Darkness on the Edge of Town

July 8, 2021   •   By Kerri Arsenault

American Geography: Photographs of Land Use from 1840 to the Present

Sandra S. Phillips and Sally Martin Katz

ALL TOO OFTEN, we commemorate the power brokers of resource extraction, industrialization, and colonial projects with statues, plaques, busts, and other tokens, but we fail to memorialize the consequences of those processes or the landscapes and people harmed. We pay tribute to the landscape as we want it to be, not as it is.


With a leading essay by Barry Lopez, who always sought to reckon with the past, American Geography is a provocative photo collection that disrupts this dominant frame and instead interrogates the perpetrators of social and environmental crimes.


From the cotton wharves of New Orleans to Eureka, Nevada, from Dawoud Bey to anonymous, from 1840 to today, these 94 plates outline a history of land use and abuse, documenting not just pretty scenes but the imposition of humans and global enterprise. It confronts the very meaning of memorial by acknowledging the alternative view, one that doesn’t elevate colonial history over the history that colonialism has subdued and instead provides another kind of memorial, a photographic record of other truths. Originally slated for an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art but canceled because of the pandemic, these images have one thing in common: they contain something out of kilter, a mood askew, which follows the contours of the corrupted geographies they present.


In Stephen Tourlentes’s photograph Fishkill, New York State Prison, embers of fluorescent lights mimic fireflies that flutter in the background of a middle-class home. The scene is eye level, but peopleless: we presume the distant prison contains prisoners, but because they are at the rim of this frame and in the periphery of American towns, it’s easier to forget they exist, as perhaps Tourlentes suggests. Mass incarceration is only evident by the flare of punishing light reaching beyond the boundaries of its carriage and into this suburban town. We remember that we forget by this encroachment of light that never dims.


Back at the house, there’s a small chain-link fence in the backyard, suggesting another line that divides inside from outside, us from them. But who’s to say life is better for the residents of that house? Are they in another kind of prison, locked in or locking others out by the barriers they also erect? Will they end up in a panopticon landscape themselves someday, which perhaps Tourlentes suggests by his own panoptical view?


Alec Soth’s Cemetery, Fountain City, Wisconsin, 2002 manifests a similar mood. A rural byway gas station sits peopleless with the words “CONVENIENCE STORE” adorning the structure that harbors the pumps. At first glance, it’s an innocuous and common American scene. But there’s no store (in our view anyway), and the convenience is a question mark due to the remote locale. Gravestones huddle in the backdrop amid evenly spaced pine trees of exactly the same height. A scrim of snow veneers the ground. Above the cemetery, a hill springs like a jack-in-the-box, dotted with power lines among the pines. With the gas pumps so prominently framed in front of the cemetery, it’s easy to conflate death with fossil fuels. And what of the uniformly planted trees that colonize the graves? Has that something to do with the fuel and the death and the convenience we struggle to find?


A sandwich board lurks to the left of the frame, declaring “TOURIST INFO.” What has anyone come here to see? The graves? The trees? The lump of a hill? Your eyes ping between foreground and background until you notice the (again) fluorescent lights intervening with the dusk’s (or dawn’s) blue cast. Soth’s photo reveals imposition upon imposition, a topography of built and natural environments disrupted, conflated, incongruous, while also referencing the United States’s open-ended conversation with the roads we travel and what we miss when we hastily speed by.


Emmet Gowin’s photograph Subsidence Craters, Looking East from Area 8, Nevada Test Site, 1996 depicts lonely indents, peaceful, with no artifice evident on the scene. At the same time, these craters are some of the most diabolical encumbrances upon our society, and this landscape bulleted with apertures from nuclear testing has carved other legacies in our human DNA: cancers of every kind in employees and those living downwind. The tracks of vehicles pressing aside the craters scratch lines in the soil and illuminate the scale of such nuclear deeds. Humans have been here, those tracks say, and they may return, maybe in even more diabolical forms. The lines extend outward, almost to infinity, as do the legacies of those nuclear tests. In fact, in April 2021, reports showed that radioactive fallout from the Nevada Proving Grounds is appearing in honeybees.


Emmet Gowin
“Subsidence Craters, Looking East from Area 8, Nevada Test Site,” 1996
Toned gelatin silver print
14 x 11 inches (35.6 x 27.9 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery
From “American Geography: Photographs of Land Use from 1840 to the Present” © Radius Books

Lee Friedlander de-monumentalizes American landscape less subtly in Father Duffy, Times Square, New York City, 1974. A bronze Father Duffy statue is but one amid other garish monuments that have defined our urban climes, all of them frenzied together: buildings and billboards of different heights and the ubiquitous NYC scaffolding that shows a city constantly in flux — with iron fencing around Father Duffy himself to stave off the encroaching cityscape. A giant “Enjoy Coca-Cola” looms above everything like Soth’s hill. One could stare at this photo for hours. I did.


Lee Friedlander
“Father Duffy, Times Square, New York City,” 1974
Gelatin silver print
15 3/8 x 22 13/16 inches (39 x 58 cm)
Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
From “American Geography: Photographs of Land Use from 1840 to the Present” © Radius Books

The book is divided by regions, and as you head west, Art Sinsabaugh’s Chicago Landscape #117, 1964 shows a bus zipping down the right-hand side of a freeway. Guardrails give rise to the edges of the road, and anything natural appears in the shoulders and medians as if by mistake. The photo seems to forebode what’s to come, a country on the precipice of global flows. Why else build a road system so complex? This photo says: I’m ready, come what may.


Art Sinsabaugh
“Chicago Landscape #117,” 1964
Gelatin silver print
4 3/8 x 19 ½ inches (11.1 x 49.5 cm)
Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
From “American Geography: Photographs of Land Use from 1840 to the Present” © Radius Books

In the book’s earlier photographs, industry, technology, capitalism, and civilization seem to be centered and celebrated, like the William Herman Rau photo of a railroad station in Pennsylvania or the Herve Friend photo of an orange grove in Redlands, California, where tidy rows of trees contrast with the San Bernardino Mountains. As the images and photographers move through time, you see them shift in focus; they are not there to record history but to question it.


Then, in the later photographs, a fragility appears, and the viewer must contend with it. Sometimes that fragility is in the land; sometimes it is in the things the land has decided to overtake: It is in Richard Misrach’s photo of a pipeline slicing through a Louisiana swamp. It is in Dannielle Bowman’s telephone-poled, water-towered shot of a railway intersection, called Weeping Time Landscape, Savannah, Georgia, 2019. And it is in LaToya Ruby Frazier’s photograph of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a small working-class town gutted by industrial decline. This fragility emphasizes that there are more questions than answers, and that we have much work to do to make our land strong once again.


Richard Misrach
“Swamp and Pipeline, Geismar, Louisiana,” 1998
Chromogenic print
20 x 24 inches (50.8 x 61 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
From “American Geography: Photographs of Land Use from 1840 to the Present” © Radius Books

Dannielle Bowman
“Weeping Time Landscape, Savannah, Georgia,” 2019
Inkjet print
24 x 30 inches (61 x 76.2 cm)
Courtesy the artist
From “American Geography: Photographs of Land Use from 1840 to the Present” © Radius Books

Ultimately, American Geography is about the collective memory that Layli Long Soldier considers in her essay “I Cannot Stop”: “[A]s a people, we remember who we are from our families, from this land, from stories within the community, and from our senses.” And so we do. American Geography enshrines our shared histories, mythologies, memory, and traumas by unearthing the intricate archive of our soil and putting it on the page.


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Kerri Arsenault is the book review editor at Orion Magazine, contributing editor at Literary Hub, and author of Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains (2020).