In 1986, the Akron Art Museum commissioned photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum to document the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area (now a National Park). Photographs that he took over several years and in every season captured both the area's natural beauty and the sometimes troubled relationship between humans and nature.
Robert Glenn Ketchum CVNRA #866 (from the Federal Lands series), 1988 Collection of the Akron Art Museum Rocks and trees jutting precariously from mossy stone ledges; thick, soft mist rising off night-cooled ground—Robert Glenn Ketchum's image perfectly captures the eerie beauty of a summer morning on The Ledges just north of Akron. Commissioned by the Akron Art Museum in 1986 to document the area's natural beauty, Ketchum chose to photograph The Ledges—part of the 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area (CVNRA) extending between Akron and Cleveland.1 Forty-seven of Ketchum's photographs are in the museum's collection; forty-three of these are from the CVNRA series. The commission was intended to complement, and perhaps also to counteract, an earlier Museum project: Lee Friedlander's Factory Valleys. This now-famous series of photographs was a masterful but bleak look at the area as it entered the "rust belt" era (see pp. 196–7). Ketchum's lush color photographs presented a very different view. Concentrating on the region's natural beauty, he not only photographed the park but also examined it as a successful example of federal land use and of the integration of the often opposing forces of man and nature. Addressing the relationship between humans and the land has been the focus of Ketchum's art since 1969. An important influence was photographer and environmental activist Ansel Adams (see pp. 108–9). Ketchum's work, like Adams's, is straight, or unmanipulated, photography, emphasizing sharp focus and great depth of field. Whereas Adams worked in black and white, Ketchum most often uses color. For the CVNRA project, he worked with a medium format (6 x 7cm) camera and transparency (positive) film from which large-scale Cibachrome prints were made. Cibachrome's high gloss and plastic surface are well suited to record detail and nuances of color, such as the wide range of greens, blacks, and grays seen in CVNRA #866. The photograph's complex composition echoes the site's topography. Like Adams, Ketchum composes in the camera, with no cropping or manipulating later. In this image, he chose a viewpoint that left no empty spaces, no clear sky or distant vista. The ledge blocking the view in the right half of the picture sends the eye left, down the narrow, sloping path. Between the two outcroppings is an obstacle course of rocks and trees. A line of tree trunks, cut off by the picture's top edge and silhouetted by backlighting, flattens out to become repeating verticals, establishing a two-dimensional pattern atop the three-dimensional space. Because of the regular rhythm of the verticals, the viewer becomes intensely aware of how twisted and bent the tree trunks really are. Each curve signals the trees' responses to shifts in the thin layer of soil and the rocky ground of this glacier-sculpted terrain. In order to survive, trees—like people and organizations—must sometimes bend or adapt. Ketchum wanted to make each of his CVNRA images a metaphor for larger themes behind the park's existence. Hardly wilderness, the CVNRA consists of land that has been occupied for over 12,000 years. Some areas have been reclaimed for nature, but the park has also bent its borders and shaped its administration to include and work in partnership with existing towns, businesses, and cultural organizations. Ketchum hoped his images would raise awareness of this superb natural resource. The seductive beauty of his photographs surely succeeds in that mission, for viewing these works is almost as refreshing and nourishing as a visit to the park itself. - Barbara Tannenbaum, 2001 1. CVNRA is a national park administered by the National Park Service, Department of the Interior. The commission to photograph the area and the resulting exhibition were made possible by funding from Akron Community Foundation, The GAR Foundation, The George Gund Foundation, The Cleveland Foundation and with the cooperation of the CVNRA. For additional information about the commission, see introductory essay, 36. Ketchum, Robert Glenn. Overlooked in America: The Success and Failure of Federal Land Management. New York: Aperture, 1991. ———. The Legacy of Wildness: The Photographs of Robert Glenn Ketchum. With a preface by Robert Redford and an essay by John Perlin. New York: Aperture, 1993.