March 27, 2023
Sabino Canyon, a desert canyon in the American Southwest near Tucson, Arizona, is enjoyed yearly by thousands of city residents as well as visitors from around the world. Picturing Sabino: A Photographic History of a Southwestern Canyon tells the story of the canyon’s transformation from a barely known oasis, miles from a small nineteenth-century town, into an immensely popular recreation area on the edge of a modern metropolis. Covering a century of change, from 1885 to 1985, this work rejoices in the canyon’s natural beauty and also relates the ups and downs of its protection and enjoyment.
Picturing Sabino is your third book about Sabino Canyon. How did you become interested in the canyon?
It began in January 1977, when I moved from California to Tucson to take job as Environmental Education Specialist with Coronado National Forest. On my first day at work my new supervisor, Bob Barnacastle, drove me in a Forest Service truck to the end of the road in Upper Sabino Canyon. I knew right away I’d landed somewhere spectacular.
Before long I had an idea for a program in which volunteers would lead children on educational field trips to the canyon. My supervisor and I worked together to make this idea a reality. The volunteers soon added presentations for the general public to their repertoire. Eventually they named themselves the Sabino Canyon Volunteer Naturalists, and they’ve continued to do their good work to this day.
I resolved to learn everything I could about Sabino Canyon both to satisfy my own curiosity and to help provide these volunteers with the background they needed. I found out quickly that the canyon was an inexhaustible source of fascination and discovery. I’ve never stopped learning about it.
What caused you to focus on Sabino Canyon’s history?
I didn’t, at first. After leaving the Forest Service in 1986, I wanted to share something of what I’d learned about the canyon. The result was Sabino Canyon: The Life of a Southwestern Oasis, published in 1993 by The University of Arizona Press. Although most of the book’s pages were devoted to Sabino Canyon’s natural history, its last and longest chapter was a summary of the canyon’s human history and prehistory.
My research for that chapter convinced me that Sabino Canyon’s past was rich in all kinds of human experience, but that it would take time and effort to bring it more fully to light. As it turned out, I was right on both counts!
How did you uncover previously unpublished stories from Sabino Canyon’s past?
Much of my research involved documentary sources–newspaper articles, private and government correspondence, mining claims, property deeds, articles of incorporation, maps, census records, and the like. Information of this sort can be found in public archives in Arizona, elsewhere in the country, and increasingly, online.
Some of my most interesting research didn’t involve documents, though. Old photographs of visitors to the canyon were invaluable for their intimate views of what people were doing at the canyon, many years ago. What’s more, the backgrounds of these photos could be mined for nuggets of information about changes in the canyon, itself, over the decades. Equally rewarding was meeting and speaking with individuals who had lived through and contributed to Sabino Canyon’s history.
And of course one of the most intriguing sources of information was Sabino Canyon itself. It’s filled with historical treasures, if you know how find and interpret them–abandoned trails, obscure survey marks, poles from an old telephone line, fading targets shot up by military cadets, and many others.
Putting all this together was the challenge. It wasn’t often a matter of recovering stories that others had told long ago, but much more frequently of recognizing and piecing together untold stories from the great mass of disparate information I collected.
Were there any especially memorable moments in your research?
Yes, too many to describe! But here’s one.
As part of my research I often carried a copy of an old photograph into Sabino Canyon to find exactly where it had been taken. As a photographer myself, when I found the place I was looking for I often felt a subtle kinship with the person who had brought a camera there long ago.
One such occasion stands out in my memory. I had come to the canyon with a very old and quite deteriorated photograph. In searching for where it had been taken, I worked my way up a rugged slope covered with dense vegetation. It was tough going. I found the spot, and to my surprise discovered it was only about a yard from where I, myself, had taken a photograph twenty years earlier.
There is no trail to that place. Both I and that long-ago photographer seem to have been looking for the same thing: a long view up the canyon toward the landmark today called Thimble Peak. We had both worked hard to find what we wanted, and we had chosen the same site.
The image made by my predecessor–probably the well-known Tucson photographer, Henry Buehman–became the introductory photograph for Part I of Picturing Sabino. The photo I took appears in a natural-history display in the Sabino Canyon Visitor Center. (You might enjoy taking your book there and comparing the two.)
There are many wonderful historical photographs in Picturing Sabino. Was it difficult to find them?
I found many of the photographs in public archives, but I also purchased prints online, received permission to reproduce photos from newspapers, and, in a few cases, I was able to borrow prints from generous individuals. I catalogued over fourteen hundred images and chose about two hundred for the book.
Surprisingly, it was much more difficult to find photographs from recent decades than from earlier times. Many of the photos in the book are snapshots taken by ordinary visitors to the canyon, who then mounted prints in family albums or stuffed them into envelopes and shoeboxes. As the decades passed, the photographers or their descendants came to recognize the historical value of these images, and donated them to public archives. Photos from more recent decades are likely still to be in private homes. Not enough time has passed for their owners to think of them as “historical.”
It would be worthwhile for all of us to consider the future value of the everyday photographs in our homes. For those of us still making prints in the digital age, it’s best to label them soon after we take them–before we forget the times, places, and subjects–then keep them safe. (You might be surprised by how many mislabeled prints I came across in my research!) Someday our present will be someone else’s past. Who can say how valuable our photographs may then prove to be?
David Wentworth Lazaroff is an independent writer and photographer living in Tucson, Arizona. He became fascinated by Sabino Canyon while working there as an environmental education specialist from 1977 to 1986. He has continued to study the canyon ever since then.