SOMETIMES I FORGET THAT I LIVE A SHORT TRAIN RIDE FROM ONE OF THE WORLD’S NATURAL WONDERS. It’s there, just a tap of a commuter rail pass away, but I’ve still only been to Niagara Falls a handful of times in my life. Lockdown, besides making the green spaces of my own city more of a draw, also got me thinking about the Falls again, and with them the challenge of trying to capture one of the most photographed places on the planet.
Like most of my province, Niagara Falls was locked down for much of the past year – a real problem for a tourist town. But when the first stages of reopening were announced, I started making plans for an assault on the Falls with my cameras, starting with the choice of a hotel with a great view that would give me one more vantage point on the American and Canadian Falls – as close as I could get to a drone shot, albeit one I could take while eating dinner from the convenience of a comfy chair.
A night in a hotel was a must – it would take more than a single working day to capture at least half of the possible views of the Falls and the area. I ended up booking a room at the Marriott Fallsview which has the advantage of being the hotel closest to the Horseshoe Falls (and the bonus of giving me points on my Marriott Bonvoy card.) As soon as I checked in I went straight to the window and took shots down on the Falls, the Table Rock Visitors Centre and the WeGo bus terminal, all a short walk from the hotel if I use the Incline Railway.
There are two Falls – the American Falls on the US side and the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side. While the border is technically open, I discovered while packing for the trip that my passport had expired during the pandemic, so I had to content myself with gazing across the river at the American side. (Forced to rationalize, I can fall back on the old Canadian boast that our Falls are, as anyone knows, the bigger, the taller, the overall better falls. But I’m sure you know a cope when you see one.)
One of my goals on the trip was to recreate as closely as I could a famous image of the Falls, much as I’d made a Berenice Abbott photo my quarry on a trip to New York City. I chose Frederic Edwin Church’s 1857 painting The Great Fall, Niagara, a seven-and-a-half foot wide panorama now in the Corcoran Collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Church’s painting was a sensation when it was finished: the New York Times called it “the marvel of the western world”, and it went on a tour of the globe, both as a museum attraction and in reproductions.
Church’s Niagara was the result of months of observation and studies, and depicts the western edge of the Horseshoe Falls from no actual vantage point – a composite view taking in as many aspects and sensations of the cataract as he could contain in a single image. Church relied on the new science and art of photography to help create his view, but descriptions of the painting’s reception sound like the public took it in much like they would a movie – an art form that wouldn’t be invented for nearly four decades. I chose a spot as close to Church’s as I could manage near the Table Rock Visitors Centre just before sunset, and used a fisheye lens that – amazingly – only barely covered the whole view in front of me.
Visitors have been taken on tours of the rather lethal space behind the curtain of water pretty much since Falls tourism began. Early tourists would be asked to change into waterproof oilskins for their trip down slippery stairs to the bottom of the gorge to look up at and behind the Falls – often without being told that there was a charge for their rental. (Dodgy operators were a plague on Falls tourism for much of the 19th century.) Today you can buy a ticket for Journey Behind The Falls at the Table Rock Visitors Centre and descend in an elevator, with a bright yellow souvenir plastic rain poncho included in the price of admission.
A visit to the bottom and behind the Falls was once a terrifying prospect for a tourist. Isabella Lucy Bird, the daughter of an Anglican clergyman chronicling her travels in America, described her visit in 1854; writer Pierre Berton recounted it in his invaluable book Niagara: A History of the Falls. Following her guide on “the narrow and slippery ledge, no more than a foot wide, behind the curtain of water with the gulf boiling seventy feet below and the gusts of wind acting as a bar to progress,” she reached for his hand:
The ledge narrowed. She could barely stand with her feet abreast. She pleaded with her guide to stop, but he could only guess what she wanted to say. “It’s worse getting back,” he shrieked in her ear. she made a desperate attempt to move. Four steps took her to the edge of the ledge. With the breath sucked out of her lungs, she could barely stand upright in face of the gusts. This was Termination Rock, as far as any human being had been able to go; and so, with the guide’s help, she turned about and they retraced their steps.
The experience today is far less perilous, and the worst you can expect while standing on the viewing platform 13 storeys beneath the falls, watching the Maid of the Mist and Niagara City Cruises boats cruise past toward the roiling bottom of the drop, is a generous soaking of cold spray. The closest you’ll get to Miss Bird’s narrow ledge are the viewing portals carved behind the cascade, along the tunnel running from the elevator doors. Both on the platform and at the portals you realize the power of the Falls, thundering down with a deafening roar just a few yards or even feet away from you.
Between Journey Behind the Falls and my eagle’s eye view from the Marriott, I’m able to get some shots that capture some of that power and menace – and a bit of the unearthly beauty of the Horseshoe Falls. After dinner in my room watching the light change, I head back down to capture the Falls at sunset, just as the evening illuminations are turned on to light the cascade and the spray.
It’s an ominous and mysterious view by now, and I wonder what the Falls must have looked like to the natives living nearby, and to the first Europeans who were guided by them to the edge of the gorge, long centuries ago. Early visitors exaggerated its properties, describing how spray from the Falls petrified into a kind of salt with medicinal qualities, that the rocks below the waterfall teemed with eels and that birds flying too close became saturated with the mist and fell to their deaths. The priest and explorer Louis Hennepin was among the earliest but not the last to describe how viewing the Falls renders one “seized with Horror, and the Head turns round so that one cannot look long or steadfastly upon it.”
The Falls have been lit up at night since at least 1925, when the Niagara Falls Illumination Board began training coloured lights on the waterfalls from various points on the cliffs and adjacent buildings. Energy efficient LED lights replaced the old xenon ones in 2016, providing brighter lighting with more options for ranges of colour and programmed displays. My hotel room at the Marriott provided a perfect view of the illuminations. Summer and winter fireworks over the Falls are unfortunately on hold during lockdown but will probably resume by next year.
If you can get yourself down to the Falls at sunrise you’ll have the place almost to yourself, and in summertime the American Falls is gifted with the great privilege of having the sun come up just above them, shifting slowly to rise by the Horseshoe Falls in January. The sky behind the mist is a deep blush of peach and yellow on the morning I arrive with my cameras, but be prepared to move fast because the view changes quickly.
A wall of fog begins rolling in just a few minutes after I start shooting. I’m by Table Rock when I see the low orange ball of the sun, a perfect circle as it comes up over the buildings on the New York side of the Falls, start to dim. I start snapping quickly as the fog quickly engulfs the whole of the Falls, covering up the sun and blanketing the area, joining with the mist rising from the rapids until the whole area is completely obscured, the waterfalls heard but not seen behind a wall of white.
As I’m getting ready to check out a few hours later the fog has burned away, but the mist is rising from the base of the Horseshoe Falls dozens of storeys tall. Even with hundreds of frames in my cameras, I get the feeling that I’ve only barely started to capture the changeable majesty of the Falls, so don’t be worried that repeat visits will only leave you with duplicates of your own first photos.
(To read more behind the scenes detail – and see more photos – click on the link here.)
Photos and story © 2021 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved