Binh Danh, Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite CA, May 31, 2012


Binh Danh, Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite CA, May 31, 2012, 2012. Daguerreotype. 6.5 x 8.5 inches.

Binh Danh, Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite CA, May 31, 2012, 2012, daguerreotype. 6.5 x 8.5 inches

Can we ever really see and experience a site without comparing it to the photographs of the same scene?

Do we inevitably experience a place as a picture?

These questions are central to the daguerreotypes the Vietnamese-American photographer Binh Danh made of the Yosemite Valley in 2012. As Danh stated in an interview that same year:

As a kid, I had always wanted to visit Yosemite; I discovered it by viewing the photographs of Ansel Adams. [Yosemite], like the Vietnam War, only existed in my imagination, because I only saw the landscape in photographs.[1]

Seeing Yosemite through photographs

Danh created a body of work precisely about the dissonance between his knowledge of the tourist site—gleaned entirely through viewing photographs of it—and the experience of the place itself. His daguerreotypes of Yosemite draw our awareness to the ways in which photography informs our experience of celebrated locations.

Established as a National Park in 1890, on land of the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation in what is now California, Yosemite’s modern history is marked by the colonizing force of sightseeing. From the forced removal of indigenous populations from the Valley in the mid-19th century, to the establishment of tour operations when the area came under state protection in 1864, Yosemite has been a site of tourism premised on the displacement of its original inhabitants. Danh’s photographs of Yosemite attest to the region’s social and natural history. As Danh’s view of Bridalveil Falls attests, the area is a lush wilderness, featuring sequoia groves, granite cliffs, and waterfalls. Captured from the valley floor, which is coursed by the Merced River, Danh’s photograph discloses how Yosemite’s natural contours lend themselves to picturesqueness. Danh’s work, though, seems to point us less to lessons about the Yosemite Valley’s natural features, than how the repeated imaging of the Yosemite Valley since the mid-19th century—its status as an icon — has shaped the ways in which we see this place.

Ansel Adams, Eagle Peak and Middle Brother, Winter, Yosemite National Park, negative 1968; print 1980, gelatin silver print, 25.4 x 33.8 cm (The J. Paul Getty Museum, © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust)

Ansel Adams, Eagle Peak and Middle Brother, Winter, Yosemite National Park, negative 1968; print 1980, gelatin silver print, 25.4 x 33.8 cm (The J. Paul Getty Museum,
© The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust)

Carleton E. Watkins, Tasayac, the Half Dome, 5000 ft., Yosemite 1865–66, albumen silver print (Stanford University Libraries)

Carleton E. Watkins, Tasayac, the Half Dome, 5000 ft., Yosemite, 1865–66, albumen silver print (Stanford University Libraries)

The photographs that informed Danh’s image of Yosemite are some of the most remarkable works of American photography. Photographs made of Yosemite by Ansel Adams, as well as those by Carleton Watkins, and Eadweard Muybridge in the nineteenth century, documented exploration and tourism and sought to communicate the grandeur of the American West. These photographers and countless other amateur and professional photographers, and painters (Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran), have captured views of the same sites in Yosemite over the past two centuries. Such an immense archive, often experienced by viewers far removed from the park itself, speaks to how Yosemite has been overexposed, even predetermined, by images.

This is likewise the key to defining Yosemite’s iconic presence in American photography. The term iconic implies almost instant recognizability, to the degree that our experience of the place, such as the Bridalveil Falls in Yosemite Valley, is always informed by images produced of it. This was on Danh’s mind as he made his photographs. Danh’s work thus reminds us of a fundamental aspect of modern life: a photograph depicts life at a remove. However, by investing his own experience and memory into images that replicate well-known and widely photographed scenes of Yosemite, Danh’s work serves as a response to the lack of cultural diversity in the history of landscape photography. Watkins’s views, for example, envisioned Yosemite as an untouched landscape, despite the area’s Indigenous population, the Southern Sierra Miwuk. Revisiting the subject matter a half-century later, Adams’s photographs only reinforce the notion that 19th- and 20th-century images of Yosemite represented a point of view (white, male) that failed to recognize histories and cultures outside of Euro-American conventions. Watkins and Adams approached the landscape with much the same technology, large format view cameras, and while their compositions may have dramatic differences, their subjects—peaks, falls, valleys—reinforced the primacy of the sites still esteemed today.

Eadweard Muybridge, Tenaya Canyon from Union Point, Valley of the Yosemite, 1872, albumen print, 43 x 53.8 cm (National Gallery of Art)

Eadweard Muybridge, Tenaya Canyon from Union Point, Valley of the Yosemite, 1872, albumen print, 43 x 53.8 cm (National Gallery of Art)

“Louis” and photography’s history

Recalling Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.’s 1859 assertion that photography is a “mirror with a memory,” and employing an obsolete early photographic method (the daguerreotype), Danh’s photographs look like mirrors because the daguerreotype image is imprinted on a metal plate, creating a reflective surface. [2] As such, they bring the viewer’s likeness, literally, into the picture. Danh savored the irony of seeing his own face in the image of a space that he suggested was a “white” space: “Camping for me was what white people did; it was not for people who ran through the jungles at night to get onto a fishing boat and head into the South China Sea. As a family, we already camped in a refugee camp before coming to the United States. So it never made sense to my parents to take the family out into the woods and expose us to the elements.” [3] 

Brought to the United States at the age of 2, as part of the second wave of Vietnam refugees in the late 1970s, Danh’s family found their new home in northern California. Though his family lived within hours of Yosemite, they never visited. Nevertheless, the young Danh became enamored with images of the place, and with this series sought to photograph Yosemite in such a manner as to open its imagery to a diverse range of viewers. As Danh has stated, “I want viewers, when they look at my work, that they see themselves in the picture,” continuing, “that they also become part of this land; that they, in a way, merge with the land—but they don’t quite disappear into the land. That they still see themselves in it.” [4] Notable for its reflective surface, among other unique qualities, the daguerreotype allows for viewers to quite literally “see themselves” in images of Yosemite. 

John Whipple, William Bond, and George Bond, The Moon, No. 37, 1851. Daguerreotype made through Great Refractor Equatorial Mount Telescope, Harvard College Observatory. Case size 4 ½ x 3 ¼ in. Public Domain/Creative Commons.

John Whipple, William Bond, and George Bond, The Moon, No. 37, 1851, daguerreotype made through Great Refractor Equatorial Mount Telescope, Harvard College Observatory

First publicly announced in 1839 after a decade of experimentation by Nicéphore Niépce and Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, daguerreotypes are silver-coated copper plates that are exposed in the camera, and developed in a chemical bath. Like Daguerre’s exposures in the 19th century, Danh’s take a minute or more to capture the image, and are prone to error. All of Danh’s photographs from Yosemite were created in a van-turned-darkroom that he nicknamed “Louis,” after Daguerre, and are similar to the darkroom-wagons employed by his 19th-century forebearers. Made on-location, Danh employed a photographic process that was outmoded by quicker, less precious, and inherently reproducible techniques as soon as the late 1850s. Danh’s decision to work in an outmoded medium creates a distinct means of both literally and figuratively reflecting on photographic history. While we see ourselves reflected in his images, Danh’s daguerreotypes instill a sense for the recentness of photography’s invention, and all of the history the technology has allowed us to indirectly witness.

Fragility and resilience

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Binh Danh, Immortality, The Remnants of the Vietnam and American War, 2006 series

Danh’s Yosemite daguerreotypes are not his only forays into experimental and alternative photographic processes. In his 2006 series, Immortality, The Remnants of the Vietnam and American War, Danh appropriated images of the Vietnam War, and used the natural process of photosynthesis to print the images on leaves. These chlorophyll prints were then embedded in resin, adding permeance and resilience to inherently fragile materials. The work is at once terrifying and vulnerable. Recycling press photography from the Vietnam War, Danh’s unique process adds a new and humanizing dimension to the originals. We view a man holding the body of an injured child, a look of desperation on his face, while we also note the leaf’s delicate surface. In the context of a war in which a biological agent—Agent Orange—caused widespread defoliation as well as irreparable harm to civilians as evidenced in increased birth defects, Danh’s Immortality aptly conveys the callousness of the war. As with his daguerreotypes, the foliage prints provoke viewers to consider their own tactile, material, political, and visual associations to the images at hand. 

While acknowledging the human tragedy captured in Immortality, we see here a common concern with Danh’s work in Yosemite: fragility. The daguerreotype is an imperfect medium, its surface prone to scratching, fingerprints, and even erasure. Both in their prime and today, daquerreotypes are often housed and displayed in velvet-line cases, the image set behind glass. (Danh’s are shown in frames, behind glass.) The luminosity of Danh’s Yosemite work, not unlike the delicacy of Immortality, indicate a profound care for the photographic image as an object. For all the cultural history at the center of Danh’s Yosemite daquerreotypes, their materiality reminds us of the potentially fleeting character of that history, and the documents that uphold it.

Notes:

[1] Boreth Ly, “Conversation Between Binh Danh and Boreth Ly, August 2012, On the Subject of Yosemite,” in Binh Danh: Yosemite (San Francisco: Haines Gallery, 2012), p. 5.

[2] Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph,” Atlantic Monthly (June 1859). Appears in Classic Essays on Photography, ed. Alan Trachtenberg. (New Haven, Conn.: Leete’s Island Books, 1980), pp. 71–82.

[3] Ly, “Conversation Between Binh Danh and Boreth Ly,” pp.  5–6.

[4] Neda Ulaby, “National Park Daguerreotypes Invite Viewers to ‘Merge With the Land,’” National Public Radio (July 5, 2016). Accessed Feb. 27, 2022.

Cite this page as: Dr. Chris Balaschak, "Binh Danh, Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite CA, May 31, 2012," in Smarthistory, July 13, 2022, accessed August 14, 2022, https://smarthistory.org/binh-danh-bridalveil-fall-yosemite-ca-may-31-2012/.