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At Mono Lake: The Exhibition

Stephen Johnson

My first visit to Mono Lake left me fascinated with its strangeness and intrigued by its beauty. As the years passed I've felt compelled to return many times, drawn by a magical light and expansive space I've rarely seen. Slowly, I began to understand a few of the lake's moods and the tragedy unfolding on its shores.

It is not an easy place to know--the heat is often oppressive and its cold biting. There is a bizarre majesty here, and it is very difficult to photograph without overstatement. This wild geography seems already exaggerated; almost self-indulgent, it requires restraint. But there is also something else it requires: a respect for antiquity. The waters of this lake have splashed against its shores longer than homo-sapiens have walked the earth. On those shores, it is easy to feel a kinship reaching back through time to all those who've stood next to this lake and sensed they were near something eternal. This ancient lake evokes a sense of place so strong that its survival seems without question. In fact, Indian folklore ties Mono Lake to the survival of the earth itself. Perhaps that is why time spent in the Mono Basin has an uncanny knack for inspiring a deep commitment to the land.

Realizing what was happening to the lake, I began to search for a way to make photographs express my growing concern. From Carleton Watkins' majestic photographs of Yosemite, William Henry Jackson's Yellowstone portfolio and Ansel Adams' work to create Kings Canyon National Park, it was clear that photographs could be persuasive tools in the preservation of wilderness. I was sure that the strongest voice for the lake would be its own, and if evidence could be gathered of Mono's visual eloquence the case for saving this place would ring loud and true.

In 1979 the idea of a photographic exhibition emerged from conversations with David Gaines and others of the Mono Lake Committee. Photographers Al Weber and Don Worth agreed to help with print selection. Brett Weston, a self-declared "Mono-maniac," and Ansel Adams offered to lend prints to the effort. Very encouraged, and with these commitments in hand, I was certain "At Mono Lake" could be assembled.

A sponsoring organization is a necessity for a project of this kind. Early assistance came from David Brower and Friends of the Earth Foundation, who generously provided needed support, offering telephones, a mailing address and most importantly, the Foundation's vital non-profit status through which we could raise funds to finance the exhibit. In addition to foundation support, a number of fundraising previews for the show were held throughout California.

In order to guarantee wide participation in the project, I made an attempt to contact every photographer, college photography program and environmental newsletter that might be interested. The response was overwhelming: more than 350 prints were submitted for review. Later, a search through museum and government archives yielded additional historical and documentary material. The variety of work was impressive and at first a little surprising--so many of the west's great landscape photographers had worked at the lake. Soon it became clear, however, that this large body of images was a unique and fitting tribute to Mono's serene landscape. Encompassing the history of landscape photography, prints in the show range from Timothy O'Sullivan's 1868 wet-plate albumen prints to Landsat satellite images transmitted from Earth orbit.

A one-year California tour was arranged, opening in March 1980 at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. In January of 1981, the Art Museum Association (WAAM) picked up the show for a two-year tour taking it throughout the west and as far east as Georgia. The exhibition has reached an audience of well over a million people to date. And while it is difficult to measure the effect this might have on Mono's uncertain future, at the very least a predisposition to care about this unique landscape is bound to have been planted.

"At Mono Lake" was created in the belief that there is great value in describing this place with the clarity and beauty of these photographs. I hope that you agree and can find a way to help care for this remarkable landscape.

San Francisco, April 1983

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