April 16, 2013

The View From Here - December 2012


Clouds and Hills over Interstate 580. 2012.

by Stephen Johnson

Our Hands on Earth

I've been photographing our marks on the landscape for my entire career. The tension between the natural world and our constructs is often strange, challenges perspective, downright odd, and sometimes compelling.

Despite my concentration on the natural world, I have never sought to idealize it, but rather plunge deep into what I find, whatever direction that might take. For over 30 years I have been drawn to the curious marks we make, the things we build, together with the debris and evidence we leave behind.

As is often the case these days after so many years of working, a body of work can emerge from looking at what I've been curious about over time. We see a photograph, get reminded of others, start to associate even more images, and without consciously deciding to consider a grouping, the associations start to form.

Many of the images that could be gathered under this idea of our hands on the land come from other projects, the Great Central Valley work, my series Western Artifacts, and countless isolated images that seemed irresistible at the time.

The theme also reminded me of a song I wrote over 30 years ago watching the moon rise and the sun set on the Anasazi ruins at Waputki near Flagstaff. Thinking back to the making of those buildings, a vivid image came to mind of people working hard to build a community, their very home clearly made from the earth, rising from the ground toward the sky.

I'm riding the wind back a 1000 years
I can see his skin in the sun
With his careful hands he shapes his earth
his red house growing in the blue


Kettleman Plain. 1984.


Gold Mining Dredge Tailings. Sacramento Valley. 1982

We are native to this planet. Naturally we leave evidence of our presence. Although there are many reasons to decry this impact with so much of what we do, it is also the very delight of researchers trying to understand our past, and the casual cultural anthropologists we all become in our fascinations. How old does graffiti have to be to become pictographs and evidence of who we were?

We often impose ourselves on the land incidentally, our works becoming visual evidence of  land use, from agriculture to dumps, by merely using the land. We've been making such marks for at least 5000 years. Sometimes the impact is direct and intentional, human humor and art laid onto the land. Other times it is debris, the decay of what we leave to collapse back into that very land. Visually they can all be compelling in different ways.


Stone Fence. Ireland. 2008

It was invigorating to explore some of these files, and go searching for a few I vaguely remembered, most of which there is not room for here. But the last few days have been a good exercise. Whether this little archive exploration continues and is joined by others will depend on how these few images settle in, and grow on me, the feedback I may get, and if my curiosity dares open those daunting drawers with thousands and thousands of negatives...

Looking again at some of the work from the Western Artifacts Project does make me want to pull those together into a set of great scans and finished modern prints. Anyone want to come in and intern on some projects?...



At The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

A must see if you are in New York City, Faking it: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop is a wonderful exhibition at the Met in NYC through January 27, 2013.


Truck Stop Tower. Winnemucca, NV 1982.

Strange Constructions

Deliberate impositions on the land, using it as a surface for the making of art is often not as interesting as something that happens coincidental to the makers intentions. But sometimes you come across that rare combination of intention and aesthetics that makes you really notice.

Many of you know Robert Smithson's work, like the Spiral Jetty, work by Andy Goldsworthy and others. An artist from Santa Cruz, Jim Denevan, has been doing massive beach markings for years. Their art is in the marks they make on the land, by intention and hard work.

In Jim's case, they are ephemeral marks that the next wave can wash away. I documented some of his work many years ago, and greatly admired his dedication to drawing something so temporary, and that so few would see. The photo documentation became the record, and for most, the experience, the temporal quality part of the preciousness of the creation.

My good friend and former assistant David Gardner has been working an a great series Marking Our Place in the World which directly relates to these ideas.


Landsharks. 1984.

I've delighted in driving by the Landsharks for years. Where natural form has suggested a palette for art and humor, graffiti and comment, those sites particularly engage me. I wish I knew who did it, how long they thought about it, and if it was carefully planned or quickly improvised. I know the paint has been touched up over the years, so somebody cares.


Windmills Altamont Pass. 1983.


Rolled Grass. Iceland. 2009.

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