Timothy O'Sullivan, Shoshone Falls, Twin Falls, Idaho, 1874
May 1, 1865: The motive does not seem to justify the inconvenience, the anxiety, the suspense that must be endured. Yet how would the great West be peopled were it not so? God knows best. It is, without doubt, this spirit of restlessness, and unsatisfied longing, or ambition—if you please—which is implanted in our nature by an all wise Creator that has peopled the whole earth. --Sarah Raymond Herndon
If I splat against that canyon wall or I'm killed in a car wreck or just lay down and die as an old man, it makes no difference. I'll just be getting to where you're going someday, and I'll be waiting for you… with a cool one.
-Robert Craig Knievel, September 1974 (pre-jump)
You've probably heard by now that Evel Knievel has taken his last spill, dying from natural causes yesterday at the age of 69.
In Southern Idaho, where I'm from, Knievel is second only to potatoes as our claim to fame. Sure, thousands of pioneers passed through via the Oregon trail in the mid 1800s, Clint Eastwood filmed Bronco Billy in Meridian in 1982, and Nikki Sixx's grandmother lived in Jerome, but the cultural contribution southern Idaho is best recognized for is Knievel's attempt to jump the Snake River in September of 1974. "I'm doing this fucking town a favor," he said when confronted with concerns about the thousands of spectators who showed up to line the canyon's edge. Having read a bit about him, both Knievel's daredevil antics and his attitudes seem built into the mythology of the place, in both marketing and metaphor. Practically every visitor to Twin Falls parks their car or rv in an oversized parking lot, gazes out over the canyon from the bridge, looks at the monument commemorating Knievel's attempt, and then gets back in their car and keeps on driving. Well, nowadays, there is a Chili's and a mall nearby. Some stop for the babyback ribs.
For the record, Knievel's attempt to jump the canyon wasn't on a motorcycle, it was a steam-powered rocket called the SkyCycle X-2. Before the launch, Knievel had boasted that he was doing it for the money (rumored to be about 6 million dollars), the women, and the fame. Thousands of ticketholders lined the canyon walls, ABC covered it on ABC's Wide World of Sports, and the Hells Angels hijacked an entire truckload of beer, drinking it, trashing the truck, and building a bonfire to jump their own bikes over. Though Knievel's attempt secured his goals regardless of whether or not he actually made it over, the result itself was less than spectacular- in a gesture that seems perfectly apt for Twin Falls, Idaho, where I went to high school, Knievel's chute opened prematurely and fluttered down into the canyon below, not even making it to the other side of the river.
Fifteen years later, to the day, my friend Ralf and I watched from the edge of the same canyon as a clever hot air balloon designer who called himself Evil KaDick, floated over the canyon on a tricycle attached to a hot air balloon. No shit. And he made it.
Such stories fascinate me, not just for the events themselves, but for the way that history and its subsequent mythology can define a place. I can't drive through southern Idaho today without noticing that faint fog of absurdity that lies over the Snake River. Let's see… Miami, Yellowstone, Hollywood, Detroit, and Memphis, to name a few off the top of my head, each location has a pretty clear mythology built up around it, thus when we see photographs of such places, we're already dealing with a set of assumptions, a certain context, that has already been established. I suppose this baggage can be challenging at times (who can photograph L.A. for example, without standing in Winogrand's shadow), but with awareness of what's come before, these layers of history can make a project rich.
For example, in his book Turning Back, Robert Adams photographs the path of Lewis and Clark, headed in the opposite direction this time, consistently questioning the course of "progress" and asking what it is that we've done with our land, and ourselves, since? Other projects that take specific sites or histories into account: Sternfeld's On this Site, Simon Norfolk's Bosnia: Bleed, Drex Brook's Sweet Medicine, Susan Seubert's "10 Most Popular Places to Dump a Body in the Columbia River Gorge," John Huddleston's Killing Ground, and the many rephotographic projects that have been done in recent years (here, here, here…) These are just off the top of my head… by all means, give me more. What am I missing? I'm looking forward to seeing more of Christian Patterson's "Out There" too, but what else comes to mind? Help me out...