Tristan Wheelock is a Florida based freelance photographer who specializes in documentary, travel and portraiture.
He discovered photography shortly after college during an assignment that had him crossing the U.S. while living in a van with a street magician. Serendipity led him to India and he's been traveling ever since.
Let me tell you about my time in Green River, my morning, midday and evening… Let me try and explain where my thoughts drifted and how my feet followed.
I’m up at dawn, sometimes before. I’m chasing light and getting caught in the cold. Some mornings my windshield is covered in a thin patina of ice. I’m from Florida, I have no way of scraping it off, I barely know what it is. I wait for the sun to do its work. I have a thermometer in my truck that tracks the highs and lows for the day. High of 104 low of 36, the range is immense. Where have I landed myself?
The phrase, “For those who died to make the desert bloom,” is emblazoned on a plaque next to the Hoover Dam. Those words stuck with me from the moment I saw them. The desert blooms here. Aerial shots of this town show green pastures ripe with melon and alfalfa, a shock of color in the endless beige of sand and cryptobiotic soil. There’s death here too. Walking down Main or Broadway you can see it in the leaning walls and boarded up buildings. Crumbling afterthoughts that a gone era left in their wake.
In the 60s and 70s uranium mining operations and the Green River Launch complex combined to fill the town with a bustling horde of GIs and rocket scientists. Fast forward to present day and the miners have put their pick axes away and the scientists have hung up their lab coats. The Launch Complex is rotting in the desert, a kingdom for mice, strewn with shotgun shells and spattered in errant graffiti.
Early in the evening the midday shadows soften and stretch their legs, the blindingly white light dims, illuminating the broken things in a copper radiance.
This can be beautiful, this can also be a bit tragic. All of those architectural skeletons dragged out of their collective closets and laid bare before the world in a broad display of memorialized loss.
I’m headed to document a prominent historic building in the heart of Green River, and I have to wait because in front of it is a white haired man, grinning, thumb high. He’s pulled his red SUV to the side of the road. He’s standing in front of the splintered door of an old bank building giving his camera holding wife a wide smile and an energetic thumbs up.
I’d bet money that if you had a camera with you on a walk downtown during this magical hour you’d point it at cracked wall, or a rusting antique vehicle, or a sign faded to pastel by the harsh desert conditions.
What would this simple act mean? I’d argue that you’d be contributing to a culture of “ruin porn,” a type of photography that ends up defining a place as dead and thus potentially inhibiting future growth. Can an aesthetic hold that much power? The answer to this question isn’t necessarily a simple yes or no.
I think that given enough time, an aesthetic can begin to define a place depending how often and where it shows up. An example specific to Green River could be as follows: visitors, intrigued by the various stages of ruin in the town, take photos of dilapidated buildings and empty storefronts. They post the photos on social media. This attracts other visitors to come document the same things. Over time the image of Green River changes and becomes a destination not for wilderness exploration as the town desires but rather decay and loss.
In order to understand the impact of this, a person would have to define, or redefine their understanding, of what “good” and “bad” traditionally mean in relation to decay, and poverty.
I think a knee jerk response to images in the so called “ruin porn” genre can be negative, but I don’t think it has to be. Just because a thing doesn’t conform to traditional aesthetic norms (i.e. straight lines, unblemished facades, crack free glass) doesn’t mean it’s bad. In reference to Green River specifically these broken down buildings often serve as evidence of resilience. The down breathes in boom and bust cycles but it does not die, it continues onward, changing and transforming and remaining a dot on the map rather than a part of the dust surrounding it.
The golden hour light is capping the top of the Book Cliffs in a fiery orange, painting the cottonwoods a deep golden hue, drawing my shadow out to impossible lengths.
This glow only lasts a couple minutes, sometimes a handful of seconds. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of phenomenon.
There are more than a few strange things hidden in this bizarre sun blasted geography. I’ve heard tales of burrowing owls and goblin lairs and black dragons decorating canyon walls. I’ve listened to legends of a one-armed river runner, a blue castle, and a black pyramid. There are fruits named for birds, whispers on the desert wind, and ghosts haunting the dark dark night.
Things that were, things that are, things that are no longer.
The sun is below the horizon now and the air is already starting to cool. It plunges so quickly around these parts. Even in the heat of midday the shadows can carry a surprising chill. It’s quite the contrast from the thick wet air of my homeland. There you can wear the atmosphere like a heavy blanket, here it’s thin and crisp and takes a toll and gives very little back. It can go from warm-in-a-tee-shirt to cold-in-a-jacket in under an hour.
If you’re impatient or inexperienced you’ll walk away right when the sun has dipped behind the Swell and the approach of night seems inevitable. If you choose to turn your back at this moment you’ll miss the best parts. The tail end of the magic hour is when the colors start to pop. Psychedelic orange and red, impossibly vibrant, the contrails of the distant planes glow neon in the fading sky.
Night falls and the town takes on an entirely different identity. The deep shadows hide the broken things. There are signs of life. Lights in the windows of the houses around town, neon glowing on Main Street, and the marquee at West Winds lighting up the sky with the price of gas. The sense of scale is distorted when the vastness of the desert is obscured by darkness. Walking the streets in the evening can feel like taking a stroll in a much larger, much different city.
Sound carries impossibly far out here. I close my eyes and fill my ears with: the oceanic throb of the trucks on the interstate, the howl and whimper of the wind through the tamarisk, the chirp and squeal of birds I can’t name, shreds of conversation, barking dogs, stomping hooves, tires on gravel, clouds naming their children, spiders song, and the ancient creak of the earth itself (I may have made up that last few, you’ll have to come here to find out).
In the end, my takeaway is this: the desert that surrounds the town is vast and seemingly empty, but in reality it is incredibly full. Green River is part of that, a node in the midst of sandy barren network.
It makes me feel the good kind of lonesome that country swingers twang on about. It breaks my heart, it builds it up. I came with empty places inside of myself, but those internal voids have since been filled.
I’m finishing this little love letter while I sit on the other side of the Mississippi wondering about the West and the immense geography that I’ve put between myself and it. If such a small town could twist me so purely, redirect my bearing and such, what’s to be said for all those other unexplored map dots?
“The mountains are calling and I must go.” said Mr. Muir. I don’t hear that particular voice shouting down from the peaks. My body is not pulled by the wail of altitude, but rather lured by the ghostly whisper of cracked earth and yawning canyons.
The desert is calling and I must go, maybe I should have never left.