New Mexico Exhibit Redefines Landscape Photography


If gallery goers at the opening of Earth Now: American Photographers and the Environment expected mantel-ready frames of distant peaks and sinuous canyons, they would have been surprised by a collection that stands nearly in defiance of traditional landscape photography. "Landscapes can be boring," said Kate Ware, the exhibition’s curator at the New Mexico Museum of Art. "I wanted to do something that was grounded in the permanent collection but hadn’t been done before."

So first she pulled the most celebrated names in landscape photography -- Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter -- from the museum collection and lined the show's first wall with images of the pristine. On an adjacent wall, she hung Robert Glenn Ketchum’s log float in Ketchikan, Alaska, and beside it, NV Bomb Crater by Richard Misrach.  In this photograph, the rusted shrapnel of a convoy is scattered about a red pool, as if the desert has been springing blood. These photographs, I heard one artist joke, belong to a genre called, "What Man Has Done to Land."

"First you have the idealists.  Then you have doomsayers.  But contemporary landscape photographers -- 21st century artists -- they're centrists.  They ask questions.  That's what I wanted to do -- ask questions. I'm not trying to prove a thesis," said Ware. "Those photographs of the trees split by power lines, Beth Lilly's? I've been trying for years to get them into the collection."

Among Ware's other "centrists" are Brook Reynolds, whose abandoned gas stations hint subtly at the classic doomsayer phrase, "peak oil"; Bremner Benedict, whose dark, erect pylons are offset with fluffy white clouds; and Dornith Doherty, who has photographed seed banks around the world, quilting together her negatives into a collection called Archiving Eden.

At the opening on April 8, a  small crowd of artists gathered around Ware in the gallery entrance. Ware, 50, had the frazzled look of a woman  unaccustomed to being at the center of attention.  She tried to hush the crowd, and when they didn’t hear, she inhaled deeply, held up her arms, and belted, "Let a hush descend upon the galleries." In an instant, the room fell quiet. Ware took another nervous breath and sang a line of a Nina Simone song. She shook her head and began again. "Birds flyin' high, you know how I feel…It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life for me, oh I'm feeling good." The gallery filled with applause, and the artists waved peace signs and pumped their fists for onlookers who snapped pictures.

In the foyer of the museum, Ware slumped into the chair behind the reception desk.  "This way no one else can bother us," she said, as a friend ran over and grabbed her hand.  "You really have done it," the friend said, and Ware's eyes began to water.

"Let me say something," said a tall man with round, dark rimmed glasses who stood beside the desk. "This show has given me a whole new context.  I mean, who wants to look at any more landscapes?  Kate took a tough challenge and was just singing."

Read an interview with and see images from featured photographer Sharon Stewart. Photographs courtesy of New Mexico Museum of Art. Hurt Drive by Beth Lilly; Corn Diversity by Dornith Doherty; Two Grey Hills by Bremner Benedict.

Sierra Crane-Murdoch is an HCN intern.

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