Photographing Glen Canyon — Again

Tad Nichols once hoped his work could stop Lake Powell. Sixty years later, Dawn Kish is walking his path.

(Cierra Murrietta) Photographer Dawn Kish changes lenses on a 4x5 large format camera overlooking Hite Marina, Oct. 30 2021.

This article is part of a special issue on the future of Lake Powell, looking at the reservoir as overallocation and severe drought dry the Colorado River. Read more about how life is returning to the side canyons, how the architect of the dam thought it could end and the case for getting rid of the Glen Canyon dam. See more stories here and order a photo poster from the lake here.

Lake Powell • At the end of a scorching afternoon in early June, just as the sun dipped below the rolling Navajo sandstone cliffs that surround Lake Powell, photographer Dawn Kish set up a tripod.

She mounted a 4x5 large-format Crown Graphic camera, sighted the upside-down landscape displayed in the viewfinder, and clicked the shutter.

Delicately removing the single film negative from the camera, Kish returned the camera to a drybag labeled TAD.

The scene felt anachronistic, especially as electronic music blared from a party on the top deck of a nearby houseboat. Kish would have to wait until she returned to her home in Flagstaff, Ariz., before she could see how the image turned out, and with a cost of over $400 to make a print, she chose her shots with care.

The camera once belonged to Tad Nichols, who Kish considers to have produced the greatest photographic record of Glen Canyon before it began to fill with water after the dam’s completion in 1963.

Nichols studied landscape photography with Ansel Adams before he took his first trip through Glen Canyon in 1950 at the age of 39, and he returned for dozens of trips over the next 13 years.

“I was bitten by the canyon bug,” Nichols wrote in his 1999 book, “Glen Canyon: Images of a Lost World,” which was published months before his death.

But what started as journeys of exploration for Nichols soon became an effort to fight the Glen Canyon Dam.

(Dawn Kish) Dungon Canyon taken with a 4x5 large format camera.

His most frequent river companions were Frank Wright, a Mormon boatman from Blanding, and Katie Lee, a writer, folk singer and Hollywood starlet turned environmentalist firecracker, who famously posed nude in Glen Canyon for the photographer Martin Koehler.

Nichols, Lee and Wright, who referred to themselves as “We Three,” took their first trip together without clients in 1955, one year before the Colorado Rivers Storage Project Act authorized the construction of Glen Canyon Dam.

“It became obvious that the three of them were going to try to save Glen Canyon,” Kish said, “because they saw it would start sinking fast.”

The trio made trips nearly every year until the dam was completed. Many of the roughly 100 side canyons that would soon be flooded had not yet been named on official United States maps, and “We Three” set about changing that, giving names to at least 25 side canyons that persist to this day, including Dangling Rope, Ribbon, Cathedral canyons. (Others, like their name “Pink Titty Canyon,” didn’t stick; it is now known as Antelope Canyon.)

When their advocacy efforts failed and Glen Canyon flooded, all three were heartbroken. Lee, with her fondness for obscene language and flair for righteous indignation, became the most well known of the trio after she went on to write books and songs about what she considered an unforgivable act of violence against the natural world.

(In the 2014 film DamNation, Lee, then in her 90s, said that if she’d ever met arch-dam builder and former Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Floyd Dominy, she would have “cut his balls off.”)

“Lee stole the show,” Kish said, noting that Nichols had a far gentler persona than Lee. “Tad [Nichols] was the Ansel Adams of Glen Canyon. It’s his time for the spotlight.”

She considers “Glen Canyon: Images of a Lost World” to be the finest photographic documentation of the most beautiful canyon on the Colorado River.

Carrying on a mentor’s work, with his camera

Kish was offered Nichols’ 1950s-era camera several years ago by his friend and printer, Richard Jackson, but initially declined to take it.

“I don’t want to break it,” she recalls. “It’s historic.”

But when Lake Powell’s level plummeted last year after a near-record-low runoff, Kish saw there was an opportunity to carry on an inversion of Nichols’ project. Instead of documenting Glen Canyon before it was flooded, Kish committed to photographing the parts of the canyon that are being uncovered with low water.

“When I found out that Glen Canyon was emerging,” she said, “I thought, this would be the perfect project: to go back with his camera and explore Glen Canyon, a canyon I never thought I would ever see in my lifetime.”

(Dawn Kish) Seth Arens, a research scientist working with the Glen Canyon Institure, helps Dawn Kish with photo identification of Hidden Passage from the Tad Nicols book "Glen Canyon: Images of a Lost World," Oct. 15, 2021.

Kish has taken numerous trips on Lake Powell since, producing a series of stunning black-and-white photos that show what Glen Canyon looks like after 22 years of climate change-linked drought.

“I’m not trying to copy what he did,” she said, “but I ask him to guide me all the time. I always try to channel him.”

She sees the project, which she titled “Tad’s Emerging World,” as a continuation of Nichols’ blend of art and advocacy, which she hopes will add to efforts to cap Lake Powell’s level well below full pool or to drain it completely.

In addition to the photographs, which will be displayed at Northern Arizona University and other shows around the Southwest later this year, she is working on a film project about Nichols and his camera.

“[Former Sierra Club director] David Brower said it was his biggest mistake to let Glen Canyon go under,” Kish said. “Maybe we should make plans to let the river flow free now that Lake Powell has hit record lows. I think mother nature is telling us something and we should listen for once.”

The trailer for “Tad’s Emerging World” is available on YouTube, and Kish is fundraising to complete the full project on GoFundMe.