WHERE'S PAPAGO?PHOTOGRAPHER'S EXHIBIT FOCUSES ON PHOENIX'S DWINDLING JEWEL OF A PARK

Dick George stuck his television set in a storage room a few years ago and started taking his own pictures.

As a longtime employee of the Phoenix Zoo--he's now its publications manager--his eye and his heart naturally are connected to Papago Park, where the zoo is located. So it makes sense that George set his photographic sights on Papago, a rare oasis in an ever-increasing urban milieu.

Photography has become more than a hobby to George, who may be familiar to readers as the onetime "public relations" man for Ruby, the famed painting elephant. (His soon-to-be-published book, Ruby: The Painting Pachyderm of the Phoenix Zoo, is scheduled for release in June.)

George's first one-man photo exhibition, "Adios Papago! Landscape Photographs of a Beleaguered Urban Park," opened Monday at ASU's School of Art Northlight Gallery. The black-and-white images stand on their own, but the accompanying text also makes a point--that Papago Park is only about one-third its original size, and shrinking.

"You can make wonderful cases for the utility of the cultural, social and energy needs of a community," says the 49-year-old George, "and I'm certainly not going to argue with that because I'm a participant in that. But the fact is, Papago Park is disappearing. I just hope people will realize the need to set aside the park for their own enjoyment."

These days, the "park" includes a fine city golf course, the zoo, the Salt River Project building, Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix Municipal Stadium and the new spring training fields for baseball's Oakland A's.

But back in 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson designated Papago Park as a national monument, it was nothing but 2,100 acres of desert and mysterious, beautiful buttes. In 1932, the feds turned it over to the state, which in turn gave the park to the City of Phoenix in the late 1950s.

Now, George says, only about 700 to 800 acres of the once-pristine park remain.

"My photographs are not meant to be an environmental diatribe," he says, "but I'm hoping that people will be stirred to find ways to preserve the park. But my bet is that within 50 years, Papago Park as you see it today will have disappeared. Then, folks will have to look at museum collections and photographs to see what it was like back in the old days."

One set of several photos in George's exhibition is titled "Park Improvements." It shows the recent process of change at 64th Street and McDowell, where the Phoenix City Council last year donated 30 acres to the Oakland A's for a practice facility.

One particularly haunting photo George took during construction of the new ball fields depicts plastic piping sitting on the newly barren ground.

"The pipe looked to me like naval cannons aimed at the park, at Barnes Butte in particular," George says. "But my shadow kept getting in the picture. Finally, it hit me. It's like Pogo said, we are the enemy. It's not us against them. We're the ones who are doing this out here. So I left my shadow in there intentionally."

The School of Art Northlight Gallery is located in Matthews Hall at the intersection of Tyler and Forest malls. Admission is free, and the gallery is open Monday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 4:30 p.m.

 
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