Terry Eiler’s Power Plant and Sheep Herder(1972)
This picture depicts the Four Corners Generating Station Near Fruitland in Navajo Nation, New Mexico. The Four Corners Generating Station finished construction in 1970 and was used to supply electricity to cities in neighboring states. Coincidentally, this station ran off coal deposits extracted and delivered from nearby mines in the Navajo Nation. This picture was taken by photographer Terry Eiler and his wife in 1972. According to National Archives, Eiler focused primarily on tourism, work sites, and lifestyle of residents within the Navajo and Hopi reservations. Most of Eilers’ photographs were intended for those who would like to experience the pristine waters of Havasu Falls, the steep trails of the Grand Canyon, and the distinct culture of the Navajo tribe. The Four Corners Generating Station differs from most of Eiler’s work in the sense that it inadvertently evokes a social and political statement on the direction of the Navajo way of life. Although Eiler’s photograph focuses on a different type of site (coal rather than uranium), it shares the same geographic location and overarching theme of profit/progress over price.
When you first take a look at Eiler’s Power Plant and Sheep Herder(1972),your eyes will stray towards the top of the photograph with the power plant. With just a quick glance, your eyes realize the large, red striped smokestacks emitting large amounts of gray smog. Usually, the site which immediately grabs the viewers’ attention is important and connected with the message the photographer is trying to capture. Therefore, we should first analyze the power plant as the focal point as this photograph.
The red and white colored smokestack is what truly draws the reader to the power plant at first glance. The entire point of a red striped smokestack is to reduce solar heat absorption and to instantly differentiates itself from its surrounding for aircrafts which might otherwise be hard to see; the same technique applies to the viewer of this photograph. Only the background contains semblances of buildings and machinery, giving it a more industrial and/or futuristic theme in comparison to the rest of the photograph. The smog and soot emitted from the site has already stained the mechanical structures and sky with its grayish hue. Grayer, darker hues are usually associated with dreariness, illness, and depression; therefor, the backgrounds grayish color scheme connects a negative connation to its industrial/futuristic theme.
As the viewer finishes observing the dreary sky and metallic structures of the background, their eyes naturally move down towards the vast plains. These earthy plains are, at first, barren of life besides green fauna and a nearly unseen Navajo woman. Despite her small relative size, she is easily seen due to the contrast with her red, vibrant headwear. This woman is looking over to the right, where there are nine sheep grazing on the grass littered throughout the field. The sheep herd reveals that this woman is a herdswoman tending to her herd, engaging in a centuries old Navajo tradition of women tending to livestock. In comparison to the dreary smog of the factory, the foreground contains light and a more natural color scheme, capturing tradition as something that is comparatively good and healthy.
Although it might have been a coincidence, the herdswoman’s headwear, and the power plant’s smokestacks both bear the color red. These two random subjects (and by default, themes) are obscurely tied together by their red colored details, but not in a positive way. These themes are seemingly unable to coexist together, the existence of the middle ground reinforces this concept. There are only two zones of activity within this photograph, the foreground and background. The body of water in the middle ground acts as a natural division between the herding plains and power station. The deep blue water, contrasting color schemes, and the large distance between each spatial zone depicts an almost innate incompatibility between what each zone represents, between the olden, traditional Navajo lifestyle and what the future holds. Sadly, background information of this body of water supports this claim.
The body of water in the middle ground is named Morgan Lake; unlike the other spatial zones, there is an absolute absence of viewable people, objects, and life within Morgan’s lake. Lakes will usually have an abundance of flora, fauna, and objects like boats or dock to indicate its use; in the case of Morgan’s lake, there is none. This absence is indicative of two things: either the lake is contaminated and unsafe to use with the neighboring power plant or it was never meant for public use. Looking at Morgan’s Lake background, the lake was created as a cooling mechanism for the Four Corner’s Generating Station. The plant’s builders created the 1200-acre formation of the lake and siphoned millions of gallons of water from the San Juan river. The tradition of one group has been exchanged for the progress of another. Although this cooling method is necessary for the generation of electricity for nearby towns, it is almost a two-fold slap in the face for local Navajo and Hopi herders as 1200-acres of herding plains have been repurposed for electricity provisions in non-local regions.
Eiler most likely realized the contrast in themes and took photographs to specifically depict it. Eiler purposely positioned the power plant as the focal point while placing the herdswoman in an almost unseen area. He wanted to reinforce the overall theme that progress is prioritized over tradition by placing herdswoman in a place where she is nearly forgotten in face of the larger, more active power plant. The lake’s purpose supports this argument as well. It acts as a wide, blue barrier between the two other spatial zones, segregating and defining each theme as opposing. Likewise, nearly 1200 acres of grazing land were given up for the sake electricity production.