A thousand photos can be worth a thousand words. I think about this more and more, in our compulsively visual culture, which increasingly reduces what we think and feel and see — who and what we are — to what can be photographed. I think of Susan Sontag, who called it “aesthetic consumerism” half a century before Instagram. As a tiny act of resistance, I present The Unphotographable — every Saturday, a lovely image in words drawn from centuries of literature: passages transcendent and transportive, depicting landscapes and experiences radiant with beauty and feeling beyond what a visual image could convey.
One “sultry afternoon” in the last days of September in 1879, while traversing the American Southwest on a “lazy Government mule,” the Smithsonian ethnologist Frank Hamilton Cushing (July 22, 1857–April 10, 1900) found himself on the precipice of a black lava abyss.
On the pages of My Adventures in Zuñi, he gasps at what he saw:
Unexpectedly, a vast red-and-yellow sand plain was visible below me and beyond. In the distance it merged into long gray stretches, obscured by mirages and cloudy sands. It was overshadowed to the north by two massive, single buttes. From the bases of the latter to a spire-encircled, bare-faced promontory to the right, stretched a succession of canyon-seamed, brown, sandstone mesas, which, with their mantle of piñon and cedar, formed a high, dark boundary for the entire northern side of the basin.
A mile away to the left was a large rock-mountain that rose over numerous red foot-hills. It measured at least 1,000 feet in height and ran approximately two miles along its flattop. This mountain showed wind-sand-weather fanciful carvings even from faraway. The low sand basin extended westward from its western end, where it was column-sentineled. It reached the southern mesas’ foothills. Deep canyons broke them off, and they stretched cliff after rock to the hills.
Through a gate with its own opening, a small rivulet flowed from the center of the rock wall and the line of sandhills where I was standing. It emerged from the bottom of several low mounds below me and wound westward along the sandy plain, almost reaching the horizon. There, somewhere between the northern buttes of opposite grey mesas it went, it disappeared in the shadows of a terraced mountain.
Behind this hill, the sun was setting, turning it into a jagged silhouette pyramid. The halo gave way to an aurora that burst out through broken clouds. It blasted upward in bright lines of light and brimming with color, like if it were attempting to replicate its earthly beauty in the heavens.
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