A mosaic photograph is featured in Charles Swedlund’s “Art & Fact” exhibit at the University Museum on the campus of Southern Illinois University Carbondale. The mosaic consists of approximately 650 photographs from Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.“Art & Fact” is the title of Charles Swedlund’s exhibit. Swedlund, seen at the right, welcomed those who attended a reception which was held Friday evening, Feb. 1, at the University Museum.Photographer Charles Swedlund of Cobden, standing at left, gave a gallery talk Friday evening, held, as part of the opening reception of his “Art & Fact” exhibit at the University Museum

Museum exhibit highlights beauty, history of caves

The beauty, history and mystery of caves are highlighted at an exhibit which is underway at the University Museum on the campus of Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

The exhibit features hundreds of photographs taken by photographer Charles Swedlund of Cobden. Swedlund is a professor emeritus at SIUC.

The exhibit opened Jan. 22 in the SIUC University Museum’s Mitchell, Continuum and Atrium galleries. The exhibit is scheduled to remain on display through July 20.

An opening reception and short gallery talk were held Friday evening, Feb. 1, at the museum.

 Current and former Union County residents were among the many people who attended the reception and gallery talk.

After spending over 35 years absorbed in cave photography, Swedlund has quite the perspective on the subterranean world of Mammoth Cave, Carlsbad Caverns, Mystery Cave and other similar natural sites. 

Starting in 1982, Swedlund’s focus has centered on the various aspects of caves and caverns. 

At first, his attention centered on the stunning natural forms found in the longest cave system known in the world, Mammoth Cave, which is located in south central Kentucky.

The landmark is in the National Park Service’s Mammoth Cave National Park. 

The park service explains on its website that “Mammoth Cave National Park preserves the cave system and a part of the Green River valley and hilly country of south central Kentucky. This is the world’s longest cave system, with more than 400 miles explored.” 

Swedlund took multiple tourist trips with an altered 4 by 5 camera and captured the massive rock formations and unusual landscapes which can be seen at Mammoth Cave.

This turned into an official project to document all the historic and prehistoric inscriptions in the cave and to create a database of names and dates. 

The effort was aimed toward cultural preservation and reclamation.

After dozens of trips through the historic national park and years of taking photographs, Swedlund turned his attention to wild caves, the areas not normally accessible to the public. 

Some students offered to take him to a cave found on private property in Southern Illinois. 

This was the beginning of a new journey of photographing in wild caves. 

He joined a local grotto, Little Egyptian Grotto, and established a regular routine of weekend expeditions. For Swedlund, caving quickly turned into a passion.

“I find a great feeling of tranquility being in a cave,” Swedlund said. “The darkness is not foreboding, but rather a welcome cloak.”

“The relationship between dark and light intrigues me. A formation that took thousands/hundreds of thousands of years to form is in the dark sleeping. Light enables it to awake, be seen and appreciated,” Swedlund said.

In his 35 years of caving, Swedlund visited 56 caves, including national parks, tourist caves and wild caves. 

He also served for 12 years as one of the principal researchers at an Earthwatch Expedition in Mammoth Cave.

During the gallery talk Friday evening in the University Museum, Swedlund reflected on the beauty, history and mystery of the caves which he has visited over the years.

Swedlund said that he finds caves to be “absolutely fascinating.” He described Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave as “an incredible repository of history.” 

Mammoth Cave is the home of Gothic Avenue, which is featured in a mosaic photograph which is a part of the “Art & Fact” exhibit.

Information shared at the exhibit explains that the mosaic consists of approximately 650 photographs. Each seven-inch photograph is a record of a meter square area of Gothic Avenue’s ceiling. 

The ceiling is covered with the names – many, many names – left by visitors to Mammoth Cave.

Visitors, “probably with help” from their guide, “used a lit candle attached to a long stick. Being very careful to hold the candle close, but not too close to extinguish the flame, the smoke from the candle deposited its soot producing a black mark. This technique only worked on ceilings.”

Swedlund shared that each of the names of the ceiling “are beautiful” and “have historical significance.”

“The names are not just beautiful – they are links to wonderful stories,” he said. 

In addition to his years of caving, Swedlund taught aesthetics, techniques, methods and history of photography in SIU’s cinema and photography department for 29 years. 

He also spent time teaching at Harvard University, the Institute of Design in Chicago, the Art Institute in Chicago and State University College at Buffalo.

He has won numerous awards and grants, and his work is in several permanent collections, including:

The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The Art Institute of Chicago.

Paul J. Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California. Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, France.

The National Museum of Art in Kyoto, Japan Bauhaus-Archive Museum fur Gestaltung in Berlin, Germany.

The University Museum is located at 1000 Faner Dr., Faner Hall, door number 12, on the SIUC campus. 

Gallery admission is free and open to the public Tuesday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Saturday, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.  Public metered parking is available across from the Student Center and beside Woody Hall.


(Editor’s note: This article includes information about the “Art & Fact” exhibit which was shared with The Gazette-Democrat prior to last week’s reception and gallery talk. The article also includes information from news.siu.edu, the National Park Service and from the reception and gallery talk which was held at the University Museum.)

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