Taxonomy of a Landscape
By Victoria Sambunaris
Essay by Natasha Egan
Short story by Barry Lopez
Radius Books 2013
In the top half of Victoria Sambunaris’ Untitled (Train Skirting Border), Sunland Park, New Mexico 2012, a cloud stretches across a pale blue sky from one edge of the frame to the other. The photograph is evenly bisected horizontally, and below the sky the border fence between the United States and Mexico cuts a diagonal line through an otherwise uniformly scrubby landscape. On the left side of the fence, in Mexico, a neighborhood is built right up to the edge of the fence. A road skirting the edge of the community runs at the border and is then diverted away, curving off into the western distance. On the right side of the fence a colorful train follows the bend of the tracks as they too run towards the fence only to be turned back in a C-curve. It appears that the road and the tracks should meet, but the political power of the border, even more potent than the barrier that represents it, prevents them from doing so.
The Sunland Park photograph is part of Sambunaris’ Mexico-US border series, which, together with projects on overland shipping (trucks and trains), resource extraction, and Interstate 80, are assembled in the massive Taxonomy of a Landscape. In … Sunland Park… as in many of Sambunaris’ photographs, neither the larger landscape, nor the human interventions that scrape across its surface according to their own logics, is secondary to the other; rather, each is the context for the other.
Sambunaris’ taxonomy visualizes the complex ways in which nature and culture interact in the spacious portions of America, mostly the west and southwest, and Alaska and Hawaii. These are the spaces between nodes, along the ley lines of geographies of circumstances. Her pictures make visible the technologies through which we interface with the geologic world: our means to cut through its layers, to transport its matter, and to navigate its surfaces. These means are, at the same time, shaped by the demands of the environments that they address.
Many of Sambunaris’ photographs, of mines, pipelines, quarries and towns, describe a hybrid landscape, civilization moving across or transforming it. In this her pictures are unlike the 19th century expeditionary photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan or Carleton Watkins, where a human figure was provided for scale in order to better appreciate the landscape as a view. While Sambunaris addresses the human appropriation of the landscape, her photographs do not endorse it. Her scenes are not views that present the land as something to be acquired; despite their confident compositions they tend towards the incidental – views that are tangential to the elegiac narratives to which we have become accustomed. Sambunaris’ pictures are also unlike the dispassionate observations of built encroachment that characterized much of the work in the 1975 New Topographics exhibition. Her photographs present the natural and built aspects of the landscape not as foreground and background, but in their mutual influence.
This mutual influence is not, however, necessarily harmonious, and some images fall at far ends of the spectrum, at times appearing as the consumption of one by the other. The book begins with a series of photographs of shipping containers in which the natural world has been completely suppressed save for the overcast sky. Pictures of wild spaces, such as Maui’s Haleakala or Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park appear eternal, their striated contours describing the long-term geological effects of air and water. But the land is indeed vulnerable and the picture of the Hawaiian crater contrasts with those of the deep mines – Utah’s Bingham Copper Mine is a mile deep - that Sambunaris photographs. The regularity and repetition of the terraced mine echoes that of the trains, containers, and other human constructions.
The book bursts its seams, including not only the main book of Sambunaris 5 x7 large format photography, produced with gorgeously subtle color and definition, but also a companion book containing photographs of Sambunaris’ artifacts from her travels: the charms she carried with her, a traffic warning from the Ohio State Police, notebooks, rocks, maps, and guidebooks. The companion book also includes an enjoyable essay by Natasha Egan discussing Sambunaris’ projects and putting them in the context of 19th century geologic surveys, FSA photographers, Land Art, and the New Topographics, especially the Bechers. Additionally, there is a five-panel fold out with 125 small reproductions of medium format studies that Sambunaris made on her travels back and forth across the country between 2000 and 2013.
Collectively, the package speaks to the work as process. While the large format images reveal a photographer who has patiently waited, perhaps for days, for the desired quality of light, they do not indicate directly the research that Sambunaris undertook in her travels. The additional material presents a backstory that is frequently invisible in photography: how has the photographer arrived at this particular project? What is the accumulation of experiences that informs her decisions, from timing and framing and subject selection to editing and the larger sense of purpose? Behind the scenes of the epic landscapes that Sambunaris presents are countless unseen interactions, which are suggested by the catalog of her artifacts.
There is a final surprising and delightful insert in the book that further aids in deepening the experience of Sambunaris’ photographs, a booklet containing Barry Lopez’ previously published short story “The Mappist”. “The Mappist” is a magical realist account of a scholar’s search for a mysterious cartographer with ambitions to produce maps and studies that fully comprehend the intersections of natural history and human history. The story is a wonderful complement to Sambunaris’ work and as with the other supplemental material, invites us to read her project not as a formal result, but through its processes and motivations: an aspiration to understand human and natural geographies as contingent on one another, complexly intertwined. The entire experience is instructional; how to see, and how to arrive at seeing.
Leo Hsu is a photographer, writer and photography instructor, based in Pittsburgh, PA.
Contact Leo here.
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All images © Victoria Sambunaris