Curated color and black and white photographs from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection illustrate the identity of contemporary “America” in American Geography: Photographs of Land Use from 1840 to the Present, one of the newest publications by Santa Fe’s Radius Books.
The 2021 photography book, which acts as a stand-in for an exhibition canceled by the coronavirus pandemic, surveys American landscape photography and 180 years of industry. While the 402-page hardcover volleys a stinging and necessary critique of Western expansion, it doesn’t do enough to undercut the beauty of its photographs. There is something sadistic about lamenting the loss of land that was—and continues to be—taken.
“America proved fertile soil for the medium of photography: it arrived when the country was industrializing and flourished in a culture that valorized technology and individualism,” writes book editor and curator Sandra P. Phillips in her essay “Photography of American Land.”
Nineteenth-century photographs begin the book with an enthusiastic mastery over land. In William Henry Jackson’s In the Cañon of the Rio Las Animas Near Rockwood (1880-1884), the camera captures a seven-car steam engine train climbing a steep ravine. It’s as surreal as a mountain goat standing nonchalantly on a sheer cliffside.
Each subsequent section refers to a different region (Northeast, Midwest and Prairies, South, West) and acknowledges how affiliated geographic areas transformed the economic prospects of the union by consuming the natural world.
Images like Alfred Stieglitz’s black-and-white From My Window at the Shelton, West (1931) show the formation of Manhattan. Hard, strong, and repetitive vertical lines disrupt the presumed horizon and swallow any natural features. In the distance, scaffolds for another skyscraper reach to the sky.
In Nicholas Nixon’s View of Downtown Boston from Commercial Wharf (1975), we see the modern city fully established. Large buildings bloom around the Charles River—a tiny pool of mercurial light in the distance.
Other photos remind us that people were also exploited to fulfill these visions of progress. Amani Willet’s Hiding Place, Cambridge, MA, shows a wild garden surrounded by city buildings as though it’s a secret. With a red blooming tree and red flowers scattered across the ground, most other foliage looks unruly and unkempt. There’s also a set of inexplicable train tracks leading to an underpass that’s obstructed by a chain-link fence.
Willet’s photo is from his Underground Railroad series (2010), which, like Dawoud Bey’s Untitled #3 (Cozad-Bates House) (2017), recalls the ways in which people are diminished and how defiant underground networks refused oppressive paradigms. These are the networks we should be proud of, the book suggests, not those of early white settlers.
If the American landscape is sometimes indistinguishable from an assessment of its use, we collectively experience the loss of that landscape now—a loss of the seemingly endless imaginative possibilities that landscape once provided. But Indigenous visual artist Wendy Red Star (Crow) challenges that sense of deprivation and its assumptions about what is natural.
From the Four Seasons (2006) series, Indian Summer features Red Star seated and wearing traditional Crow attire. She’s surrounded by a composition of artificial elements—fake flowers, butterflies, a cardboard deer, and an Alpine lake backdrop. But the scenery is visibly creased, blown up from a stock image of the American West. The composition takes “natural” fantasy to extremes to illustrate its fallacy—a particularly compelling illustration given that the book systematically demonstrates the lengths traveled to dominate, leverage, and subsequently destroy the vistas we now fetishize.
In that respect, the book challenges Make America Great Again enthusiasts; it illustrates that any inherent greatness preceded the European settlers who, since their arrival, have arguably made things worse. It would therefore be interesting to see another version of the book—one with an even greater diversity of photographers whose view of the land might press collecting institutions to expand the canon.