Phil Eidenberg-Noppe had been there. Two years before a hillside gave way with monstrous force, destroying the Steelhead Haven neighborhood and claiming 43 lives, he was there taking pictures.
After the Oso mudslide, in June and November 2014, he returned to find a place forever transformed by nature, and marked by human tragedy and resilience. And he took more pictures.
His display of 38 photos, some of them large-scale panoramic images, is on view at the downtown Everett Public Library through June 15.
Pre-slide pictures show a field, grassy and peaceful, and a log crib wall built along the North Fork Stillaguamish. From the months after March 22, 2014, there are heart-rending details in pictures of a ruined house — shoes on a braided rug, and condiments left in a kitchen. There are sweeping, 5-foot photos of the river, the muck and the hillside’s enormous gouge.
Eidenberg-Noppe is a scientist and also a photographer who creates images as art. He doesn’t see art and science as mutually exclusive.
A hydrologist, Eidenberg-Noppe has worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Darrington, for the city of Kent, the nonprofit Adopt A Stream Foundation and in consulting and environmental engineering. He was in the Steelhead Haven area many times in 2012 and 2013, with the Forest Service and on his own time.
He was then a hydrologist for the north zone of the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The Forest Service was investigating slide activity along the South Fork Stillaguamish at Gold Basin, and Eidenberg-Noppe knew of past slides near Oso.
“This was an area that slid before,” he said of the Steelhead Haven area. “I wanted to understand what had happened historically.”
Retired from the Forest Service, the 55-year-old is now focused on photography. His display will move to the Federal Way Regional Library next month, then to the North Bend Library. It will be shown Oct. 1-Dec. 7 at Edmonds Community College.
Eidenberg-Noppe, who lives in Seattle, has written a lengthy essay, published online, explaining his thoughts about the slide. Titled “Reconciling Risk and Suspending Belief,” it also explores a personal loss, his interactions with a land owner he met before the Oso slide, and the nature of risk — a hydrologist’s stock in trade.
Throughout his career, he studied and made decisions related to risk, but in the essay wrote that “I’ve come to accept that most anything is possible at any time.”
The property owner Eidenberg-Noppe met on those earlier visits died in the mudslide, along with his wife and other family members. “I’m feeling emotional even now talking about it,” he said Monday at the Everett Public Library.
He’ll be back at the Everett library 3-5 p.m. Sunday and noon-2 p.m. June 6 to answer questions about his pictures. Rather than giving a formal talk, he’ll be at the display. It’s on the main floor, mounted on a long wall near the library’s DVD collection.
Eidenberg-Noppe had a lot of trepidation about publicly showing the pictures because of the terrible human toll. He decided that people who haven’t been to the site should see the magnitude of what happened there. His panoramic pictures were created from multiple images.
On a small sign next to the photos, he has written that his heart goes out to mudslide victims and their families. The sign asks that people consider donating to the American Red Cross, United Way of Snohomish County, the Cascade Valley Hospital Foundation Disaster Relief Fund or the Oso Firefighters Association to help with recovery.
Viewers have jotted down their thoughts in a notebook next to the pictures. “Amazing how strong as well as beautiful Mother Nature is,” one person wrote. “I can’t think of anything else in our life that is so strong and powerful.”
With his last group of pictures, Eidenberg-Noppe shows the strength of people who worked through months of sadness. He wasn’t there to see recovery efforts, but images capture the community’s spirit. One picture is the old spruce tree with its carved Oso memorial sign. Another shows a log truck on the rebuilt Highway 530 as some normalcy returns.
The photo project wasn’t meant to pinpoint the slide’s cause or lay any blame.
“How do you capture the enormity of it?” he said. “People have to see it.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Reconciling Risk and Suspending Belief: A Collection of Photos from Before and After the 2014 Oso Landslide,” an exhibit by Phil Eidenberg-Noppe, is on display through June 15 in the Everett Public Library, 2702 Hoyt Ave. It’s on the main floor near the DVD collection. The photographer will be at the library 3-5 p.m. Sunday and noon-2 p.m. June 6 to talk about the exhibit. His online essay about the mudslide is at: https://medium.com/@phileidenbergnoppe