In an eloquent new photobook, Sandra S. Philips considers how photographers envision the intertwined histories of land use, colonialism, and the built environment.
Photobooks – August 12, 2021
When Sandra S. Phillips was named curator emerita of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2016, after three very busy decades leading the department, she had no intention of slowing down. In fact, she was actively at work on what fairly can be called the most ambitious project of her career to date: American Geography: Photographs of Land Use from 1840 to the Present, an exhibition scheduled to appear at SFMOMA in 2020. Lamentably, the exhibition itself was a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic, but the accompanying publication—much more than a catalogue—was published earlier this year by Radius Books in Santa Fe.
The book has ninety-four beautifully printed full-page plates plus an illustrated catalogue of the 165 photographs selected by Phillips with Sally Martin Katz, curatorial assistant at SFMOMA. The main text by Phillips is followed by essays by Richard B. Woodward, Hilary N. Green, Jenny Reardon, Layli Long Soldier, and Richard White, and a poem by Beverly Dahlen. A concluding chapter highlights twenty-three photobooks illustrating American land use that “were, until quite recently, the principal resource for understanding the subject.”
An extended preface by the late writer and environmental activist Barry Lopez sets the tone. Before he began discussing the project with Phillips, he notes, she had already assembled extensive photographic evidence of “clearcuts, toxic settling ponds, transmission towers, contrails, open pit mines, stalled traffic, sprawling feed lots, and the rest of humanity’s infrastructure.” At first he urged her to include, in addition, “other, perhaps more welcoming photographs . . . of unmanipulated land. . . . But,” he writes, “I came around to her point of view.” The selection of photographs squarely faces what Lopez calls “the boot prints, if you will, of the colonial invader.”
Phillips’s essay skillfully traces the intertwined histories of American photography and land use in America, together with what might be called their metahistories: not just what humans were doing on and to the land, but what they thought about what they were doing; not just what pictures photographers were making but how those pictures reached their audiences and how they were interpreted. She persuasively treats the various threads as aspects of a single story, with the result that many familiar elements are seen in a fresh light.
The same is true of the selection and presentation of the photographs. Phillips explains that American Geography expands on the groundwork of an exhibition and catalogue titled Crossing the Frontier: Photographs of the Developing West, 1849 to the Present, which she presented at SFMOMA in 1996. Nineteenth-century photographs of the American West have been a staple of photographic history from the beginning, and comparable attention has been lavished upon both the romantic idealism of Western landscape photography in the twentieth century and the critical view of the human footprint that followed: the pictures that rigorously cropped out cars and telephone wires, then the pictures that went the extra mile to include them. Nineteenth-century landscape photography in the eastern US was largely ignored, however. As Woodward points out, that changed dramatically with East of the Mississippi, Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Photography, a major exhibition organized by Diane Waggoner at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, in 2017 and, now, with American Geography.
Dramatic as it is, the inclusion of the eastern US is only one aspect of the originality of Phillips’s exhibition. (Partly because the great majority of the original prints belong to SFMOMA or to San Francisco’s Sack Photographic Trust—Phillips played a key role in building both collections—it is not unreasonable to hope that the museum may mount the actual exhibition in the not terribly distant future.) Given the centrality of the theme to American photography as a whole, it is not surprising that the selection includes dozens of familiar, even famous photographs by celebrated photographers. They need to be here, but they sing with a new resonance in concert with an equal number of marvelous but unfamiliar images, some of them by photographers whose names are unknown even to specialists. Many pictures bring the project right up to date, such as Stanley Greenberg’s Coronavirus Shelter, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York (2020); other contemporary pictures explicitly point at the past, such as one made in 2017 by Dawoud Bey for his beautifully somber series retracing the Underground Railroad. More than one in ten of the photographs in the book were made within the past decade, which says a good deal about a project of such historical breadth.
Like the work of Phillips’s longtime friend Robert Adams (rightly featured here), her book is distinguished by its equanimity. It addresses without flinching what we Europeans have done to the land and the Native peoples of what we now call America, as well as to the people we brought here forcibly. It is not a pretty picture, and there is no escaping that this painful past and alarming present are contributing to a still more alarming global reality. And yet the book is, if not exactly beautiful, then richly eloquent—a powerful testament to photography’s uncanny capacity to reward the act of looking clearly at something that matters.
American Geography: Photographs of Land Use from 1840 to the Present was published by Radius Books in May 2021.Peter Galassi was chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, from 1991 to 2011.