For more than a century the landscape photography of the American West was understood as the solitary pursuit of men who lugged large cameras into wild and remote places. The pioneering work of 19th-century photographers such as William Henry Jackson, J.K. Hillers and Carleton Watkins focused on grand landscapes — places that seemed sublime, destined to endure. They began the practice of emphasizing the natural world, a tradition followed later by 20th-century photographers such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. From the start the effects of humanity were almost always framed out of the landscape view.
In the 1970s, that legacy was challenged by a new generation of photographers such as Robert Adams, Frank Gohlke, Joe Deal, Stephen Shore, Henry Wessel, and Lewis Baltz, among others. Their work from the New Topographics exhibition at the George Eastman House in 1975 launched a new emphasis in landscape photography, one that made apparent the enormous scale of human intervention in the American West. It was now the inhabited land, rather than nature or wilderness, that was the central subject. So central, in fact, that the often negative effects of a man-altered landscape have in the past four decades been explored in sometimes excruciating photographic detail, in images that depict unbridled urban expansion, the ravages of strip mines and clear cut forests, the horrors of Superfund clean up sites and the pockmarks of military bombing ranges. The work has often constituted a critique of what has been lost in the American West, from the solitude of open lands to the values of earlier generations. Much contemporary photography intentionally creates unflattering portraits of the same landscapes that earlier photographers had once celebrated. The clash of nature and culture has become the default subject for the landscape photography of our time.
The collaborative project Water in the West was one outcome of this new interest in nature/culture-based photography, and in photography devoted to examining the New West. But in this recent tradition it also stands out, for several reasons. For one, the project was a group effort; it subverted the traditional model of the individual artist working a solo vision of the land. Project members joined forces to collaborate, and women made up half the group. For another, the project took a non-reductive perspective on the one natural element that for over a century has remained key to understanding Western geography: water.
I was fortunate to be among the founding members of this group. Water in the West took shape in October 1989 during an Anderson Ranch Arts Center conference in Snowmass, Colorado, titled “The Political Landscape.” Conference speakers including historian Patricia Nelson Limerick and writer Alston Chase expressed the breadth of the interdisciplinary undertaking that many of us in attendance were working to bring about: a complete rethinking of the American West from its literature to history to visual representation. The timing of the conference was important. In the 1980s the population of the region was growing explosively; Sunbelt cities were expanding rapidly; climate scientist James Hansen gave his now famous congressional testimony describing global warming caused by human-produced greenhouse gases; the Reagan administration and the Sagebrush Rebellion were pushing hard against the federal environmental protection laws of the 1960s and ’70s. In the Southwest, many of us wondered if our desert cities and landscapes would have enough water in the years ahead.
At the conference in Snowmass, photographer Robert Dawson and photo historian Ellen Manchester invited a small group of photographers to meet and discuss forming an alliance. Along with Dawson and Manchester, this initial group included Laurie Brown, Gregory Conniff, Terry Evans, Peter Goin, Wanda Hammerbeck, Sant Kahlsa, Martin Stupich and myself. Later the group would expand to include Ellen Land-Weber, Geoffrey Fricker and Sharon Stewart.
We were hardly in agreement about what role photography should play in changing the social awareness and cultural understanding of water. But we did agree about the central idea: our mission was not to advocate for specific political changes but rather to unite those committed to photographing water as the leading icon of the late 20th-century West. The goal was to produce an archive of photographs that would contribute to an emerging and urgent dialogue about an essential and dwindling resource, a resource that shaped both our natural and social landscapes — and indeed, our survival. Water in the West met to support the work of individual members, to learn about water-related topics, to encourage interdisciplinary collaborations, and to provide opportunities for exhibiting and publishing photographs. The group was issues-oriented, and it accepted widely different working methods. Some members used photographs to document how water was treated as a raw material, an economic commodity; others used the medium’s poetic potential to explore the intrinsic value of water. But whatever the approach, we all felt that the collective work would convey a stronger message than any of the individual efforts.
The Water in the West group met yearly for about a decade, in San Francisco, Riverside, Arcata and Zzyzx in California; in Reno, Nevada; in Salina, Kansas; and Tucson, Arizona. We held exhibitions, lectures and symposia, and two publications resulted from our work, A River Too Far and Arid Waters. The project disbanded in 1997 when group members donated their work to the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson, which has preserved it in an archive. But most of us have continued to make photographs related to the physical, cultural and political aspects of water in the West. And unquestionaby the topic is as important now as it ever was, and if history is a guide, it will remain so. Just this morning, in my home in Tempe, Arizona, I turned to the editorial page of the local newspaper, the Arizona Republic, and found this warning: “Plan Now for a Drier Future.”