Landscape Words and a Fellow Traveler Teaches

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From Here to the Horizon: Photographs in Honor of Barry Lopez
Published in 2023 by the Sheldon Museum of Art (at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln) and the Barry Lopez Foundation for Art & Environment

Review written during the rainstorms of early 2023.

I’m writing this review by headlamp, the vignetted illumination giving a backlit glow to each of the images of the book. I feel that I am in a tent somewhere in Lopez’s far north but I’m really at my kitchen table, the power out yet again in my small, unincorporated town, the rain still coming down beyond the forecast’s expectations. But at least the wind had died down and, I hope, no more trees will fall on the power lines.

From Here to the Horizon is an expansion of an earlier book, Home Ground, by Debra Gwarty and Lopez, which was made up of a series of short essays, long definitions of interesting or unusual words having to do with land and water, words that were regional or downright particular to some small place (and being lost to the homogenization of language) or just plain old, interesting words. The earlier book was conceived by people who treasure language and the environment and it was hoped to not only serve the practical purpose of recording a few cherished terms but offer a way to explore a bit, both through time and across space. This new book adds photography of the land to the mix, a little bit as illustration but aiming more at illumination, or perhaps introspection.

The very first entry (by Kim Stafford) in this dictionary will give you the sense of it: Old-growth forest. The first sentence: “Forest as elder: where trees coexist in the full spectrum of their development—from seedling to sapling to ancient, to snag and generative nurse log: old-growth forest features include thick duff, trees hoary with age, and certain indicators species that rely on the settled richness of variety in plant, insect, lichen, and other life forms.”

The photo-pairing—by Robert Adams of a clearcut stump—is a bit on-the-nose but the text is better than you might expect and certainly grounds to keep turning the page.

Three entries later a photo captures my attention. It is Cojón Bonito, Sierra San Luis, Chihuahua, Mexico, 2020 and it shows a rugged desert land—which I know from the introductory text by Robert McFarlane is said by the photographer Michael Berman to depict where the protagonists of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses crossed the Rio Grande. Has Berman made a book of images based on locations in Cormac McCarthy’s books? My internet is, of course, down with the power. I am badly distracted from the book now, wanting to find such a book if it exists.

A few pages later and I find something I didn’t know, provided by William DeBuys: “Few things assert the dynamism of nature better than the development of pools and riffles in a stream. Even if a channel is straight and the bed uniform, flowing water will generate turbulence. Depending on the resistance of the stream, the turbulence may scour pools in certain places, which alternate with shallow bars called riffles or drops, where the excavated material is deposited. Generally, the distance from one pool to the next is five to seven times the width of the stream, and successive pools will tend to develop on opposite sides of the channel, precursors to the formation of meanders.”

“Meander,” of course, is very much one of those words (used as a noun) that seems to be leaving the language, and the book has an entry on it as well, oddly also by William deBuys.

The photographs are from a collection—seemingly formed for the very purpose of this book—and many well-known names are here. Mark Klett has the cover and inside you’ll find Ron Jude, Frank Gohlke, Andrew Moore, and many others. All of the images are good ones, as you might expect, although overall the selections have a certain quietness about them, a stillness that is not necessary in a landscape photograph but may be exactly what the editor intended.

There’s a quietness all about me now as well. Without power the background hum of electronics is absent and I can hear the rain in great fidelity and when the wind blows, even a little, I notice.

The Life and Work of Sid Grossman by the wonderful Keith Davis, with a foreword by Howard Greenberg (elder statesman photo dealer).
Published by Steidl and the Howard Greenberg Gallery in 2016.

Sid Grossman is one of those photographers where you know the name, recognize one or two images, and know that he was in some way important in the New York art world, but otherwise, it’s all sort of vague. This book aims to correct that lack of detail and it succeeds completely in its goal.

I’ll sum up. He was an overbearing asshole and a great teacher, a communist and a disillusioned communist and a street photographer and a photographer heralding the common man and by the end of his life he became a photographer in a more deeply aesthetic sense. Indeed, his photographs made after his move to Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod—pictures of birds and seaweed—may be his best work. Of all of the images in the book they are the ones that don’t immediately suggest the work of other photographers.

Grossman’s great contribution was, it seems, just barely behind the scenes, pushing others, motivating others, and teaching others, although he seemed to feel that he wasn’t teaching at all, only catalyzing his students to teach themselves (or to push them to engage with the world, which would supply all of the teaching they needed, if they could handle it).

Unwritten and perhaps unintended, the book draws a sharp contrast between photography in the age of the Photo League and photography today. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, you could imagine a young, hard-working person, hoping to change the world and saying to themselves “I’ll be a photographer.” And they had a chance at effecting change. Photography mattered. Important things were not being photographed, important things were not being seen.

Today everything is being photographed, a crazy number of photographs, but I don’t think everything important is being seen. With all of the social media Horshacks crowding our attention it takes great effort to see what is new, and what is real. And maybe it will take another Sid Grossman to push photographers toward that truth and not be blinded by the light from our little glowing screens.