American Geography: American Pathology

Frank Gohlke, Grain Elevator and Lightning Flash, Lamesa, Texas, 1975. American Geography, Plate 74

In the news, as I write, there is the report that Walmart, the largest employer in the world of more than 2.3 million people, has imposed vaccination mandates on its white-collar workers but not on the laborers who meet the public. What better example is there of American greed as death wish? Call it efficiency, call it adaptability, imagination, creative problem solving, fair use of resources, call it poker but our tools need to be sharpened “if we are going to survive.” So says the esteemed curator of photography emerita from San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Sandra Phillips, in one of seven (!) free zoom talks that use her new book with Sally Martin Katz, American Geography: Photographs of Land Use from 1840 to the Present, as a base.

This is Phillips’ second book about American land and photography, the first she published with an exhibit at the museum in 1996, called Crossing the Frontier: Photographs of the Developing West, 1849 to the Present. About ten years later, the prolific and affecting writer, teacher and conservationist, Barry Lopez, went to Sandra Phillips at the museum suggesting they make a show together. They talked and they talked and they looked at pictures but they were stuck on the idea that the American West was the heartland of individualism. She says now that “our sense of entitlement as Americans had steered me west.” Phillips called a moratorium on their talks for some years until she realized, “Ours is a land of large corporate and government industry. Wage workers begin at the beginning of the west.” Instead, she thought to investigate the way we use land all over the country; as a country.

Her mother was a landscape architect, and her father was an architect, so it feels inevitable to her that she would develop the artistic preoccupations she has. And SFMOMA gave her money for an exhibition and an assistant to create it: Sally Martin Katz. Lopez wrote a dazzling introduction, time came for the show, but the pandemic interceded, and the show was cancelled. So Phillips put everything into a publishing venture.

The extraordinary book that resulted speaks to our moment urgently but received few reviews. Radius, the publisher, is a non-profit who donates 300 copies of every title to underfunded libraries, schools and arts organizations. They’re not book sellers per se. And yet, this idea they came up with to publicize American Geography is groundbreaking. Publishers sit up! The first talk begins with a very moving reading of Lopez’s introduction. He died in 2020 so his widow reads the text while we are shown the pictures in the book. He writes so your heart pounds at the desire to learn from Phillips’ “unflinching courage” in choosing these pictures and you buy the book.

And then you’re off on the adventure that these seven talks provide for the read. Phillips is a shy powerhouse which means American Geography needs careful consideration. You can’t fly over it like we do the Midwest in our coastal minds. There’s a lesson there about the human spirit that forges ahead to determined destinations, consequences be damned! Act now, worry later. We call that freedom in America. We’ve been acting for the camera, using land as sets to demonstrate our pride for over 170 years, and we’re at the worry moment. Most of us are either bewildered about how to proceed or pushing against the idea of new ideas. When the road ahead is right there in our visible past.

Consider The Big Mound that in 1869 is chopped up with picks and carted away in heaps until the earth beneath it is flat enough to build on. Look at the broken, forlorn little rock, it might be a souvenir mesa with men standing on it as if conquerors clearing up the rubble to make way for civilization. The men are proud in their vests and hats. They believe they have defeated the unknown.

Thomas Martin Easterly, Big Mound During Destruction. The Last of the Big Mound, 1869. American Geography, Plate 1.

The Mounds were sacred spiritual monuments to the Native Americans which may have provoked the hubris of the settlers: they could kill two powers by crushing one stone — the mystical and the map for the people the whites were conquering. The settlers could make the rock theirs by reshaping it, moving it. And, as the Native Americans have been saying ever since, that is at the root of our misunderstanding. Land is as living and breathing as we are, it cannot be settled any more than we can.

Nearly a century-and-a-half after The Mound, Justin Kimball’s Coal Street, 2015, reverses the dramatic roles — the decimated hillside, the past, seems to have been taken in black and white while the present, the houses beneath, the cars left scattered by a roadside, are in color — two landscapes frozen together: the conscience is looming over the abuser.

Justin Kimball, Coal Street, Coal Township, Pennsylvania, 2015. American Geography, Plate 50

In a poignant reckoning of obsolescence, a slab of abandoned tires lay before a cluster of cars parked willy-nilly and behind them, across the street, the road sign is falling down. Maybe the hillside will do the same one day and bury the little town. Over mined coal mountains have done such things. And almost as if Kimball has that in mind, the light in the picture is on the mountain, giving it a slick shine that makes it feel alive, like the inside of a miner’s black lung, a kind of self-created monster, but the windows in the houses are low to that view and framed to look elsewhere.

We need to see better, see more, sure, but how? It would be easy to say that our materialism has put us in this perilous place. But it’s more “complicated” than that, as Phillips says so often in the talks. With the exception of the first zoom that is a tribute to Barry Lopez and introduces the book, the other six talks on the Radius site, are about: The Northeast, The Plains, Industrialization, The West, The South, Borders and Territories. Together they are chalk full of photography luminaries — writers, curators, professors, photographers — that they make a kind of map of landscape photography today. Or the beginning of one.

Terry Evans, Oil pad on Scott Davis land, White Earth, North Dakota, 2011. American Geography talk, The Plains.

This is a picture of land that is owned by one family on the surface and a “conglomerate of other people underground,” the photographer Terry Evans tells us in the zoom about the The Plains. The rights below ground were leased to an oil company where fracking can go as deep as 27,000 feet and as wide as 10,000 feet and the drillers have the right to scar the surface as they have here. The use of this land hurt the owner Scott Davis deeply and yet all of his children found jobs with the oil company. To both generations this picture might be called Compromise in Green and Brown. But when thinking about using land, what if none of us owned any of it and we had to vote on its use, I wonder if that would yield better results?

One of the overarching considerations in how we use land is our notion of free will and the way we have taken that to mean, as Lopez puts it, “the putative ethical foundation for Manifest Destiny.” We learn from the photographer Miguel Fernandez de Castro in the talk about Borders and Territories that Mexicans and Americans who live near one another have visited back and forth without penalty for centuries. The wall between our countries is new. His image in the book is of a fence from the Mexican side. The fence looks like stitches that create the scar. We put it there, on unbroken land: we change our minds. We could as easily again. We are adaptable. For good and ill.

Some of the challenges we face in rethinking our future are in Amani Willett’s masterful photograph “Hiding Place.” There is irony in the idea that there is a hiding place in the ferociously lit image. Even the clouds point at the night sky like spotlights. The railroad tracks are hiding in plain sight in this image which is part of a series named The Underground Railway. Or is this a set for an opera?

The light gives a theatrical quality to the scene so that a stand of trees decked out in vivid pink/red leaves that fall on a carpet of green grass ask us to consider whether it is summer or autumn? Are the leaves made of paper? That pile of logs beneath the trees, might make us wonder if they are part of the imagined railway — fuel, perhaps. Backstage, as it were, a cityscape feels as artificial as the trees.

Amani Willett, “Hiding Place,” Cambridge, MA, from the series The Underground Railroad, 2010. American Geography, Plate 28

The frame is then cut in half by a belt of darkness which begins off to the right, where, with diligence, we may see the live railroad tracks that ape the imagined ones. The train we ride in our minds there takes us to a border between properties. Now we have the working train, and a low wall — two colonizing tools — in a creative landscape. The question this book poses is can we stand back like photographers and remake our attitudes to survival.

The railroad figures largely throughout American Geography. Beginning in the 19th Century when the tracks were being built, gold was also being mined, and for both endeavors rocks were crushed to dust. But since then, gold has become ornamental, and the railroad has become part of the ever more necessary system of public transportation. The big takeaway from this book is share or die!

Cars, then, look like unintended consequences to our idea of individual liberty and comfort — the dream is spewing smog into the air we breathe and then forming rusty heaps of slowly decaying debris scattered around the country, leaking poison into the land they lay on: a nightmare we now are rushing to reform into another one made to run on batteries which also require mining.

Phillips makes a persuasive graphic case against mining. And Lopez writes that he had to come around to her view that we are in an “Era of Emergencies.”

He wrote: “We must now consider, for example, how to organize the last industrial extractions of oil, fresh water, natural gas, timber, metallic ores, and fish in order to ensure our own survival; and we must consider, of course, what comes after that. We must reckon with the Sixth Extinction, which will remove, for example, many of our pollinators and one day, probably, many of us. We must invent overnight, figuratively speaking, another kind of civilization, one more cognizant of limits, less greedy, more compassionate, less bigoted, more inclusive, less exploitive.”

I take issue only with his phrasing “invent overnight.” Isn’t that what got us in this predicament?

Gregory Halpern, Untitled from the series A [Detroit, Michigan], 2009. American Geography, Plate 47

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