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March 10, 2005

Darth Norton


Did you ever see one of those old Coors Beer “Tap the Rockies” commercials?  Do you remember how that “20-something” guy — straddling a mountain range — would suddenly thrust the beer spigot deep into the side of a snowy peak?  That is the image that comes to mind when I think about more extreme pro-development, pro-emission, pro-fossil or pro-outdoor recreation interests. 

That was also my image of Interior Secretary Gale Norton — before I saw this.

Having had this pic in my pocket for a few weeks, I thought I’d better write it up before Spring arrived.  It accompanied an article in the NYT in mid-February (A 3-Day Yellowstone Tour In Support of Snowmobiles – link) chronicling a 150 mile snowmobile junket Ms. Norton staged through Yellowstone Park.

Apparently, Norton felt the need to conduct a full three day photo op touting the use of snowmobiles after the Bush administration overturned a decision by the Clinton administration to phase out their use in the park.  According to the article, a fixed number of the machines are allowed in Yellowstone for touring.  These tours, which compete with traditional bus service, are required to be led by guides in small groups.  Norton was in the park to advocate for what she strategically described as “self-guided tours” — in other words, free and unrestricted snowmobile access. 

Maybe it’s just the passivity of today’s press, but why did reporters slavishly follow this stunt for days on end?  And, if they had that much face time with the Secretary, why did they award her with such an obviously promotional and imposing photo? 

We all know this could have been a picture where the machine wasn’t so dominating or so unchallenged by the surroundings.  Instead, we get an image where the virile machine grabs the foreground, claiming a scale disproportionate to nature while casting a shadow more formidable than the shadowless dormant trees.  We also know the press could have insisted on a more accessible portrait.  They could have had Ms. Norton jump up on that machine without the helmet, or at least pose with the face shield up.  (I’m sure that’s what a good Democrat would do.)

However, just like the way Wyoming native Dick Cheney stealthily and diabolically assembled his so-called energy task force, Norton signals that the Administration is not interested in contact with “outsiders” on this issue.  By this point in Bush’s tenure, the dynamic couldn’t be more clear.  You set your course, you roll out the campaign, you generate a lot of noise, you tamp down your earplugs and you keep your helmet on tight. Like the image, the method is as cold as it is black-and-white.  At all costs, you insulate. 

Beyond the insularity though, the image also evokes the Administration’s stubborn single-mindedness.  Besides the steady course down the slick road, I think the quality also shows up in the machine.  Although the molding on the hood suggests a face, just above it — like a cyclops — is that one fixed eye.  Although Norton is the real outsider with the radical position (which the article only briefly mentions is being challenged in court), she is relentless in driving home the notion that these vehicles belong in the park.

Having touched on the scale and some qualities of the machine, however, I haven’t mentioned it’s positioning. 

There’s a school of thought among theoretical folks that photos (like written language) are read from left to right.  Following that thinking, there’s also the idea that any movement across the space generates with it a chronology.  If you buy this, what do you make of the machine speeding toward lower left? 

I’m afraid my association is a little pessimistic.  What I see is an administration that has been so effective in turning around environmental gains, they’ve nearly driven the movement into starting over. 

But, did you also notice how close the top left blade of the machine comes to touching the edge of the frame?  Maybe it suggests that the anti-environmental forces are on the verge of some breakthroughs, whether that involved finally puncturing through the tundra (Senate Gearing Up for Fight Over Oil Drilling in Alaska – link), or just freeing these one-eyed monsters to chase the bison through the trees.

(image: Laura Rauch/Associated Press)

  • Victor

    In that photo, it looks like the snowmobiler is the one who stripped those trees bare. Maybe the forest was green and thriving until this snowmobile rider came? We don’t see the path ahead, but behind all we see is a lonely, desolate winter landscape, ravaged by the snowmobile’s intrusion.
    Darth Norton, indeed.
    On the other hand, it looks like the photographer might have been riding on another snowmobile in front of the subject. That might be one reason reporters followed this story: maybe Norton let them ride snowmobiles for free to give the story more print. Sure sounds like fun to me. And what tells the story of snowmobilers in Yellowstone better than getting a photo of somebody riding a snowmobile through nature?

  • Quentin

    I’m walking by and I hear noise. Brrrrrrrr..rr

  • aethorian

    This scene is pretty much a blank slate that you can write anything onto. It’s a relatively boring shot with little context, and without a caption identifying the helmeted rider, they could be anyone, anywhere. There’s not much to see here, and the tight cropping probably has no significance other than saving space (it’s even tighter on the initial NYT link: the rider might as well be sitting still).
    Laura Rauch of AP has managed to photograph it with a little dynamism and deep focus, something she does well with many subjects, including Democrats (who look more interesting in their pictures than Secretary Norton in hers). Some examples: Kerry w/Sun; “Real Deal”; Bridge Marathon; U.S. Marines; Wesley Clark; Yucca Mountain. I doubt if anything is implied by these strong compositions other than visual appeal.
    The Secretary’s advance team missed a better opportunity. Why not a nice tourista photo op — with an impromptu speech — in front of steamy Old Faithful? In her favor, at least she’s following the rules by staying on the road (and not slaloming through trees chasing indifferent bison).

  • aethorian

    Make that Yucca Mountain.

  • seize

    I agree with aethorian. Nothing to see, move it along. Breaking the frame? Please. Shrinking trees? That’s called perspective caused by distance.
    But I do agree completely with the original post about how ready the media was willing to follow this guy. What a lame photo-op.

  • Tilli (Mojave Desert)

    Oh, God. I don’t know what to say about the photo, but:
    We found out yesterday that the BLM is going to open up the old mining roads (last mined in 1920s) to off-road vehicles on land that is sandwiched between our neighborhood (an old one of 5 acre-homestead plots) and a wilderness area of the nearby national park. No way in hell the offroaders will stick to the “roads”.
    God, I hate them.

  • aethorian

    In case anyone wonders what a “snow coach” looks like, it’s basically a family trackster (or this more stylish older model).
    Now if the Secretary’s advance team really had their PR wits about them, Mrs. Norton would have stepped out of a this Calvinesque dream machine, attired in leather jacket, flying helmet and goggles, and taken off to reconnoiter nearby Canada for WMD. That would have been a photo op.

  • JimSo

    I don’t believe the photographer had any of the power to contrive this photo but I do believe Ms. Norton and her aides had all the power in the world to control the image it presented.
    And they went for the maximum impact. This photo represents a big FU to the tree huggers and greens out there who don’t know how to have fun on a big, mean, smokin’ machine like most good Americans. This administration thrives on imagery control and this photo is a classic image projected to a deeply, divided nation.

  • JD

    Note that the trees in the background are not dormant; actually, they are dead, or recently burned, evergreens.
    Rich irony in that, I think, especially considering the links from fossil fuel burning to climate change to wildfire and bark beetle infestations – and the blatant disregard on the part of the Bush administration to acknowledge or do anything productive re: climate change.
    Bush’s policies are accelerating the destruction of our public lands to serve narrow special interests such as energy corporations and the 2-stroke user groups.
    From that perspective, a powerful image…

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