Photojournalism has long been the medium of urgency and social change. It has profoundly affected American public opinion, going back at least to Mathew Brady's images from the Civil War. In American Photojournalism: Motivations and Meanings, Claude Cookman explores the history and future of the medium through the work of such exemplary photojournalists as Jacob Riis, Dorothea Lange, Weegee, Margaret Bourke-White, W. Eugene Smith, Gordon Parks, Rich Clarkson, and Carol Guzy, among others. The traditional approach to studying American photojournalism explains the what and who of photojournalism--what events and developments occurred, what notable images were taken, and who took them. Without neglecting these concerns, American Photojournalism emphasizes the why. Cookman argues convincingly that contemporary photojournalism is grounded in the desire to witness and record history, and the embrace of a universal humanism. Unafraid to engage questions of truth and intentionality, American Photojournalism will only become more relevant as the medium evolves.
The paintings, murals, and graphics of Ben Shahn (1898-1969) have made him one of the most heralded American artists of the twentieth century, but during the 1930s he was also among the nation's premier photographers. Much of his photographic work was sponsored by the New Deal's Farm Security Administration, where his colleagues included Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans.
Ben Shahn's American Scene: Photographs, 1938 presents one hundred superb photographs from his most ambitious FSA project, a survey of small-town life in the Depression. John Raeburn's accompanying text illuminates the thematic and formal significance of individual photographs and reveals how, taken together, they address key cultural and political issues of the years leading up to World War II. Shahn's photographs highlight conflicts between traditional values and the newer ones introduced by modernity as represented by the movies, chain stores, and the tantalizing allure of consumer goods, and they are particularly rich in observation about the changes brought about by Americans' universal reliance on the automobile. They also explore the small town's standing as the nation's symbol of democratic community and expose the discriminatory social and racial practices that subverted this ideal in 1930s America.
In the early 1940s as the conflict between the Axis and the Allies spread worldwide, the U.S. State Department turned its attention to Axis influence in Latin America. As head of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, Nelson Rockefeller was charged with cultivating the region’s support for the Allies while portraying Brazil and its neighbors as dependable wartime partners. Genevieve Naylor, a photojournalist previously employed by the Associated Press and the WPA, was sent to Brazil in 1940 by Rockefeller’s agency to provide photographs that would support its need for propaganda. Often balking at her mundane assignments, an independent-minded Naylor produced something far different and far more rich—a stunning collection of over a thousand photographs that document a rarely seen period in Brazilian history. Accompanied by analysis from Robert M. Levine, this selection of Naylor’s photographs offers a unique view of everyday life during one of modern Brazil’s least-examined decades. Working under the constraints of the Vargas dictatorship, the instructions of her employers, and a chronic shortage of film and photographic equipment, Naylor took advantage of the freedom granted her as an employee of the U.S. government. Traveling beyond the fashionable neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro, she conveys in her work the excitement of an outside observer for whom all is fresh and new—along with a sensibility schooled in depression-era documentary photography of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, as well as the work of Cartier-Bresson and filmmaker Serge Eisenstein. Her subjects include the very rich and the very poor, black Carnival dancers, fishermen, rural peasants from the interior, workers crammed into trolleys—ordinary Brazilians in their own setting—rather than simply Brazilian symbols of progress as required by the dictatorship or a population viewed as exotic Latins for the consumption of North American travelers. With Levine’s text providing details of Naylor’s life, perspectives on her photographs as social documents, and background on Brazil’s wartime relationship with the United States, this volume, illustrated with more than one hundred of Naylor’s Brazilian photographs will interest scholars of Brazilian culture and history, photojournalists and students of photography, and all readers seeking a broader perspective on Latin American culture during World War II.
Genevieve Naylor began her career as a photojournalist with Time, Fortune, and the Associated Press before being sent to Brazil. In 1943, upon her return, she became only the second woman to be the subject of a one-woman show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. She served as Eleanor Roosevelt’s personal photographer and, in the 1950s and 1960s became well known for her work in Harper’s Bazaar, primarily as a fashion photographer and portraitist. She died in 1989.
In The Cruel Radiance, Susie Linfield challenges the idea that photographs of political violence exploit their subjects and pander to the voyeuristic tendencies of their viewers. Instead she argues passionately that looking at such images—and learning to see the people in them—is an ethically and politically necessary act that connects us to our modern history of violence and probes the human capacity for cruelty. Grappling with critics from Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht to Susan Sontag and the postmoderns—and analyzing photographs from such events as the Holocaust, China’s Cultural Revolution, and recent terrorist acts—Linfield explores the complex connection between photojournalism and the rise of human rights ideals. In the book’s concluding section, she examines the indispensable work of Robert Capa, James Nachtwey, and Gilles Peress and asks how photography should respond to the increasingly nihilistic trajectory of modern warfare.
A bracing and unsettling book, The Cruel Radiance convincingly demonstrates that if we hope to alleviate political violence, we must first truly understand it—and to do that, we must begin to look.
Winner of the third biennial Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize Robert Frank, Prize Judge
In Driftless, Danny Wilcox Frazier’s dramatic black-and-white photographs portray a changing Midwest of vanishing towns and transformed landscapes. As rural economies fail, people, resources, and services are migrating to the coasts and cities, as though the heart of America were being emptied. Frazier’s arresting photographs take us into Iowa’s abandoned places and illuminate the lives of those people who stay behind and continue to live there: young people at leisure, fishermen on the Mississippi, veterans on Memorial Day, Amish women playing cards, as well as more recent arrivals: Lubavitcher Hasidic Jews at prayer, Latinos at work in the fields. Frazier’s camera finds these newcomers while it also captures activities that seemingly have gone on forever: harvesting and hunting, celebrating and socializing, praying and surviving.
This collection of photographs is a portrait of contemporary rural Iowa, but it is also more that that. It shows what is happening in many rural and out-of-the-way communities all over the United States, where people find ways to get by in the wake of closing factories and the demise of family farms. Taken by a true insider who has lived in Iowa his entire life, Frazier’s photographs are rich in emotion and give expression to the hopes and desires of the people who remain, whose needs and wants are complicated by the economic realities remaking rural America. Poetic and dark but illuminated with flashes of insight, Frazier’s stunning images evoke the brilliance of Robert Frank’s The Americans.
The Emancipation Proclamation is one of the most important documents in American history. As we commemorate its 150th anniversary, what do we really know about those who experienced slavery?
In their pioneering book, Envisioning Emancipation, renowned photographic historian Deborah Willis and historian of slavery Barbara Krauthamer have amassed 150 photographs—some never before published—from the antebellum days of the 1850s through the New Deal era of the 1930s. The authors vividly display the seismic impact of emancipation on African Americans born before and after the Proclamation, providing a perspective on freedom and slavery and a way to understand the photos as documents of engagement, action, struggle, and aspiration.
Envisioning Emancipation illustrates what freedom looked like for black Americans in the Civil War era. From photos of the enslaved on plantations and African American soldiers and camp workers in the Union Army to Juneteenth celebrations, slave reunions, and portraits of black families and workers in the American South, the images in this book challenge perceptions of slavery. They show not only what the subjects emphasized about themselves but also the ways Americans of all colors and genders opposed slavery and marked its end.
Filled with powerful images of lives too often ignored or erased from historical records, Envisioning Emancipation provides a new perspective on American culture.
In the history of black America, the image of the mortal, wounded, and dead black body has long been looked at by others from a safe distance. Courtney Baker questions the relationship between the spectator and victim and urges viewers to move beyond the safety of the "gaze" to cultivate a capacity for humane insight toward representations of human suffering. Utilizing the visual studies concept termed the "look," Baker interrogates how the notion of humanity was articulated and recognized in oft-referenced moments within the African American experience: the graphic brutality of the 1834 Lalaurie affair; the photographic exhibition of lynching, Without Sanctuary ; Emmett Till's murder and funeral; and the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Contemplating these and other episodes, Baker traces how proponents of black freedom and dignity used the visual display of violence against the black body to galvanize action against racial injustice. An innovative cultural study that connects visual theory to African American history, Humane Insight asserts the importance of ethics in our analysis of race and visual culture, and reveals how representations of pain can become the currency of black liberation from injustice.
Photography became a dominant medium in cultural life starting in the late nineteenth century. As it happened, viewers increasingly used their reactions to photographs to comment on and debate public issues as vital as war, national identity, and citizenship.
Cara A. Finnegan analyzes a wealth of newspaper and magazine articles, letters to the editor, trial testimony, books, and speeches produced by viewers in response to specific photos they encountered in public. From the portrait of a young Lincoln to images of child laborers and Depression-era hardship, Finnegan treats the photograph as a locus for viewer engagement and constructs a history of photography's viewers that shows how Americans used words about images to participate in the politics of their day. As she shows, encounters with photography helped viewers negotiate the emergent anxieties and crises of U.S. public life through not only persuasion but action, as well.
Upon entering the White House in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt faced an ailing economy in the throes of the Great Depression and rushed to transform the country through recovery programs and legislative reform. By 1934, he began to send professional photographers to the state of West Virginia to document living conditions and the effects of his New Deal programs. The photographs from the Farm Security Administration Project not only introduced “America to Americans,” exposing a continued need for government intervention, but also captured powerful images of life in rural and small town America.
New Deal Photographs of West Virginia, 1934-1943 presents images of the state’s northern and southern coalfields, the subsistence homestead projects of Arthurdale, Eleanor, and Tygart Valley, and various communities from Charleston to Clarksburg and Parkersburg to Elkins. With over one hundred and fifty images by ten FSA photographers, including Walker Evans, Marion Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein, and Ben Shahn, this collection is a remarkable proclamation of hardship, hope, endurance, and, above all, community. These photographs provide a glimpse into the everyday lives of West Virginians during the Great Depression and beyond.
Daniel Meadows is a pioneer of contemporary British documentary practice. His photographs and audio recordings, made over the course of forty-five years, uniquely capture the life of England’s “great ordinary.” He has fashioned from his many encounters a nation’s story, challenging the status quo by working collaboratively.
This book includes important work from Meadows’s groundbreaking projects, drawing on the archives now held at the Bodleian Library. It follows the maverick documentarian as he ran a free portrait studio in Manchester’s Moss Side in 1972 and then traveled 10,000 miles to make a national portrait from his converted double-decker, the Free Photographic Omnibus, a project he revisited a quarter-of-a-century later. The book goes on to show how, at the turn of the millennium, Meadows adopted new “kitchen table” technologies to make digital stories, which he dubbed “multimedia sonnets from the people.” Through the unique voices of his subjects, Meadows has made and continues to make moving and insightful commentaries on life in Britain.
On European Ground
Alan Cohen University of Chicago Press, 2001 Library of Congress D424.C58 2001 | Dewey Decimal 940
A profound visual meditation on the trauma that scars twentieth-century Europe, Alan Cohen's On European Ground considers the battlefields of World War I, the Nazi death camps, and the Berlin Wall, and records the distance between what we remember about these places and what we can still observe in them today. By walking these sites and photographing the very ground in which their history has dissolved, Cohen opens a space for reflection on their complex gravity and legacy.
Cohen's images achieve a solemn beauty even as they engage history at its most topical. Pictures of trenches and bunkers at the battlefields of Somme and Verdun explore the tension between the violence of the past and the inscrutability of its remnants. Photographs from the grounds of Dachau and Auschwitz solicit a provocative dialogue between the ordinariness of these sites today and their haunting memory. They teach us, as the New Art Examiner notes, "that the living perceptual connection to the Holocaust is vanishing." Images of the Berlin Wall show only the footprint of the barricade that once separated two hostile ideologies. They record the physical erosion and looming disappearance of the Wall while capturing its reappearance as a memorialized abstraction.
Accompanying the photographs in On European Ground are essays by Sander Gilman and Jonathan Bordo, as well as an interview with Cohen by critic Roberta Smith of the New York Times. The essays present both an introduction to and aesthetic analysis of Cohen's work, while the interview discusses the intractable problems of history and memory that his photographs so uniquely capture.
In Photographic Returns Shawn Michelle Smith traces how historical moments of racial crisis come to be known photographically and how the past continues to inhabit, punctuate, and transform the present through the photographic medium in contemporary art. Smith engages photographs by Rashid Johnson, Sally Mann, Deborah Luster, Lorna Simpson, Jason Lazarus, Carrie Mae Weems, Taryn Simon, and Dawoud Bey, among others. Each of these artists turns to the past—whether by using nineteenth-century techniques to produce images or by re-creating iconic historic photographs—as a way to use history to negotiate the present and to call attention to the unfinished political project of racial justice in the United States. By interrogating their use of photography to recall, revise, and amplify the relationship between racial politics of the past and present, Smith locates a temporal recursivity that is intrinsic to photography, in which images return to haunt the viewer and prompt reflection on the present and an imagination of a more just future.
In 1912, Shoki Kayamori and his box camera arrived in a small Tlingit village in southeast Alaska. At a time when Asian immigrants were forbidden to own property and faced intense racial pressure, the Japanese-born Kayamori put down roots and became part of the Yakutat community. For three decades he photographed daily life in the village, turning his lens on locals and migrants alike, and gaining the nickname “Picture Man.” But as World War II drew near, his passion for photography turned dangerous, as government officials called out Kayamori as a potential spy. Despondent, Kayamori committed suicide, leaving behind an enigmatic photographic legacy.
In Picture Man, Margaret Thomas views Kayamori’s life through multiple lenses. Using Kayamori’s original photos, she explores the economic and political realities that sent Kayamori and thousands like him out of Japan toward opportunity and adventure in the United States, especially the Pacific Northwest. She reveals the tensions around Asian immigrants on the West Coast and the racism that sent many young men north to work in the canneries of Alaska. And she illuminates the intersecting—and at times conflicting—lives of villagers and migrants in a time of enormous change. Part history, part biography, part photographic showcase, Picture Man offers a fascinating new view of Alaska history.
As cultural documents, as works of art, and as historical records, photographs of 1930s Arizona tell a remarkable story. They capture enduring visions of the Depression that linger in cultural memory: dust storms, Okies on their way to California, breadlines, and ramshackle tent cities. They also reflect a more particular experience and a unique perspective.
This book places the work of local Arizonans alongside that of federal photographers both to illuminate the impact of the Depression on the state’s distinctive racial and natural landscapes and to show the influence of differing cultural agendas on the photographic record. The more than one hundred images—by well-known photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Laura Gilpin as well as by an array of less familiar photographers—represent a variety of purposes and perspectives, from public to personal, political to promotional. Six essays and three photo-essays bring together prominent authorities in history, the arts, and other fields who provide diverse perspectives on this period in Arizona and American history. Viewed together, the words and images capture a Depression-era Arizona bustling with activity as federally funded construction projects and seasonal agricultural jobs brought migrants and newcomers to the state. They convey the celebrations and the struggles of commercial photographers, archaeologists, city folks, farmers, tourists, native peoples and others in these hard times.
As the economic strains of the decade reverberated through the state, local photographers documented the lives of Arizona residents—including those frequently overlooked by historians. As this book persuasively shows, photographs can conceal as much as they reveal. A young Mexican American girl stands in front of a backdrop that hides the outhouse behind her, a deeply moving image for what it suggests about the efforts of her family to conceal their economic circumstances. Yet this image is a perfect metaphor for all the photographs in this book: stories remain hidden, but when viewers begin to question what they cannot see, pictures resonate more loudly than ever before.
This book is a history of Arizona written from the photographic record, offering a point of view that may differ from the written record. From the images and the insights of the authors, we can gain a new appreciation of how one state—and its indomitable people—weathered our nation’s toughest times.
In this richly illustrated book, Robert Macieski examines Lewis W. Hine's art and advocacy on behalf of child laborers as part of the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) between 1909 and 1917. A "social photographer"—as he called himself—Hine created images that documented children at work throughout New England, revealing their exploitation in the North as he had for rural working children in the South. Hine staged his images, highlighting particular types of labor in specific places: the "newsies" in Connecticut cities; sardine canners in Eastport, Maine; cranberry pickers in Cape Cod bogs; industrial homeworkers in Boston and Providence; and cotton textile workers throughout the region. His association with the NCLC connected him to a network of local and national reformers, social workers, and child welfare professionals, a broad coalition he supported in their fight to end this unethical labor practice. Macieski also chronicles Hine's efforts to mount major exhibitions that would help move public opinion against child labor.
In Picturing Class, Macieski explores the historical context of Hine's photographs and the social worlds of his subjects. He offers a detailed analysis of many of the images, unearthing the stories behind the creation of these photographs and the lives of their subjects. In telling the story of these photographs, their creation, and their reception, Macieski demonstrates how Hine worked to advance an unvarnished picture of a rapidly changing region and the young workers at the center of this important shift.
Mexican-American life, like that of nearly every contemporary community, has been extensively photographed. Yet there is surprisingly little scholarship on Chicano photography. Picturing the Barrio presents the first book-length examination on the topic. David William Foster analyzes the imagery of ten distinctive artists who offer a range of approaches to portraying Chicano life. The production of each artist is examined as an ideological interpretation of how Chicano experience is constructed and interpreted through the medium of photography, in sites ranging from the traditional barrio to large metropolitan societies. These photographers present artistic as well as documentary images of the socially invisible. They and their subjects grapple with definitions of identity, as well as ethnicity and gender. As such, this study deepens our understanding of the many interpretations of the “Chicano experience.”
More than a hundred years ago, Bertha Shambaugh set out to photograph the Amana Colonies, the utopian religious community twenty miles northwest of Iowa City. Following her example, several Amana members ignored their community's prohibition against photography and took up cameras to record the people and events around them. Picturing Utopia celebrates their artistic vision and offers a rare glimpse into a 19th-century religious utopia, providing an unbroken photographic record beginning with Shambaugh's work in the 1890s and continuing through the Colonies' transition to mainstream American life with the Great Change in 1932.Abigail Foerstner, whose great uncle was one of the Amana photographers included in this book, brings together this stunning collection of photographs along with the stories of the photographers who took them. Together the pictures and text fill in an untold chapter in American photographic history and provide an insider's view of life in Amana.
A deeply divided border state, heir to the “Bleeding Kansas” era, Missouri became the third most fought-over state in the war, following Virginia and Tennessee. Rich in resources and manpower, critical politically to both the Union and the Confederacy, it was the scene of conventional battles, river warfare, and cavalry raids. It saw the first combat by organized units of Native Americans and African Americans. It was also marked by guerrilla warfare of unparalleled viciousness. This volume, the ninth in the series, includes hundreds of photographs, many of them never before published. The authors provide text and commentary, organizing the photographs into chapters covering the origins of the war, its conventional and guerrilla phases, the war on the rivers, medicine (Sweeny’s medical knowledge adds a great deal to this chapter and expands our knowledge of its practice in the west), the experiences of Missourians who served out of state, and the process of reunion in the postwar years.
Before publishing his pioneering book How the Other Half Lives—a photojournalistic investigation into the poverty of New York’s tenement houses, home to three quarters of the city’s population—Jacob Riis (1849-1914) spent his first years in the United States as an immigrant and itinerant laborer, barely surviving on his carpentry skills until he landed a job as a muckraking reporter. These early experiences provided Riis with an understanding of what it was like to be poor in the immigrant communities that populated New York’s slums, and it was this empathy that would shine through in his iconic photos.
With Rediscovering Jacob Riis, art historian Bonnie Yochelson and historian Daniel Czitrom place Jacob Riis’s images in historical context even as they expose a clear sightline to the present. In the first half of their book, Czitrom explores Riis’s reporting and activism within the gritty specifics of Gilded Age New York: its new immigrants, its political machines, its fiercely competitive journalism, its evangelical reformers, and its labor movement. In delving into Riis’s intellectual education and the lasting impact of How the Other Half Lives, Czitrom shows that though Riis argued for charity, not sociopolitical justice, the empathy that drove his work continues to inspire urban reformers today.
In the second half of the book, Yochelson describes for the first time Riis’s photographic practice: his initial reliance on amateur photographers to take the photographs he needed, his own use of the camera, and then his collecting of photographs by professionals, who by 1900 were documenting social reform efforts for government agencies and charities. She argues that while Riis is rightly considered a revolutionary in the history of photography, he was not a photographic artist. Instead, Riis was a writer and lecturer who first harnessed the power of photography to affect social change.
As staggering inequality continues to be an urgent political topic, this book, illustrated with nearly seventy of Riis’s photographs, will serve as a stunning reminder of what has changed, and what has not.
Documentary photography aims to capture the material reality of life. In Rhetorical Exposures, Christopher Carter demonstrates how the creation and display of documentary photographs—often now called “imagetexts”—both invite analysis and raise persistent questions about the political and social causes for the bleak scenes of poverty and distress captured on film.
Carter’s carefully reasoned monograph examines both formal qualities of composition and the historical contexts of the production and display of documentary photographs. In Rhetorical Exposures, Carter explores Jacob Riis’s heartrending photos of Manhattan’s poor in late nineteenth-century New York, Walker Evans’s iconic images of tenant farmers in west Alabama, Ted Streshinsky’s images of 1960s social movements, Camilo José Vergara’s photographic landscapes of urban dereliction in the 1970s, and Chandra McCormick’s portraits of New Orleans’s Ninth Ward scarred by Hurricane Katrina.
While not ascribing specifically political or Marxist intentions to the photographers discussed, Carter frames his arguments in a class-based dialectic that addresses material want as an ineluctable result of social inequality. Carter argues that social documentary photography has the powerful capacity to disrupt complacent habits of viewing and to prompt viewers to confront injustice. Though photography may induce socially disruptive experiences, it remains vulnerable to the same power dynamics it subverts. Therefore, Carter offers a “rhetoric of exposure” that outlines how such social documentary images can be treated as highly tensioned rhetorical objects. His framework enables the analysis of photographs as heterogeneous records of the interaction of social classes and expressions of specific built environments. Rhetorical Exposures also discusses how photographs interact with oral and print media and relate to creations as diverse as public memorials, murals, and graphic novels.
As the creation and dissemination of new media continues to evolve in an environment of increasing anxiety about growing financial inequality, Rhetorical Exposures offers a very apt and timely discussion of the ways social documentary photography is created, employed, and understood.
Winner of the 2013 Jordan Schnitzer Book Award in the category of Jews and the Arts
Finalist for the 2011 National Jewish Book Award in the Holocaust category
Most view the relationship of Jews to the Soviet Union through the lens of repression and silence. Focusing on an elite group of two dozen Soviet-Jewish photographers, including Arkady Shaykhet, Alexander Grinberg, Mark Markov-Grinberg, Evgenii Khaldei, Dmitrii Baltermants, and Max Alpert, Through Soviet Jewish Eyes presents a different picture. These artists participated in a social project they believed in and with which they were emotionally and intellectually invested-they were charged by the Stalinist state to tell the visual story of the unprecedented horror we now call the Holocaust.
These wartime photographers were the first liberators to bear witness with cameras to Nazi atrocities, three years before Americans arrived at Buchenwald and Dachau. In this passionate work, David Shneer tells their stories and highlights their work through their very own images-he has amassed never-before-published photographs from families, collectors, and private archives.
Through Soviet Jewish Eyes helps us understand why so many Jews flocked to Soviet photography; what their lives and work looked like during the rise of Stalinism, during and then after the war; and why Jews were the ones charged with documenting the Soviet experiment and then its near destruction at the hands of the Nazis.
What does democracy look like? And when should we cause trouble to pursue it? Troublemakers fuses photography and history to demonstrate how racial and economic inequality gave rise to a decades-long struggle for justice in one American city.
In dialogue with 275 of Art Shay’s photographs, Erik S. Gellman takes a new look at major developments in postwar US history: the Second Great Migration, “white flight,” and neighborhood and street conflicts, as well as shifting party politics and the growth of the carceral state. The result is a visual and written history that complicates—and even upends—the morality tales and popular memory of postwar freedom struggles.
Shay himself was a “troublemaker,” seeking to unsettle society by illuminating truths that many middle-class, white, media, political, and businesspeople pretended did not exist. Shay served as a navigator in the US Army Air Forces during World War II, then took a position as a writer for Life Magazine. But soon after his 1948 move to Chicago, he decided to become a freelance photographer. Shay wandered the city photographing whatever caught his eye—and much did. His lens captured everything from private moments of rebellion to era-defining public movements, as he sought to understand the creative and destructive energies that propelled freedom struggles in the Windy City.
Shay illuminated the pain and ecstasy that sprung up from the streets of Chicago, while Gellman reveals their collective impact on the urban fabric and on our national narrative. This collaboration offers a fresh and timely look at how social conflict can shape a city—and may even inspire us to make trouble today.
In compelling, often stunning black-and-white photographs, The Weather and a Place to Live portrays the manmade landscape of the western United States. Here we come face to face with the surreal intersection of the American appetite for suburban development and the resistant, rolling, arid country of the desert West. Steven B. Smith’s extraordinary photographs take us into the contemporary reality of sprawling suburbs reconfiguring what was once vast, unpopulated territory. With arresting concision and an unblinking eye, Smith shows how a new frontier is being won, and suggests too how it may be lost in its very emergence. Since the early 1990s Smith has been making large-format photographs in California, Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. Based on this body of work, he was chosen as winner of the biennial Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography.
The power of these photographs lies in part in Smith’s unusual knowledge of the places he portrays. Raised in Utah, Smith has worked on construction crews, and he was a contractor in California after living on the East Coast for a few years. When he moved to Los Angeles in 1991, he writes, “I was so astounded by what I saw happening to the landscape as it was being developed that I started photographing it immediately. The landscapes I saw were scraped bare, re-sculpted, sealed, and then covered so as not to erode away before the building process could be completed.”
Smith’s photographs offer a disturbing vision of the future of our planet, where the desire for home ownership is pitted against the costs of development in epic proportions. These altered landscapes force us to consider the consequences of human design battling natural forces across great expanses, a fragile balancing act and a contorted equation in which nature becomes both inspiration and invisible adversary. Smith’s elegant photographs of this constructed universe confront us with the beauty of images as images, yet push us to reflect on the devastation possible in the simple act of choosing a place to live.