The Unphotographable: A Desert Sunset in the American Southwest
By Maria Popova
Sometimes, a painting in words is worth a thousand pictures. I think about this more and more, in our compulsively visual culture, which increasingly reduces what we think and feel and see — who and what we are — to what can be photographed. I think of Susan Sontag, who called it “aesthetic consumerism” half a century before Instagram. In a small act of resistance, I offer The Unphotographable — a lovely image in words drawn from centuries of literature: passages transcendent and transportive, depicting landscapes and experiences radiant with beauty and feeling beyond what a visual image could convey.
One “sultry afternoon” in the last days of September in 1879, while traversing the American Southwest on a “lazy Government mule,” the Smithsonian ethnologist Frank Hamilton Cushing (July 22, 1857–April 10, 1900) found himself on the precipice of a black lava abyss.
On the pages of My Adventures in Zuñi, he gasps at what he saw:
Below and beyond me was suddenly revealed a great red and yellow sand-plain. It merged into long stretches of gray, indistinct hill-lands in the western distance, distorted by mirages and sand-clouds, and overshadowed toward the north by two grand, solitary buttes of rock. From the bases of the latter to a spire-encircled, bare-faced promontory to the right, stretched a succession of canyon-seamed, brown, sandstone mesas, which, with their mantle of piñon and cedar, formed a high, dark boundary for the entire northern side of the basin.
To the left, a mile or two away, crowning numberless red foot-hills, rose a huge rock-mountain, a thousand feet high and at least two miles in length along its flat top, which showed, even in the distance, fanciful chiselings by wind, sand, and weather. Beyond its column-sentineled western end the low sand-basin spread far away to the foot-hills of the gray-and-white southern mesas, which, broken by deep canyons, stretched, cliff after cliff, westward to the hills of the horizon.
Out from the middle of the rock-wall and line of sand-hills on which I stood, through a gate of its own opening, flowed a little rivulet. Emerging from a succession of low mounds beneath me, it wound, like a long whip-lash or the track of an earth-worm, westward through the middle of the sandy plain and out almost to the horizon, where, just midway between the northern buttes and the opposite gray mesas, it was lost in the southern shadows of a terraced hill.
Down behind this hill the sun was sinking, transforming it into a jagged pyramid of silhouette, crowned with a brilliant halo, whence a seeming midnight aurora burst forth through broken clouds, bordering each misty blue island with crimson and gold, then blazing upward in widening lines of light, as if to repeat in the high heavens its earthly splendor.
Published July 23, 2022