizona landscape photography.
"There are plenty of National Geographic-style photographers whose job is telling lies about the state," he told me last spring. "I don't think the picturesque is really what landscape is about."
Jenkins' own works tend more toward depicting the desecration of the picturesque. He photographs the gritty Arizona humanscape, replete with slash-and-burn housing developments, water-stealing golf courses and shopping malls adrift in searing seas of hot asphalt.
I interviewed Jenkins last year for a story about the history of photography in Arizona, but his words came back to me as I drove down the mountain after seeing the show Sabino Canyon: Photographs by David Wentworth Lazaroff at the Tohono Chul Park Gallery. It was the day of the big storm last week; thick gray clouds alternating with fierce sun darkened and lighted up the rough peaks of the Santa Catalinas turn by gorgeous turn. The high drama of weather and mountains reminded me of Lazaroff's lovely color pictures of Sabino, taken in shifting lights and in many seasons. But as I headed down First Avenue I came upon a desolate tract of land more in keeping with Jenkins' vision than Lazaroff's.
Rancho Arboleda, named "tree grove ranch" with no apparent shame, is the violated earth just south of Kino School where still another of Tucson's garden-variety rapacious developers is at his vicious handiwork. This one won 15 minutes of fame last year when he leveled every blessed blade of green on the plot, including some 600 trees. All that's left, for now, is a vast, dusty brown scar.
So, the question is, is Lazaroff telling lies when he offers us his beautiful pictures of raw Arizona land unbedeviled by human greed? After all, a few miles up the road from this development travesty, his own beloved Sabino Canyon is under assault, too. It's visited each year by 1 million visitors who rarely tread lightly upon the land. More often than not they ride up the canyon in a tram that trails gas fumes and high-volume cornpone commentary in its wake. The Forest Service has floated a controversial plan to "manage" the crowds by putting in a new visitors' center, lots more hardscape trails and, in one proposal, some 24 ramadas all up and down the canyon.
But you won't find any of this turmoil in Lazaroff's classically composed photographs. In fact, there's not a single human being in any of the 18 pictures in his show. The only hint of human intervention is in an idyllic autumn shot of one of Sabino's charming old stone bridges, built during the Depression by workers in a federal emergency relief program. Beyond the bridge, the sun-dappled roadway meanders up the canyon.
Other works are even more pristine. "Autumn View Up Sabino Canyon, December 2, 1991," shot from a distance, shows a river of golden trees winding upwards through a gap in the mountains. "Fog-Shrouded Cliffs in Upper Sabino Canyon, January 19, 1990" moodily evokes a mist that smudges the peak's sharp edges. "Reflected Fall Colors: Stones and Leaves, December 10, 1989" is a glistening plein-air still life.
But Lazaroff is no stranger to the controversy plaguing Sabino. He's a naturalist who for years worked there as an environmental educator. The leading local authority on its fragile riparian habitat, its plants and its animals, he lovingly recorded the fruits of years of observation in his book Sabino Canyon: The Life of a Southwestern Oasis (University of Arizona Press, 1993). And he's been an outspoken opponent of the Forest Service plan to "upgrade" Sabino. He was even lambasted for his opposition in a mealy-mouth pro-development editorial in The Arizona Daily Star.
Lazaroff's pictures don't tell the whole truth about what's going on at Sabino Canyon, but they tell one part of the truth, the truth of one man's all-abiding passion for its wonders. He's haunted the place for years, in cold seasons and hot. He's the one who caught the last rays of light passing through the falling rain during a July sunset in 1990. It was Lazaroff who saw a crescent moon rise above a cottonwood on a January evening in 1988, and the snow that blanketed streambed and saguaros alike on the magical Christmas of 1987.
He's not telling us lies about Sabino, as Jenkins might say, or reducing it to the merely picturesque. His pictures offer up an ideal of Sabino, a counterpoint to the tiresome, real-life Sabino of littering picnickers and smelly tram fumes. They provide an almost mythical evocation of what this place of shifting lights and colors can mean to us. They also remind us that the burden is on us to protect it.
Sabino Canyon: Photographs by David Wentworth Lazaroff continues through February 13 at Tohono Chul Park Gallery, 7366 N. Paseo del Norte. Lazaroff will lecture on "Photographing Sabino" at 7 p.m., Thursday, January 25. Admission is $2, free for park members. Reservations are requested. Regular gallery hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Suggested donation is $2. Lazaroff's book, featuring many of the pictures from the exhibition, is for sale in the gallery shop. For more information or for lecture reservations call 742-6455.
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