Home > HIST 5702X, Travel > Those disappointing Hoodoos: photography vs. reality

Those disappointing Hoodoos: photography vs. reality

When I first saw my brother’s photos of the Hoodoos in Alberta, I knew I wanted to go see them myself some day. Little did I realize at the time that when I finally got the chance to tour the badlands, I’d find myself disappointed that the reality of the Hoodoos did not live up to the expectations borne from the photos I had seen. That’s not to suggest they aren’t worth seeing – they are, especially if geological formations interest you – it’s just that those sublime images did not mesh with what amounts to a tourist spot beside a highway.

Let me explain:

Can you guess how tall these Hoodoos stand?

The above image isn’t a great match for what I saw in my brother’s photos, but it’s close enough. What we see here are some of the Hoodoos found in the Drumheller area of Alberta. It is an image of the sublime, like those taken of the Grand Canyon that David E. Nye speaks about in his piece Visualizing Eternity: Photographic Constructions of the Grand Canyon. Hoodoos are not necessarily the “‘wonder’ of the West” that the Grand Canyon can lay claim to, but they are a fascinating example of millions of years of erosion at work. Without getting into the geology of these formations, the first thing we see in this image and others like it is a lack of human encroachment. There’s an untouched beauty to be found in these pillars. Mother Nature left to do as she will. And what is the outdoors, but a means of getting away from it all? These giant pillars reach toward the sky in solitary majesty, promising the adventurer a place of solitude and reflection. It’s as far removed from civilization as we can get. It’s an untamed space of rugged beauty. We are welcomed by the warm, earthy tones of the sandstone and the nearly-clear vibrant blue sky. The clearly defined layers within the rock hint at the millions of years of change captured in the formations. Looking at the pillars in the background to the right, we see curves that are soft and sensual, their folds evocative of flowing robes, only these are carved by Mother Nature herself. Yet there is a softness there, despite it being rock.

The perspective and lack of human elements are important to this image. Not only is there an impression of remoteness here, there’s nothing to provide us with any visual clues as to the scale of these formations. The camera looks up from below, the Hoodoos reach toward the sky. But we, the viewer, have no way of knowing just how high are these formations. It’s easy for one to imagine how they would tower over a human, but without someone – or something – in the photo to offer us an accurate scale, we can only guess as to the true size.

And that’s where I found myself disappointed. The images I saw suggested to me these were large structures. There was nothing in the image to suggest otherwise, and the perspective of the photos was such that, without looking it up or being told, it would be easy to expect them to be majestic, warm-coloured pillars. It probably doesn’t help that my only other frame of reference for something like this was the Hopewell Rocks at the Bay of Fundy, which tower some 12-21 metres, which is evident when the tide is out:

Wikipedia says these are 40-70 feet tall, so if my math is right that’s 12-21 metres. Regardless, they *do* tower over people, as seen in the image here.

The Hopewell Rocks, which I know as the flower pots, are tall and they do dwarf the tourists who venture down to check them out. There is indeed a majesty to them. Heck, these formations are taller than Bay’s Optimus Prime and Megatron (strange reference, I know, but the score from Transformers is currently playing in the background). In comparison, the Hoodoos only measure between 5-7 metres. And that was one of my first surprises.

These aren't nearly as tall as I expected. And where's that warm colour those other photos promised?

These aren’t nearly as tall as I expected. And where’s that warm colour those other photos promised?

A few differences emerge immediately if we compare this to the first photograph. As mentioned, there is the size. With me in the photo, smiling despite my surprise at finding these “tiny” Hoodoos, we get scale. We can immediately see just how tall these pillars really are. There’s also quite a difference in the colour. While there are  hints of that warm earthy tone embedded in the layers, overall these formations lack the glow that is seen in the other image (or the ones I saw). Instead there’s a brownish-gray flatness to them. The reason is lighting. The first photograph was probably taken on a sunny late afternoon, with the sun actually shining on the Hoodoos, bringing out that glowing warm colour. There’s a parallel here to Nye’s piece about the Grand Canyon, in which he notes that the canyon looked very different depending on the lighting, time of day, fog, etc. In essence, the canyon had “many moods.” Well, so too do the Hoodoos. Any image search of them on Google will demonstrate this. There’s the warm and inviting scene we see in the first image here. The duller, flatter uninspired colour similar to that in the above photo. There’s the moody Hoodoos with storm clouds overhead, the lines of darker layers stark against the lighter ones, with ominous shadows lending depth and contrast. As luck had it, the sun came out from behind the clouds and I did manage to get some hint of warmth out of them, even if only momentarily.

What the images don’t show, however, is the impact humans have had on the Hoodoos. Nye speaks about the Grand defile being defiled – how tourism has changed the Grand Canyon. “After about 1960… the tourist who sought an undefiled Canyon of vast geologic age increasingly discovered that its physical appearance no longer remained constant.” He speaks to the dams upstream controlling the flow of water, changing its colour from warm and red to cold and green, as well as the helicopters and small airplanes overhead carrying tourists, and more people on the rim and the trails, “eliminating the sense of solitude.”

While not to the same extent, the same can be said of the Hoodoos. The solitude promised in the first image is not to be found. The Hoodoos sit right beside a highway. Paths and stone steps are carved into the area – a trail people are asked to remain on. And then there are the people (well this is a tourist destination). The place is crawling with people – literally. There were people on top of the Hoodoos, despite signs asking them to stay on the trail. And some have taken it upon themselves to etch their names into the soft sandstone (don’t even get me started). Oddly, these are not the images we normally see.

Not looking so sublime now, is it? Houses. Cars. Hydro/telephone poles. Roads. Graffiti.

Not looking so sublime now, is it? Houses. Cars. Hydro/telephone poles. Roads. Graffiti.

It’s more a site of commerce than it first appears. A great tourist hub to draw people in, who ultimately spend money in the vicinity. Not seen in the photo is a little stand across the road. It was closing up when we arrived, but it seemed to sell foodstuff. Only humans would find a way to destroy something in an attempt to appreciate it.

Now looking at the first image again, we can’t see the impact of humans. There’s a timeless quality to that image. We find ourselves gazing upon a pristine  untouched landscape. I’m going to pull one quote from Jeremy Foster’s piece Capturing and Losing the ‘Lie of the Land.’ He notes that “images of ’emptiness’  imply ‘timelessness’ because only artefactual evidence allows the eye to date a landscape precisely.” In the case of the first photo, this is true. Aside from the fact that it’s a colour photo and thus technology can suggest a time frame for its creation, there’s nothing within the image itself that gives away the date it was taken. There is indeed a timelessness to it. Flip it to gray scale and one could argue the point further, no doubt, because the tech timeframe would be longer. With the photo just above, with “Kane 2008” thoughtlessly etched in the sandstone, we know when the photo was not taken: before 2008. The cars also add to the ability to date the photo, especially for those who know their makes and models (not me).

What is curious, though, is that it is time that is so wrapped up in the reason we see the Hoodoos in the first place. These are geological formations that take millions of years to form, thanks to erosion and the “protection” afforded by the cap stones. Their very existence is predicated on time. But it is a time span we cannot fathom, for, in theory, the change occurs at a rate we do not see in our lifetime. I say in theory, because the Royal Tyrell Museum has used a photo on site to show the changes that are occurring. One can stand there and compare the photo to what they see before them. An interesting exercise, and one we undertook, pointing out which Hoodoos had lost their cap stone and which had shrunk drastically.

The Hoodoos in this image is not what is there today.

The Hoodoos in this image is not what is there today.

So while the images, in and of themselves, offer us a sense of timelessness, compared against one another they also show us just how much impact time has had on these formations. It’s an interesting comparison. And a sad one too, if we consider the impact humans are having on these formations. In our quest to see them and experience them, to capture them, are we at risk of losing them that much sooner?

  1. April 13, 2013 at 7:44 pm

    I would suggest visiting Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park located in southern Alberta where the Hoodoos are plentiful. I posted some pictures of this area on my blog, it’s a beautiful area.

    • April 13, 2013 at 8:06 pm

      Thanks for the suggestion. Looks like a really interesting place to check out. Will likely be out West for research this summer so if I get a chance to road trip I’ll keep this destination in mind.

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