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Wild Beauty: Photographs of the Columbia River Gorge, 1867 - 1957
George Weister, Untitled (Submerged Forest and Wind Mountain), c. 1914, Gelatin silver print, Collection of the Oregon Historical Society.

PORTLAND, OR.-The Portland Art Museum will present Wild Beauty: Photographs of the Columbia River Gorge, 1867–1957, on view at the Museum October 4, 2008 through January 11, 2009. Organized by Terry Toedtemeier—the Museum's Curator of Photography since 1986 and an accomplished photographer—the exhibition presents approximately 250 historic images that illuminate the majesty of the Columbia River Gorge through nine decades of profound transformation. Beyond their value as historical records, these images stand as extraordinary works of art that chronicle an ever changing range of styles in landscape photography.

"For many of the most important art photographers searching for aesthetic inspiration, it has been the Columbia River Gorge in particular that has satisfied their intense visual curiosity," states Brian Ferriso, Executive Director of the Portland Art Museum. "Key figures in the history of photography have all journeyed throughout the Gorge to create some of our most inspired photographic masterworks. Wild Beauty captures a moment in the history of art that is both locally based and internationally significant."

About the Exhibition - The Columbia River Gorge has long been revered as one of the most picturesque natural settings in the Pacific Northwest. Spanning a 90-mile passage—from the Columbia River's confluence with the Sandy River to where it merges with the Deschutes River—the continuously changing landscape is rife with lava formations, dramatic basalt cliffs, numerous waterfalls, and lush vegetation. It is a storied geography that has witnessed the evolution of equally rich cultural, industrial and economic histories.

Coinciding with the 150th anniversary of Oregon's statehood, the exhibition provides a historic window into the significant developments of the Columbia River Gorge. From the 10,000 year-old Native American fishing grounds of Celilo Falls to the dams built to supply the increasing demand for electricity, the concurrent advancements in photographic technology documented the inspiration that numerous photographers found in the landscape alongside the transformation they witnessed. "In effect, photography and the developing West grew up together," states Toedtemeier.

Toedtemeier's passionate inquiry into the legacy of historic images of the Columbia River Gorge began in the 1970s. In fact, it was viewing an album of Carleton Watkins work that inspired him to become a curator. For three decades, Toedtemeier collaborated with numerous historians and archivists—most notably, Tom Robinson, The Historic Photo Archive; Megan Freidel, Oregon Historical Society; and Jim Scheppke, Oregon State Library—to piece together stories and information about the Columbia River Gorge that would otherwise have been destined to become forgotten fragments of a national treasure. "People have never been able to see the Columbia River Gorge like this," explains Toedtemeier. "Some stories exist because of one piece of paper, sometimes, not even that—just a negative."

With this exhibition, the images come to the fore as objects. Audiences have the opportunity to see the historic photographs in their found state—flaws and all—many of which are the only known copies. Toedtemeier himself printed approximately ten percent of the images on view, typically when only a negative was known to exist. He also worked diligently to reprint some images in need of conservation, reversing the fading and discoloration of the aging process in some, and eliminating holes and tears in others. With each individual image, he let his research and understanding of each photographer's vision guide his process and techniques.

The Wild Beauty exhibition has been inspired in both title and substance by a book that Toedtemeier has co-authored with book designer and editor John Laursen. "Photographs are inevitably an imperfect witness," they state in its epilogue, "what they are able to show us was shaped by the visions and temperaments of individual photographers, by the access they had, by their purposes for making pictures, and by the choices they made. They have been further shaped by time's indifferent determination of which fragile prints and negatives would survive the degradations of light and moisture and temperature."

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