1920's Settlers' Cabin At The Edge of a Subdivision; Laura McPhee, courtesy Alturas Foundation
Laura McPhee made these remarkable photographs over several years on successive visits to the Sawtooth Valley [in central Idaho]. River of No Return is organized like a long poem or a piece of music...a stunning look at an actual place, a meditation on rivers, nature, history, the history of landscape photography, of the American West and the idea of the American West. And—while I'm piling theme on theme—the nature of fact and the nature of myth, and how we hold the world in our hands.
That's Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Haas writing on the work of Laura McPhee, an artist raised in rural New Jersey and whose recent work has chosen cultural environments as various as New York City and Kolkata, India. Many thanks to Texas-based artist Chris Sauter who recently shared news of her River Of No Return series.
Yale University Press published a selection of these photographs in 2008, with a forward by Mr. Haas, an essay by Joanne Lukitsh, and an interview between the artist and Dabney Hailey. As the Press elaborates below, these photographs consider the long history of the West's place as symbol and aspirational landscape within the American consciousness, while also cultivating an honest and engaged connection with the real people and real places of this region:
Photographer Laura McPhee follows in the tradition of 19th-century artistic approaches toward the sublime, relying on a large-format view camera to capture images of exquisite color, clarity, and definition. In images spanning all seasons, McPhee depicts the magnificence and history of the Sawtooth Valley in central Idaho. Her subject matter includes the region’s spectacular mountain ranges, rivers, and ranchlands; its immense spaces and natural resources; the effects of mining and devastating wildfires; and the human stories of those who live and work there. Featured texts set McPhee’s photographs in the context of the work of American predecessors including Frederick Sommer and J.B. Jackson, and discuss her working methods and experiences photographing the evolving landscape.
One Car Passing, Valley Road, Sawtooth Valley, 2003; Alturas Foundation
Ms. McPhee first came to Sawtooth Valley as an artist-in-residence through the Alturas Foundation. As she tells Jennifer Tuohy of The Sun Valley Guide, she was expecting to encounter new questions about the relationship of nature to culture, yet also found herself, in the process of getting to know the place and its people, rethinking her relationship to everything from family history to hunting:
Although she was initially overwhelmed by the magnitude of her subject, those first impressions set the tone for what McPhee describes as work she has been preparing all of her life to make.
When she arrived at the top of Galena Pass her thoughts traveled to her grandmother. Raised by a divorced Ohio schoolteacher, she grew up in the early part of the twentieth century, traveling across the West with her mother and sister, living a subsistence life in rudimentary log cabins. “I stood on Galena and I thought about her passing from one mining town to another as a child. And for me that was the hook, an emotional, autobiographical hook. Of course,” McPhee continued with a laugh, “she didn’t arrive there in a white Suburban.”
With thoughts of her late grandmother floating around in her head, McPhee traveled down to the valley floor (in a white Suburban). “The first thing I saw was the sign that says, ‘Headwaters: River of No Return.’ And it struck me, that’s it. Somebody’s experience passes away and passes forward and you never really know exactly what it was like to stand in that person’s shoes or to have that experience, so it’s always an approximation of that. That’s how you understand someone else’s subjective experience or history. So for me, that name really stuck.
Illegally Kept Snake River Chinook Salmon With Freezer Burn, Custer County, Idaho, 2005
Skinned Elk, White Cloud Mountains, Idaho, 2004; Alturas Foundation
Ms. McPhee's site presents many more of these photographs, in a larger, high-resolution format, as does the Alturas Foundation page. This collection of 40 large 6' x 8' prints were also exhibited as Laura McPhee: River of No Return at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Chris Sauter's Rural Intallations
The Rural Avant Garde