Taxonomy of a Landscape

The photographs of Victoria Sambunaris

Sarah C. Rich
Sep 9, 2014 · 12 min read
Untitled (Dunes); Near El Centro, CA, 2010

At the end of the story, the narrator, a geographer, goes to visit the nearly 90-year-old mappist at his home in rural North Dakota, which is filled with his work. The geographer marvels at the human life in the maps and remarks that nobody has time any more for the field work required to produce them, to which the cartographer responds, “That’s unfortunate, because this information is what we need, you know. This shows history and how people fit the places they occupy. It’s about what gets erased and what comes to replace it.”

The mappist is characterized as a patriot, whose dedication to his country manifests through his work. In the twilight of his life, it’s clear that the changes he’s seen through his observations of landscapes and people have made him deeply reflective, and maybe a little jaded, about the human condition. “I am obliged to shoulder the history of my own country,” he tells the geographer, “I could show you here the whole coming and going of the Mandan nation, wiped out in eighteen thirty-seven by a smallpox epidemic. I could show you the arrival of German and Scandinavian farmers changed the composition of the topsoil, and the places where Charles Bodmer painted, and the evolution of red-light districts in Fargo — all that with pleasure. I’ve nothing against human passion, human longing. What I oppose is blind devotion to progress, and the venality of material wealth. If we’re going to trade the priceless for the common, I want to know exactly what the terms are.”

Untitled (Red containers, wet ground); Fort Worth, TX, 2000

This short story, which was originally published in 2001 in the collection Light Action in the Caribbean, is republished as the foreword to a new monograph of photographer Victoria Sambunaris, Taxonomy of a Landscape (Radius, 2014). Unlike traditional forewords, though, it’s not printed in the first pages of the book, but rather on a pamphlet tucked into a pocket on the back cover. Which means, if you’re reading left to right, you have already traveled through Sambunaris’s imagery when you arrive at The Mappist, and you can’t believe the precision with which it speaks to these photos, most of them taken after the story was written.

The reader is left to infer that Sambunaris has stepped into the cartographer’s shoes as a 21st-century documentarian of human presence in the American landscape. The photos in this book, taken during half a dozen road trips over more than a decade, capture the massive scale of modern industry — mines, dams, freight trains, highways and logistics centers; the pipelines of Alaska and the Mexican border fence. She spent a particularly long period photographing Nevada, Utah, and the town of Wendover, which straddles the state line. She recorded the steam that rises from the ground at Yellowstone National Park, hinting at the massive volcano that sits beneath it. Each image conveys the tension between the epic timescale of geological features and the blink-short span of modern infrastructure’s tenure.

Untitled (talc mine benches); Cameron, MT, 2009

Sambunaris is a kind of mapmaker, displaying the layers of material and the layout of space that compose a particular geographic region. Almost always the photos include the fingerprint of industry, which sometimes appears so light that it suggests human frailty, and other times shows up heavy and ruthless. It’s exactly what the cartographer said a map ought to be: the information we need; the history and how people fit the places they occupy; what gets erased and what comes to replace it.

Re:form was fortunate to interview Sambunaris about her new book, and to receive a copy of the artifact itself, which is beautifully designed. In addition to the featured photos, the rear pocket contains a secondary book of images showcasing the books she read, rocks she collected, journals she kept, and personal objects she carried throughout the solo road trips during which she built this body of work.

Untitled (Distant orange trucks docked with cornfield); Janesville, WI, 2001

In the introduction, Natasha Egan (director and curator of the Museum of Contemporary Photography) talks a lot about monuments — the notion that shipping containers or trains or warehouses or dams or mines can “be read as monuments to human achievement.” But while we pay visits with great intention and even reverence to official monuments like the Statue of Liberty or Mt. Rushmore, we fly by industrial sites without even considering them. What are you aiming to communicate by making pictures that frame these places as monuments?

I’m not intentionally framing these places as monuments. Rather, I’m observing the way we inhabit landscape, our relationship to it and considering the suggestion of what fills our lives. Our relationship to landscape says a great deal about our culture.

There is a wonderful quote by geographer Peirce Lewis, “If we want to understand ourselves, we would do well to take a searching look at landscapes. The human landscape is an appropriate source as self knowledge because it’s our unwitting autobiography reflecting our tastes our values our aspiration and even our fears.”

It’s like a mantra for me.

Untitled (Copper mine); Bingham Canyon, UT, 2002

Egan also mentions the idea of “technological sublime” (“fascination with immense human-made projects…awe inspired by marvels of human engineering”). Can you say a bit about your own experience of encountering — and trying to photograph — human creations of such scale?

I am drawn to landscapes of human manipulation and geophysical occurrences. When I catch a glimpse, I’ll go after it. These sites are anomalies. Exploring and investigating these particular landscapes gives meaning to everything around me and the world I live in. It’s humbling to see something of this scale.

The first mine I encountered was the Bingham Copper Mine near Salt Lake City, Utah in 2002. It transformed me. It is one of the largest open pit copper mines and when looking down into it, the size of this hole in the earth is staggering. I think about all that goes into mining and our everyday products that require metals, minerals and petroleum that are extracted. How long can we continue to do this?

Another memorable moment was in Alaska, driving up to the North Slope on the Haul Road that parallels the Alaskan pipeline. The Brooks Range was the backdrop for a photograph of the pipeline snaking through the landscape. The experience was sublime and I nearly didn’t take the photograph feeling that one cannot capture this feeling in a single photograph. I’m glad I didn’t walk away and shot just one sheet of film after traveling so far to find it.

Untitled (Uranium tailings); Mexican Hat, UT, 2005

Some of the your images — particularly the aerial shots of mines — carry echoes of the Earth Art movement, in which land was manipulated into a massive work of sculpture. How do you see the relationship between land art and the markings of industry? Are they spiritual opposites?

There are definitely many parallels. Occasionally, I mistake some of the industrial sites I encounter for an art piece. In 2005, I was travelling through Mexican Hat, Utah. While driving away from the town, I saw through my rearview mirror what I thought was a lake in a red desert landscape. It didn’t make sense so I went back to have a closer look. At first, I thought it was some sort of Land Art piece. There was a vast expanse of rock sculpted to look like a lake but, in fact, it was a deposit of Uranium tailings buried at the site. The scale and the illusion had me fooled. So often one might bypass such sites and never question what it is but my intent is to bring these curiosities to the forefront for my own satisfaction.

Another example of mistaken identity was an enormous boulder field in Pennsylvania that was a glacial deposit that happened 20,000 years ago. These landscapes whether Land Art or industrial site or natural occurrences are often in remote areas and are monumental in size. However, Land Art is a reaction against commercialization, industrial sites a means to it, and natural landscapes just are which I guess, makes them spiritual opposites.

Untitled (distant train with plains); Gillette, WY, 2001

I find a certain satisfaction in the regularity and symmetry that’s often found in industrial landscapes. The little consecutive openings at the copper mine, for example, or the perfectly distributed tiers of the quarry. Does that resonate for you? Is the regularity satisfying or jarring? I suppose this is a way of saying: do you feel like you fall on the side of “nature” or “industry,” if such a question can be asked?

My work parallels both nature and industry. For all of the intensity I feel when looking at the flares in the night sky of an oil refinery, I find solace in looking at a pristine untouched view from a mountain top. I look at how sites are organized and structured in order to make sense of all of the chaos that surrounds us whether it is the perfect tiers of a mine, the symmetry of aligned and numbered trucks at a dock or the layers of a rock formation that tell its history. The entire experience of being on the road alone for extended periods of time is meditative but whether I stumble upon an industrial site or a natural geological phenomenon, the experience is phenomenal. And the totality of the entire experience of looking, observing and experiencing the country and all that it has to offer keeps me intrigued and curious.

Untitled (White trains on salt flats, I-80); Great Salt Lake Desert, UT, 2002

I was so interested in the anecdote about you getting to Alaska and discovering you’d be granted more access than you expected to industrial sites because of the Libertarian attitude up there. Can you say a little more about how that sense of freedom from authority enabled/empowered your artistic pursuit there?

When I’m looking over my shoulder to see if law enforcement or some other authority is going to accost me, it takes away from my concentration and focus. It happens more frequently than you can imagine and especially after September 11th. There is so much suspicion and paranoia whether I’m down on the US/Mexico border or driving through a small town in the middle of the country — I’m constantly followed and questioned.

In Alaska, I experienced an unexpected laid back attitude that felt different from anywhere else. People were friendly, helpful and enthusiastic about what I was doing. It enabled me to look for a long time and to wait for the right moment to shoot.

I was also interested in the mention of your experience of the light in Alaska being almost artificial/surreal. What were the qualities that made it so for you? Can you describe it more and talk about how it affected your photography?

Above the Arctic Circle, the sun never sets between May and August and never rises between November and January. The midnight sun allows for all kinds of activity throughout the night, there are many 24 hour golf courses in Alaska. When I arrived in Fairbanks, the first thing I noticed was an incredible quality of light that is difficult to describe. I would see it late at night — almost a glow, dreamlike and artificial. Nothing I’ve experienced before but all photographers are observant of light. Around 10pm, I would take to the streets and walk around with a smaller hand held camera reacting to that light shooting mostly neighborhood houses and cars. I photographed a gold mine north of Fairbanks that operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in the summer months. I started at 11pm and worked until about 4am just when the sun was coming up from the horizon and hitting the mine. It’s a photographer’s dream to have such light and also have that freedom to work.

Untitled (Hercules Gap); Ely, NV, 2004

I want to just have you talk a bit about a few of the photographs that I’m planning to include and that I found really interesting to read about:

Hercules Gap

This is near Ely, Nevada taken in 2004.

I think about the history of place when I encounter a site. In 1859, JH Simpson leading a US Geological Survey team encountered the gap in the Egan Range and noted: “I call the place the Gate of Hercules, on account of its stupendous walls”. In 1873 it became a mining camp and today, a small road snaking through the walls leads to the Ely Maximum State Prison.

Untitled (Houses); Wendover, UT, 2007

Wendover, Nevada

Wendover is a town on the Utah/Nevada border, I-80 runs right through it, and the state line crosses through the center of town with cheap motels and gas marts on the Utah side and liquor stores and casinos on the Nevada side. There was a military base there in the 40’s and it was the training site for the bomber group that dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I have frequented Wendover many times over the years in 2002, 2004 and 2007, each time seeing it differently. Wendover is full of history and intrigue and in this photograph, I consider Wendover’s physical and historical transformation over the years. The small houses at the base of the outcrop evokes a feeling of transience and our fleeting time here.

In 2008, I was exploring the Yellowstone caldera and the Snake River Plain considering the geologic history of this landscape. The largest active volcanic system in North America is situated below one of our most popular national parks and that volatility is a curious notion. Most interesting is the volcano has gone into major eruption every 600,000 years and we are near that point again now, so any day it could blow and it will drastically change the landscape and our habitation. When traveling the Snake River Plain, I was seeing evidence of past volcanic eruptions such as lava fields, buttes and crater rings that evolved from the Yellowstone volcano. When looking at a topographical map of southern Idaho, one can see crescent shape depressions in the earth from the activity and force at Yellowstone but have shifted due to the North American tectonic plates that are moving west and south — another reminder our short existence in geological time.

Untitled (distant steam vents); Yellowstone National Park, 2008

How did you come to select the Barry Lopez story to accompany this? Was it something you’d read long ago and carried with you thinking about its connection to your work, or did you seek it out once you were already in progress on the book? It’s amazing how much it speaks to your own lifelong documentation process.

The Barry Lopez short story came to me from my friend and writer, Maria Jerskey, who had heard it on Selected Shorts. She asked me several times if I had listened to the podcast yet, apparently there was some urgency! Shortly after, I was at her house for dinner and we listened to it together. Afterwards, we looked at each other in amazement. The Mappist is a wonderful story that speaks about vision, conviction and cultivating what is personally important. It spoke to both of us and I believe all artists. It had to have been a year later when David Chickey of Radius and I were discussing the writing for the book. I wanted a piece of literature included since literature is so much a part of the work process. David read the story and his only word: “Perfect.”

You can follow Sarah Rich on Twitter at @sarahrich. Subscribe to re:form’s RSS feed, sign up to receive our stories by email, and follow the main page here.


A field guide to the designed world

    Sarah C. Rich

    Written by

    editor, writer, brand strategist. @readreform | @longshotmag |@foodprintcity | smithsonian | dwell | mom of two, partner of @alexismadrigal, lover of Oakland.



    A field guide to the designed world