As a contemporary explorer, I turn my attention and then my lens to what I believe to be the last, and ironically, the closest American frontier – the space between a highway and its diverging ramps.
The whole history of American expansion is the story of men and women who desired to see what was over the next mountain, to cross the next river, to search for the next opportunity, the American Dream. Painters like Albert Bierstadt, of the second generation of Hudson River School painters, would travel west, making sketches of the soaring mountains and roaring rivers. Upon his return to his New England home, he would transform those sketches into massive, emotive oil paintings, with such romantically expressive atmospheres that the style became known as luminism, and which were almost certainly an idealization of what the scene really looked like. During this time, American territorial expansion, powered by the belief in Manifest Destiny, was continuing at a pace that seemed unstoppable. It soon became apparent that effort would need to be made to set aside land for future use, as a resource. Appropriately, it was a painter, George Catlin, who may have named the National Parks, by writing of his vision of “a nation’s Park” in his book concerning the American Indian. This humble beginning of protected wilderness areas would eventually become the American National Parks, administrated by the National Park Service.
The current manifestation of many of these parks could only disappoint those brave explorers. They are controlled, fenced in, divided, and improved. Visitors are free to explore the myriad walkways and preordained paths paved and with handrails, dotted by signs and guides to show them where to go, then where to look. Safety is paramount, as lawsuits continue to be a concern in places where common sense can no longer keep the public safe. These packaged parks are more open-air museum than wilderness. I suggest that the last great, unexplored space in America is right under our noses – somewhere we pass by everyday, without daring to enter. To occupy these spaces is a deliberate and intentional act. These spaces are not easily accessible, often requiring potentially dangerous highway crossings.
The cliche of the panoramic photograph is an apt format within which to confine this subject. Typically presented as wide angle shots showing an encompassing view of a landmark, these images would fit right into a National Geographic magazine. To reject the commercial stigma of these images, I undermine those unwritten rules of clear focus and atmospheric distance between viewer and subject. I utilize a consistent technique within the series, so that the redundant forms will highlight the smallest details of each individual photo. These rigid structures give the viewer a comfortable visual launch pad, from which they can begin a more thorough examination of the obscured subject, and thus the content. By placing the viewpoint of the camera within the vegetation, the horizon line – a standard feature of landscape images – is disrupted or lost entirely. This denial of an expected line serves to activate the space that is being occupied, rather than allowing the mind to travel beyond the location of the photographer. Referencing the obscured landscapes of Todd Hido or Naoya Hatakeyama, the visual distraction directly in front of the lens encourages the viewer to look past the immediate and obvious, and to notice the smallest of details. As with images from Hido’s “Roaming” series, the proximity of the closest objects often renders them out of focus, resulting in a painted, expressive quality. Allowing motion within the frame enhances the soft, welcoming nature of the location. It is important to note that while the formal technique may be similar, Hido uses the object of diffusion to separate himself from a landscape, while I use the landscape itself to demonstrate my inclusion within its boundaries.
The vibrant, consistent colors are a product of careful film choices, specifically Fuji Velvia for its high saturation and excellent blue reproduction, and Fuji Superia 160S for its rich gold and green reproduction. The effect of these wide swaths of flat, vibrant color is to evoke the color field paintings of Mark Rothko, and encourage the viewer to become enveloped by their depth. These colors, presented in a romantically exaggerated way similar to that of the Hudson painters, give the images the produced aesthetic of a car commercial, calculated to catch the eye and invite further viewing. Having attracted the viewer, I am then afforded the opportunity to guide their attention to the ultimate lesson of these photos. Without the blunt documentary nature of a Louis Hine photo, these images are intended to slowly guide the viewer into a modified state of mind.