Skip to content Skip to navigation

Enchanting the Desert

Stanford University Press, 2016
An interactive digital monograph by Nicholas Bauch
May 16, 2016
Nicholas Bauch

Every year, a staggering five million visitors flock to the Grand Canyon to view its sweeping vistas. One of the most remarkable wonders of the natural world, the Grand Canyon has become a symbol of the American West—its Indian heritage, its pioneer spirit, its sublime beauty. It is one of the most photographed landmarks in America, and one of its earliest photographers was Henry G. Peabody.

In 1879, Peabody, a member of both the Chicago Electrical Society and the Chicago Photographic Society, was the first to use electricity to project lantern slides, becoming a father of the modern slideshow. Recognizing an opportunity to promote migration and tourism, western railroads and postcard companies hired Peabody to document the natural beauty of the American frontier. Awed by its exotic landscape, Peabody turned his collection of photographs into an audio-visual slideshow that enabled thousands of people from Boston to Chicago and beyond to experience a mode of vicarious travel through electricity, sound, and photography.

Peabody's original slideshow was possible only through advances in 19th-century technology, so it is a particularly fitting subject for this groundbreaking 21st-century digital-born, interactive scholarly publication. Originating from the Spatial History Project within the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis at Stanford, Nicholas Bauch's Enchanting the Desert is a careful examination of Henry Peabody's early-twentieth-century slideshow of the Grand Canyon. By placing this study within the spatial framework of the Canyon itself, and embellishing Peabody's slideshow with rich overlays created through GIS mapping and virtual recreations of the canyon topography, Bauch has created a digital prototype for studying historical and cultural geography.

Enchanting the Desert also includes 80 essays on human geographical aspects of the Canyon, ranging from Native American habitation and names, through the physical hurdles overcome by Peabody as he created the slideshow, to the consequences of the image choices Peabody made on future access and tourism within the canyon.

The result of deep archival research in the Huntington Library, employing the traditional tools of the historian and geographer, Bauch raises and answers questions only a born-digital project could make possible, and reveals a previously hidden geography of a landmark that has come to define the American West.