« Return to this article

Know the West

Where land use and landscape photography converge

A would-be museum exhibit, canceled due to COVID, is now collected in the book ‘American Geography: Photographs of Land Use from 1840 to the Present.’

Before noticing Yosemite — the place — you see Yosemite, the headscarf. The woman who wears it looks away from the camera, toward the deep forest greens and slate-gray rock faces of Yosemite Valley. The tourist’s scarf is decorated with colorful drawings of this same landscape’s waterfalls and overlooks, in a way that forces the viewer to consider California’s prized public land as both a magnificent idea and as just another product to be bought and sold. American Geography: Photographs of Land Use from 1840 to the Present is a coffee-table tome that weaves together two seemingly contradictory ideas: landscape as an artistic tableau and land use as a tangible system of extraction and exploitation.

 

The book’s photos, which are drawn primarily from the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, were all taken in the United States. They are organized by region, culminating with the West. Each section considers the impact and reach of America’s many industries — coal, tourism and agriculture among them — on the genre of landscape photography as well on as the land itself. “If you imagine the exhibition as a whole piece of cloth,” writes the late Barry Lopez in the introduction, “You could say that the larger question here is, what have we done?” The book’s images, however, seldom dwell on the presence of that “we.” Representations of people, like the woman at Yosemite, are scarce. Instead, the photographs ask the viewer to see the land on its own terms, for better or worse.

American Geography: Photographs of Land Use from 1840 to the Present
Edited by Sandra S. Phillips and Sally Martin Katz
Texts by Beverly Dahlen, Hilary Green, Layli Long Soldier, Barry Lopez, Jenny Reardon, Richard White, and Richard B. Woodward
402 pages / 345 images, Hardcover: $60
Radius Books

Woman with Scarf at Inspiration Point, Yosemite National Park, CA, 1980, printed 2016.
Roger Minick

Indian Summer, from the series Four Seasons, 2006.
Wendy Red Star

Garfield Stack, Oquirrh Mountains and Ancient Beach of Great Salt Lake, from Bingham Mine/Garfield Stack 04.21.06, 2006.
Michael Light

News Coverage at Tehama, 1998.
Geoff Fricker

George Chasing Wildfires, Eureka, Nevada, 2012.
Lucas Foglia

Desert Springs, AZ, no. 3, 2009.
Mark Ruwedel

Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacifc #30, from the series Westward the Course of Empire, 2005.
Mark Ruwedel

Tonopah, Nevada, from the series Grays the Mountain Sends, 2011.
Bryan Schutmaat

Untitled (Houses), Wendover, Utah, 2007.
Victoria Sambunaris

Surya Milner is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.