“When Yermo and I went to the Wahweap hoodoos for the first time at 3:30 A.M., he gave me a headlamp and insisted he didn’t need one,” says Priscilla Rattazzi, whose photographs of southwestern Utah, featuring the primeval rock formations known as hoodoos, go on display at New York’s Staley-Wise Gallery next week. “It was a moonless night. I am not sure how he got us there, but he did.” The monument Rattazzi hiked to that early morning with her guide, Yermo Welsh, and which she has traveled back to often in the 10 years since first visiting the area, is the nearly two-million-acre Grand Staircase–Escalante, known for its twisting canyons of striated sandstone as well as its long-necked, mushroom-shaped hoodoos. Ranging from a few feet to 10 stories in height, these whimsically capped columns get their name from folk witchcraft brought to America by African slaves. Improbably balanced, they look as if they’re being held up by magic.
This is the drama Rattazzi captures in her black-and-white photos of the hoodoos and their surroundings: starkness, beauty, and eons of history that put our short one to shame. The photographs also underline the senseless irreverence of the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks, which in 2017 hit the hoodoos’ sacred grounds. In December of that year, Trump signed proclamations dismantling protections of two of Utah’s national monuments, Bear Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante, to allow for drilling, mining, and cattle grazing. The irony, highlighted by Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker, is that “the most lucrative thing about Grand Staircase is the landscape itself. As of 2016, the outdoor-recreation industry in the United States brought in three hundred and seventy billion dollars, more than twice the value of the oil-and-gas industry. Twelve billion of those recreation dollars currently fuel Utah’s economy, but they will dry up around Grand Staircase if it is reopened to resource extraction.”
It was after the rollbacks that Rattazzi began photographing the landscape in earnest, and the resulting images have a sense of urgency. “Yermo suggested to me that the hoodoos without tops looked like middle fingers,” Rattazzi says. “That’s when I decided that the hoodoos were middle fingers sending a pointed message to Washington.” —Julia Vitale