Utah is a place unlike any other. From its red-rock country to its snow-tipped mountains, its salty lake to its arid desert, its historic legacy to its modern diversity, it serves up a multifaceted, multilayered, multihued personality that has long offered a particular challenge to writers and photographers.
The latest team to answer that challenge, writer William B. Smart and photographer John Telford, offer up a spectacular look at the state that comes in time to pay tribute to Utah's 100 years of statehood.For both men "Utah: A Portrait" (University of Utah Press, $39.95) represents a lifelong love affair with the area. Smart has spent more than 40 years "traipsing around the state" poking into nooks and crannies well off the beaten path. "I've been fortunate in that I had great people to instruct me, to share their interest in conservation, the environment, their knowledge of the state."
And it was exciting, says Telford, to work on a project that explores the whole variety of Utah (he has worked on several other books dealing with particular regions). "I sometimes wonder if we appreciate it to the fullest, even as native Utahns. There are so many little nuances, little corners that are precious jewels. It was a total joy to find some of these places."
The book divides the state into quarters: southeast, southwest, northwest and northeast, with a separate section on the Wasatch Front. Each section features a selection of quotes from others who have viewed these lands - Major John Wesley Powell, trapper Daniel Potts, a correspondent from the New York Herald, an 1870-citizen of Corinne - that offer up a delicious context and broad perspective. The text discusses geology, history, ecology and humanity, as well as personal experiences in the field.
"We hope people will come to share our love of the state and its diversity, scenically and geologically," says Smart. "And we hope that the love for the state and its majestic scenery will carry over into love for the diversity of the people. And, of course, there's the challenge to preserve what we have."
About four years in the making, the project was originally conceived as an aerial view of the state, something like the "Above Washington" and "Above New York" books that have been popular in other areas.
But those aerial portraits tend to get a bit repetitive, said Telford. "And southern Utah from the air is pretty boring. You don't get the grandeur that you see on the ground." And so, as the project evolved, they ended up with a total about-face. "I think we only have a couple of photos of Salt Lake from the air."
They also knew that to do the kind of book they wanted as a centennial gift to the state, they would need some additional funding. Grants were received from the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation and the US WEST Foundation to help with printing costs, and help with photographic work was extended by the Fuji Film Corp. and Inkley's.
The results are impressive. Large in scale, beautifully designed and gracefully executed, the book, as Leonard J. Arring-ton says in his foreword, is "at once that rare book that is both very personal in its essence yet remarkably broad in its appeal."
There is so much out there to enjoy, says Smart. But his favorite area is Utah's red-rock country. "Every time I go back, I have a soul-expanding experience. I've traveled in many parts of the world, but there is nowhere I'd rather be than Escalante Canyon."
There is in man, he says, a need to test himself against the harshness of nature, and nowhere is that more vivid than in Utah's red-rock country. And there's the solitude that it is still possible to find.
"There are still places where you can find total silence. The more civilization presses on us, the more we need that."
And if Smart sees Utah as a place rich in history and diversity, unique in geology and scenery, Telford also sees it as a place blessed by light.
"As a landscape photographer, I work with one of the most unchanging features. These places are not going to change, at least due to natural forces, in one or two lifetimes."
At the same time, he says, the landscape is one of the most ephemeral of subjects because the light is constantly changing due to weather, season, time of day. The same subject that shows up as a spectacular sculpture can also be nothing more than a vapid pile of rocks, depending upon the light.
"Sometimes I have a sense as to when the best light will be. Other times I have simply been blessed to be there. Both types of pictures are found in the book."
And both are the kind that make "Utah: A Portrait" a book to savor.