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Sister Turbine

Posted by Deborah Bergman on

About forty five minute’s drive into the Columbia River Gorge, one of the Bonneville Dam’s original, WPA-era turbines rises into the sky above a long green lawn above the river.

I began photographing the Bonneville Dam about five years ago when I happened to drive by just before sunset to discover a full moon rising above it. 

I had arrived there quite unexpectedly. Until then, I had been shooting almost exclusively in the soft natural light studio that my east-facing dining room makes very early every morning for maybe a couple of weeks on either side of each equinox. It is during that specific curve of the physical year that the sun rises firmly, softly, (and at the sort extraordinary angle you can perhaps only enjoy above the 45th parallel) around and behind a silhouetted Mount Hood and into that room.

I would wake up before dawn and abstract the sunrise over the mountain.  Then, I would often use the light inside the room to do other work until about 7:30.

I had been waiting for that exact week in October to resume what I had left off doing in late March and I had already begun to shoot. Friends and people who worked with me would come and look at what I was doing, and then I would do some more. I had no plans or goals, it was simply a protected and beautiful era of creative discovery that was already well in progress and could only be explored within a very specific window.

That is, until a pipe dramatically burst in the 1920s house, requiring a full repiping.

Suddenly, there were lots of important decisions to be made, and a slew of workers in the house very early in the morning, making it basically impossible to shoot. And that was aside from the part where there wasn’t going to be any water.

There was no question that I had to go for at least a few days and quickly.

So I decided to hunker down in the Gorge for a few nights at a place that a friend had recently mentioned in passing.  It happened to be located quite close to the Bonneville Dam.

In retrospect, my choice was kind of a joke, since this was not only a location which brought a whole new meaning to the experience of enjoying running water (sic), but there was certainly no chance there would be any shortage of it whatsoever.

Driving back to my hotel on the second night or so, I caught the moonrise, followed it off the main highway and down the service road, and followed its arc above this singular crossroad of power until it was too dark to stay. 

And so there I was: outside, functionally alone, and on the edge of a huge river.  In more or less exactly the same spot where the rising sun came to me as I photographed Mount Hood at sunrise and facing where I stood now from a single, protected, and very private room in my home.

Meanwhile, along the riverbank below, many men in plastic folding garden chairs and flanked by blue coolers silently fished Chinook. 

Since then I have been back often.  

Originally, I was looking for a single shot of this turbine to add to another series. But its curves and planes began to carve out a study on spiraling, textures, mass, scale: and also of how the curves of industry can carve out and clarify the possibilities of flow in positive and negative space and not only water.

Just to be clear, I don’t think a turbine has a gender.  It’s just that the blades and body displayed decidedly feminine qualities in abstraction. In them, you can also begin to decode a geometry and lexicon of creative power--the precise engineering angles and undulations that spin water through the turbine shaft that spins energy around and through copper and magnets to generate pure electricity.

Bonneville Power Authority (Creative Commons license)

An historic image courtesy of the Bonneville Power Authority (Creative Commons license).

Because of this, and also because this is one of a group of turbines that powered so much of the Western United States so continuously for so long (see photo above), I decided to call it “sister.”     


Available as individual prints, this series also displays nicely as a grouping  of 10” x 14” or larger images to maximize the play of natural and industrial movement; of positive and negative space.

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