Visions Underground
Carlsbad Caverns Through the Artist's Eye
by Lois Manno

192 pages
$19.99/PB (978-1-890689-95-7)

Selected as a Winner in the 2009 New Mexico Book Awards (Best Art Book and Best of Show), Finalist, 2009 National Best Book Awards, and Southwest Book of the Year, 2009 Border Regional Library Association

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Published in collaboration with The National Speleological Society (

What was the most challenging photographic subject of Ansel Adams’ career? Many would agree that it was Carlsbad Caverns. At one point during his work at the Caverns, Adams wrote a letter to friend and fellow photographer Alfred Stieglitz, asking him to “pray for me.” Did he succeed or fail? The previously unpublished Adams images in this book will allow lovers of photographic art to come to their own conclusions.

Caves inspire awe, curiosity, and fear. Perhaps because they were used as havens and sacred sites during the evolution of mankind, caves continue to fascinate us with their dark promise of adventure. As psychological archetypes, they touch humanity’s deepest, most primal emotional core. Since the discovery of Carlsbad Caverns in the late 1800s, adventurers, photographers, writers, and artists have explored its depths, seeking to capture the elusive beauty that fills its enormous chambers and intimate grottos.

Visions Underground weaves together the work of historic and contemporary artists from various disciplines to create a portrait of Carlsbad Caverns National Park as inspiration and muse. This book explores the integral part the arts have played in the development and preservation of the national parks generally, and Carlsbad in particular. The book follows the tracks left by creative people as they encountered the cave, beginning with the courageous artist-explorers of the 1920s like painter Will Shuster, onward through Ansel Adams’ struggle with photographing in the inhospitable darkness, to contemporary, surrealistic photographs of cave pearls, soda straws, and pristine pools of blue-green water.

In the process of recording the history of artists at the park, Visions Underground describes a one hundred-year continuum of how the subterranean world has been portrayed in various media, from before the turn of the century, through modern times. Creative people still flock to Carlsbad Caverns, which was designated a World Heritage Site in 1995. The cast of characters is as diverse as American culture itself.

With over 140 images, many of which have never before been published, Visions Underground tells the story of how Carlsbad Caverns has inspired artists since the early days of the twentieth century. It also documents the history of cave exploration at the park and the evolution of photography. Every cave enthusiast, photographer, and art lover will enjoy reading this unique book.

Lois Manno has been a caver for thirty years. She is a fine artist and graphic designer who has volunteered at Carlsbad Caverns National Park for more than fifteen years. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Deep, Dark Inspiration

By Kathaleen Roberts -- Albuquerque Journal, September 7, 2009
Journal Staff Writer
          Mention Will Shuster's name, and most Santa Feans think museum murals and Zozobra.
        But the founder of Santa Fe's first modernist art group could claim yet another first. In 1924, Shuster was the first artist to enter Carlsbad Caverns and paint its inky splendors.
        "He rode the guano bucket down through the mine shaft and painted it by lantern light," Santa Fe's Lois Manno, the author of "Visions Underground: Carlsbad Caverns Through the Artist's Eye," (Rio Grande Books, Albuquerque, 2009, $19.99). A longtime caver, Manno will be at a book launch at Steve Elmore Indian Arts Gallery, 995 Paseo de Peralta, from 5-7 p.m. Friday. The gallery will also host a show of Shuster's Carlsbad Cavern paintings.
        Forever seeking new adventures, Shuster and fellow Cinco Pintores painter Walter Mruk heard about the exciting discovery of an underground world near Carlsbad and drove south to the cave. They found geologist Willis T. Lee encamped with his National Geographic entourage for several months of surveying and photography.
        The pair set up lanterns on the primitive trails, making sketches as models for larger works. Shuster produced at least eight large paintings and several oil sketches of Carlsbad. Much of Mruk's work dating to the period was lost or destroyed; no one knows how many paintings he produced, Manno said.
        Shuster would return to the caverns again in 1930 as part of a Works Projects Association mural contract. The murals have since disappeared, either destroyed by their maker or never finished, Manno said.
        Shuster later said, "The cave has made a cubist, vortivist and post-impressionist of me against my will."
        The seed for Manno's book project was planted in late 2005, when she approached the National Park Service about erecting an art exhibition on the caverns. The exhibit would showcase not only five paintings by Shuster, but 25 original prints by Ansel Adams. The great photographer came to the caves in 1935 and 1941 to photograph them for the Department of the Interior. But, incredibly, 25 signed prints lay forgotten in a superintendent's drawer until 1978.
        "The prints that were found in the file cabinet were found as a matter of cleaning house," Manno said. "They hadn't been displayed. They were sort of a hidden treasure."
        Adams hardly enjoyed his time in the cave. A master of natural light, he was forced to create his own via flash within Carlsbad's immutable darkness. "He asked (photographer Alfred) Stieglitz to pray for him because he was having such a hard time in the cave," Manno said.
        To communicate scale, Adams was forced to use models, another technique he abhorred, she added.
        "He wasn't really happy with any of" the prints, she said. Adams described one of the most challenging assignments of his photographic career by comparing the cave to working inside an "illuminated stomach."
        The results, intended to hang on Interior Department offices in Washington, D.C., to promote conservation, never made their destination, thanks to World War II, she said.
        A volunteer at Carlsbad for 15 years, Manno had heard rumors swirling about an Adams connection back in the '90s. Mounted on board, the prints are signed in pencil and have been authenticated by the Adams estate.
        The cave has lured working artists for decades, ranging from modernists like New Mexico's Raymond Jonson, who produced a trilogy of oils on canvas, to Japanese woodcut artist Toshi Yoshida.
        The cave's allure continues; Carlsbad chief of interpretation and education Marie Marek says she fields "dozens" of special use permits for photographers annually, as well as about half a dozen visual artists requests.
        "It is almost like being on another planet," she said, "kind of otherworldy. Where else do you see these fantastic rock formations and the amount of time it takes to form them — hundreds of thousands of years? And you have to create your own light, which drove Ansel Adams crazy."
If you go
        WHAT: Book signing of "Visions Underground: Carlsbad Caverns through the Artist's Eye" by Lois Manno (Rio Grande Books, Albuquerque) and a show of Will Shuster's Carlsbad Cavern paintings.
        WHERE: Steve Elmore Indian Arts Gallery, 995 Paseo de Peralta.
        WHEN: Reception 5-7 p.m. Friday. Through Sept. 25.
        CONTACT: 995-9677

For Lois Manno, the road to authorship was long and winding but very rewarding.
Manno, a Santa Fe resident, wrote the just-published book "Visions Underground — Carlsbad Caverns Through the Artist's Eye."
In this case, think of "artist" collectively, because there were a number of artists' eyes. People like famous photographer Ansel Adams and artist Will Shuster.
This intriguing and entertaining book covers the history of those who have been inspired to explore Carlsbad Caverns National Park with paintbrush and camera. The book grew out of the extensive research Manno, a Santa Fe resident, did on the Caverns Art Project.
When the Park Service decided in 2005 to renovate the park's Visitors Center, she offered to help coordinate an exhibit of its art and photography collection.
"Little did I know that they would have a problem with budgeting for new exhibits, so John Benjamin, the superintendent of the park, took my proposal and ran with it," Manno recalled. "He said we want to dedicate a space in the new visitors' center for a permanent gallery."
The project moved forward with Manno working in harness with the Park Service on research. She located several works that belonged to the caverns but were in storage in other states, including 25 original prints that Adams made in the caverns in 1936.
"What got me excited (about the project) was that the Ansel Adams prints were never exhibited at the caverns, and that I learned that Santa Fe artist Will Shuster was the first artist to go into the cave in 1924 and did a series of large and small paintings," Manno said.
Shuster's cave artwork was last displayed at the caverns back in 1925; it's been in storage since, she said.
Manno's legwork didn't stop there. She noticed that the Shuster art and the Adams prints needed conservation. Manno wrote grants to obtain funds for conservation, framing and mounting as well as having all the images in the park's collection documented. Manno brought in a consultant from the Museum of New Mexico, Jamie Hascall, who designed special sealing frames for the Adams prints. "When we got to the point where the exhibit was ready to have all the work hung, the lighting installed, we consulted with him so that everything met museum standards," she said.
The exhibit opened last October at the Visitors Center. Manno, a graphic artist, has been a caver for 30 years and a volunteer at the caverns for 15 years. -- Albuquerque Journal, July 26, 2009

Lois Manno’s wonderful new book, Visions Underground: Carlsbad Caverns through the Artist’s Eye, is a ground-breaking look at cave art; but not the type of cave art discovered scratched or painted in Paleolithic caves around the world. She explores the natural art of the cave itself, gradually made by geological forces over eons and then portrayed by artists in different media over the past 100 years.

One version of the discovery of Carlsbad Caverns in the late 1880 has 16-year-old Jim White riding his horse on the range one evening. He notices a black cloud emerging from a hole in the ground. The black cloud is millions of bats leaving their underground roost to look for an evening meal of mosquitoes and bugs. A few years later, rich deposits of bat guano were discovered in the cave and mining commenced from deposits that reached 100 feet thick.

Over the decades, White explored the depths of the cave and spent hours building trails. By 1922, he hired a local photographer to promote his discoveries. In no time (October 1923), the speleological wonder became the Carlsbad National Monument.

The next year, Santa Fe artists Will Shuster and Walter Mruk were lowered into the cave by a winch-driven guano bucket. They became the first artists to paint the spectacular underground wonders—several color illustrations in Visions Underground feature Shuster’s works.

The two painters were only the first of many artists to follow. Famous photographer Ansel Adams struggled in the 1930s and early ‘40s to photograph the interior of the caverns, using the clumsy equipment of the day. Twenty-five of Adam’s signed photographic prints of the cavern were somehow misplaced over the years. They wound up in an unlocked storage cabinet until they were rediscovered in 1978. After being conserved and framed, several of his photos are now on display at the visitor center.

The previously-unpublished Adams photos in Visions Underground were directly scanned from the original photos. Other high-quality images (140 in all) range from drawings to black-and-white photos to the first color photos ever taken underground. Modern paintings, photographs and sculpture round out the book.

If you’ve never been to Carlsbad Caverns, you’ll certainly want to plumb its depths after poring over the surreal images of cave pearls, cave popcorn, massive formations and surreal helictites. And if you have been to Carlsbad Caverns, you’ll want to go back again. Lois Manno is a fine artist and graphic artist. A caver for thirty years and armed with a degree in fine arts, she is a founding member of the National Speleological Society Fine Arts Salon and a Fellow of the National Speleological Society. She curated and exhibited Carlbad Cavern’s photography and fine art collection. She also helped plan and develop the new, permanent gallery in the Carlsbad Caverns visitor center.

Visions Underground is well-researched, well-written, well-illustrated and can be summed up in one word: “Wow!” — New Mexico Breeze, June 12, 2009

When one thinks about natural beauty, one thinks of pristine green fields. But there is beauty in darker areas as well. “Visions Underground: Carlsbad Caverns Through the Artist’s Eye” photographically and artistically chronicles an artist’s journey through the Carlsbad Caverns, a simply beautiful series of caverns in New Mexico. Combining painting with photography, “Visions Underground” is a visual treat and fine coffee table book. — MidWest Book Reviews, June 2009

Drawing on her experience as a caver, an artist, a past director of the National Speleological Society’s Fine Arts Salon, and director of the Carlsbad Caverns Art Exhibit/Cavern Arts Project, Lois Manno provides an interesting and informative historical overview of art and photography at Carlsbad Caverns. The breathtaking underground chambers of Carlsbad Caverns have long been an inspiration to artists and photographers; and artistic endeavors—from the first tentative stirrings of underground photography to more recent National Park Service Artist-In-Residence programs—are an integral part of the cave’s colorful history. In drawing public attention to the grandeur of Carlsbad’s vast underground labyrinth, the efforts of early artists helped to usher in a period of national awareness of subterranean worlds. Ultimately, this proved to be instrumental in helping to establish the cave and surrounding land as a National Monument in 1923 and a National Park in 1930. The park was declared a World Heritage Site in 1995.

Manno has compiled over 140 contemporary and historical images of Carlsbad Caverns and associated caves (e.g., Lechuguilla) for this beautifully illustrated book. In addition to a host of photographs taken deep within the cave, a rich array of spectacular illustrations—ranging in style from photo-realistic representations to abstract designs—captures the ethereal beauty of underground Carlsbad. Many of the early artists discussed in the book were hardly known outside of a select community. And yet, working in relative obscurity, they created some of the most endearing artistic masterpieces of Carlsbad Caverns that have ever been produced. Others, such as renowned photographer Ansel Adams, enjoyed international acclaim. However, all of them struggled to maintain their creative vision when faced with the foreboding and pervasive darkness of the cave. Portrayed in a variety of media, images of Carlsbad have steadily evolved over the past 100 years, shaped not only by advances in available technology but also as an adjustment to how these images were actually utilized. As Manno so clearly describes, however, what has remained largely unchanged over the intervening years is the creative inspiration that the cave continues to evoke in the eyes of artists and photographers.

In this singularly interesting account of speleohistory, Manno does an excellent job capturing the ever-changing flavor of underground art, particularly as it unfolded at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. In placing modern-day cave art into an historical context, she provides an interesting perspective on both caves and the creative spark that resides within the artist’s mind.

In the book’s final chapters, the work of more contemporary cave photographers and speleoartists is showcased. These featured artists are all well known within the caving community for their unparalleled skill and expertise in capturing the otherworldly magnificence not only of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, but of underground passages in cave systems worldwide. Many of these prominent artists and photographers have written books themselves, detailing aspects of their own particular creative genius.

While artists and photographers alike may find many wonderful ideas buried among these pages, it should be noted that this book is not an instructional guide to either cave photography or the creation of speleoart. Cave photographers will not find recommendations for underground lighting and exposure techniques. On the other hand, general-interest readers will not be bogged down by complicated discussions of F-stops, guide numbers, and megapixels. Furthermore, the book is not meant to be a comprehensive pictorial anthology of Carlsbad Caverns. Rather, it offers only an infinitesimal sample of the captivating world of cave art…past and present. Readers interested in instructional material on underground photography and speleoart or in the collected works of select artists are encouraged to consult some of the many references provided.

Visions Underground is a well-written and easily read book that will appeal to a wide audience. General readers as well as artists, photographers, and cave historians will all find something of interest here. In fleshing out this historical portrait of a century of creative expression at Carlsbad Caverns, Manno offers readers a rarely glimpsed vision of subterranean art and culture. -- NSS News

85th Anniversary Exhibit and Celebration, featuring artwork by Ansel Adams and others; curated by Lois Manno, Director, Cavern Arts Project, and Author of “Visions Underground,” Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Carlsbad, NM