With the OpenWalls Arles 2020 exhibition now open at Galerie Huit Arles until 05 September, the series winner discusses his survey of man’s presence in the deserts of the American West
In his book Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs, Ansel Adams recounts the production history of his 1944 image “Winter Sunrise,” depicting darkened hills beneath the vast, craggy peaks of Mount Whitney, Sierra Nevada. Lone Pine High School graduates had climbed the rocky slopes of the Alabama Hills to whitewash an imposing “L P” against the stone, which the famed American landscape photographer later ruthlessly removed in his negative: “I have been criticised by some for doing this,” he writes, “but I am not enough of a purist to perpetuate the scar and thereby destroy — for me, at least — the extraordinary beauty and perfection of the scene.”
Where Adams epitomised idealised landscape photography, which elevated the natural and the elemental in deliberate omission of human interference, some decades later the “New Topographic” era would materialise in partial response. Through the 1970s, the likes of Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz and Catherine Wagner employed landscape photography to visualise man-made America in all its rigorous banality: monochrome warehouses, industrial sites, parking lots.
The work of Osceola Refetoff, series winner of the OpenWalls Arles 2020 ‘Daily Life’ category, splits the difference between these two extremes. Now on show at Galerie Huit Arles until 05 September, Refetoff’s winning body of work, It’s a Mess Without You, presents a succession of derelict human structures juxtaposed against the majestic terrain of California’s Eastern Sierra. The series — at once dreamlike and hyper-realistic; fragile and formidable — exists as part of a wider set of portfolios surveying man’s presence in the deserts of the American West.
“I’m interested in creating photos that are beautiful,” the photographer tells British Journal of Photography, speakingfrom his home in Los Angeles. “I’m less interested in creating a world that’s perfect.”
Crucially, to Refetoff, the Eastern Sierra is beautiful despite its earmarks of human development: roads, transmission lines, garbage dumps. “There are no more ‘virgin landscapes’ anywhere on Earth,” he remarks, “and the idea is problematic on so many levels — but particularly in terms of discouraging environmental thoughtfulness.” Characterising his practice as “defiantly old-school” (It’s a Mess Without You is made up solely of single exposures, not composites), the photographer is wary of the dangers of Photoshop in presenting illusory depictions of the natural world. “We expose people to these idealistic images,” he argues, “then when we look out and see what’s actually there, they think, ‘that’s not even worth preserving. It’s already ruined.’ We have to get on board with preserving areas that have already been impacted.”
“The harsh desert sun is a powerful spotlight to shine on hubris versus mortality”
Shot over ten years, It’s a Mess Without You sees crisp blue skies engulf abandoned alfalfa farms; jagged mountain tops peek through long-decayed window frames, while bright orange sunlight pours over remnants of lives left behind. Partially inspired by Edward Hopper, the project finds new meaning in the age of isolation, when the window has been rendered our foremost way of experiencing the world — a shared symbol of a global crisis. Here, the window is employed not only as an architectural subject, but a narrative device to frame the stories of millennia-old lands, and the tenuous marks we inflict upon them in our wake.
“I’m contrasting the very mortal lives of the people that built and inhabited these structures against a truly timeless backdrop of the Eastern Sierra mountains,” Refetoff explains. “The harsh desert sun is a powerful spotlight to shine on hubris versus mortality — or the grand ambitions of all of us little ant people.”
Needless to say, the vast cultural legacy of California’s deserts is charged with human hope, inextricably tied to the nation’s founding ethos of purported freedom and opportunity. For many immigrants and settlers, the West has symbolised a fresh start, a chance to make it: picture the opening scene of Clint Eastwood’s classic musical western Paint Your Wagon (1969), in which a long line of wagons bustles across the bountiful landscape in search of fortune and a new life.
While a vast array of American painters, photographers and filmmakers have fuelled this mythology for over a century, the idea was originally propagated through images and text produced and commissioned by the American government to entice citizens and immigrants to settle there. In those pictures, the West exuded promise, natural resources and sprawling open land for the taking — a boundless Eden where dreams could be made.
“Someone stood here and did dishes and looked at this view for hundreds of hours. Then at some point, they packed up all their stuff and walked out of their home forever”
Except, as Refetoff points out, the myth of the West has always been just that. A myth. Aside from the active displacement and slaughter of large First Nations populations in order to make room for such “dreams”, forging them into realities in such a barren environment was never an easy undertaking. “To this day, a lot of people make a go of it and then abandon their homes,” Refetoff explains — aptly summarising what It’s a Mess Without You is really about: the people who are absent from the frames. “When shooting, so often I’d stand by these windows and think, ‘someone stood here and did dishes and looked at this view for hundreds of hours. Then at some point, they packed up all their stuff and walked out of their home forever.’”
“Words like ‘environmentalism’ are fighting words in a lot of these small desert communities. But we all have to inhabit this planet — so we have to reflect more deeply about how we exploit these resources”
Ultimately, Refetoff considers his wider artistic purpose as engaging Californian people with environmentalism in a different way. Not just in urban centres like Los Angeles, where thinking is already substantially liberal, but crucially within the rural, distinctly conservative desert communities themselves. While the two adjacent populations tread a complex relationship (Refetoff cites the California water wars, a series of political conflicts throughout the 19th century over water rights between LA and farmers and ranchers in the Owens Valley), he uses visual storytelling as a way of appealing to those on both sides of the ideological fault line.
“We live in a sharply partisan country, and words like ‘environmentalism’ are fighting words in a lot of these small desert communities. But we all have to inhabit this planet — so we have to reflect more deeply about how we exploit these resources. We have to act as a society.”
OpenWalls is an international photography award exhibiting contemporary work in historic locations around the world