Enchanting the Desert is a born-digital, peer-reviewed, book-length project that offers spatial analysis and historical interpretation of the 40 landscape photographs included in Henry Peabody’s circa 1905 slideshow of the Grand Canyon. Peabody was a prominent commercial photographer who sold his slideshows around the United States, setting a visual template for what one would see when one saw the Grand Canyon. Where he stood when he took his photographs, and what he captured with his camera, would decades later help the National Park Service determine where to construct walking paths and lookout vistas. Through mapping softwares including ArcGIS, Natural Scene Designer, and Google Earth, we have reconstructed Peabody’s images from the god’s-eye view, showing what specific areas of the Grand Canyon were visually consumed by tourists, whether physically present at the Canyon’s rim or through the pictures in the slideshow.
Click on the above images to see them paired with a custom made viewshed map. Learn about the technique developed for this project called photographic georeferencing.
In Enchanting the Desert, the collection of Peabody’s 40 landscape views, along with their accompanying viewshed maps, are brought into a digital, interactive medium so that readers can query the historical details of the places that appear in the slideshow. While explicating the produced visual space of this tourist slideshow, the project goes further, delving deep into the place-based history of the Canyon. Frequently misconceived as a single place, the Grand Canyon is better thought of as a large region, composed of thousands of places, each with their own history and human significance. Often interpreted by modern onlookers as an object lesson in geology, Enchanting the Desert highlights the human history of this incredible landscape through the eyes of one of its earliest promoters.
The project is currently under review with Stanford University Press, with whom I have worked to create a means by which scholars can create born-digital work that is peer-reviewed and published under the Press’s imprimatur, just as any print book would be. Along with the contributions that Enchanting the Desert makes to the theory and practice of landscape interpretation, it opens up a new way to express geographical thought that scholars inside geography and out increasingly seek. Publishing in the Digital Humanities has always been its weakest link. That is, there is little incentive for scholars to spend years on a project that they do not believe will become part of high-level conversations within their discipline. The publication of Enchanting the Desert and other projects like it at Stanford University Press promises to change that.
In 2013 the Enchanting the Desert team made a 115-page Field Manual (excerpt available here) in preparation for a two-week research trip to the Grand Canyon. Nine members of CESTA joined this trip, which brought us to the park archives, to many of Peabody's station points, and down into the Canyon itself for a total of four nights. The field work afforded an embodied sense of the terrain Peabody traversed to make his images, while providing a rich educational experience for the graduate and undergraduate students on the team. The effects of this trip reverberate through the project today.