Partner Schools
Print Archive
Peer Review


Partner News
Peer Reviewed
Poetry & Fiction


Cities + Places
Design History
Design Practice
Film + Video
Health + Safety
Politics + Policy
Public + Private

Design Observer

Job Board

Comments Posted 10.26.11 | PERMALINK | PRINT | VIEW SLIDESHOW

Gallery: Center for Creative Photography & Mark Klett

Water in the West

Photographs from the Water in the West archive at the Center for Creative Photography, clockwise from top left: Mark Klett, Cul de Sacs: Failed Development West of Phoenix, "Estrella," 1990. Peter Goin, Golf Course at Marriot Motel Desert Springs Resort at Palm Desert, California, 1987. Ellen Land-Weber, Arcata Marsh Slough After Global Warming, 1998. Robert Dawson, Open book on the desert, Paiute junk yard, near Nixon, Nevada, 1990. [All photos copyrighted by the respective photographers.]

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."

— Mark Klett

Editors' Note

On Thursday, October 27, at 5:30 pm, the Center for Creative Photography will host a panel discussion featuring project directors Robert Dawson and Ellen Manchester, along with photographer Sant Khalsa and writer Rebecca Solnit, followed by a book signing. The public can also view selected photographs from the Center’s collection, beginning at 4 pm.

About the Center for Creative Photography

The Center for Creative Photography, an archive, museum and research institution at the University of Arizona, was chosen as the repository for the Water in the West archive because of its history of collecting the life's work of photographers as well as their images, and because the center's mission includes making its holdings available for study. Today, the entire CCP collection contains over 90,000 photographs by 2,200 photographers and nearly 5 million archive objects.

The Water in the West archive includes more than 800 photographs from the project and numerous related materials — contact sheets, biographical information, meeting notes, project proposals, press releases, correspondence, exhibition and symposium announcements and press coverage — which are available as a resource for teachers and researchers.

Soon, all photographs from the archive will be available online at the University of Arizona Institutional Repository, where you can now view over 25,000 photographs from the CCP’s broader collection.

— Cass Fey, Curator of Education

Share This Story


Landscape Forensics

Manifest Destiny: A Guide to the Essential Indifference of American Suburban Housing

Forgetting Guantánamo, Again

Living with Mies: The Towers at Lafayette Park

Creatures of Helsinki

Don't have an account? Create an account. Forgot your password? Click here.



Donate to Places: Your Support Makes Our Work Possible


A selection of images from the Water in the West Project.
View Slideshow >>


Mark Klett is Regents' Professor of Art at Arizona State University and a contributing editor of Places. His latest book is The Half-Life of History. 
More Bio >>


MORE ON American West

From the American West to West Berlin
On Places, Nicole Huber and Ralph Stern explore the "border crossings" of Wim Wenders — the director's cinematic journeys from Paris, Texas to the West Berlin of The Wings of Desire.

800 Miles: Photographing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline
On Places, a portfolio of photographs by Peter Bo Rappmund, who has documented nearly every mile of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Heavy Metal
On Places, photographer Dennis DeHart traces the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes through one of the world's largest and most contaminated historic mining districts.

Look Only at the Movement
On Places, a documentary project by Jamie Kruse and Elizabeth Ellsworth of Smudge Studio, focusing on the materiality of nuclear waste transport.

Walking the Darkness Home
On Places, Adelheid Fischer recounts a journey to the Grand Canyon — to a dangerous and redemptive place that by turns epitomizes and defies the expectations (and clichés) of the famous landscape.

Resurveying the West
On Places, a slideshow of images of the American West by the New York-based photographer Victoria Sambunaris and the 19th-century pioneer William Henry Jackson, curated by Aaron Rothman.

Camino del Diablo
On Places, photographer Mark Klett journeys along the Camino del Diablo in the Sonoran Desert, much of which is now a bombing range, and finds a landscape of forbidding danger and compelling beauty.

Nowhere and Everywhere: The Landscape of the Colorado Delta
On Places, planner Armando Carbonell explores, in aerial photographs, the fragile yet resilient landscapes of the Colorado River Delta.

Above Lake Las Vegas
On Places, aerial photographs of the bankrupt luxury communities of Lake Las Vegas, by Michael Light.

We Are in a Western Town
On Places, Aaron Rothman explores the enduring power of the photographs of Robert Adams, and what they reveal about the paradoxical landscape of the American West.

Drylands: Water and the West
On Places, an essay and slideshow by Peter Arnold and Hadley Arnold of the Arid Lands Institute, on what they call "the largest and least understood environmental challenge of the 21st century."

If There Be Such Space
On Places, a slideshow drawn from a collaborative exhibition by two photographers who share an interest in the perception and representation of natural landscapes.

Thirsty City
On Places, Austin Troy assesses the massive infrastructure required to bring water to the arid American West — and the huge amount of energy that makes it possible to take a shower in Los Angeles.

The Hills Are Alive
On Places, Michael Branch reflects on how deeply photography and film shape our landscape aesthetics (and how much he detests the Alpine-worshipping The Sound of Music).

Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City
On Places, Andrew Ross analyzes the contradictory political and economic forces that once made Phoenix the fastest-growing city in the U.S. — and today a prime casualty of the crash.

The Half-Life of History
On Places, writer William Fox and photographer Mark Klett document the semi-ruin of the WW II military airfield at Wendover, Utah, where the U.S. Air Force trained for the bombing of Hiroshima.

Views Across Time
On Places, an interview with photographer Mark Klett and a slideshow from his ongoing rephotography project, with views across time of the American West.

The Edge of Light: Wendover
On Places, photographs by Brian Rosa and Adam Ryder document the nighttime mysteries of Wendover, where military history, land-speed racing and the casino industry make for unexpected juxtapositions.

Soundscapes: Burning Man
On Places, a selection of soundscapes — ranging from dust storms to diesel generators — recorded by architect Nick Sowers at the latest Burning Man.

Burning Man and the Metropolis
On Places, Nate Berg looks at Burning Man, and how a beach party in San Francisco mushroomed into a week-long temporary city of 50,000 out in the Nevada desert.

Land, Speed and Bonneville
On Places — coinciding with Speed Week at Bonneville — a gallery created by architect Martin Hogue documents decades of land speed racing on the Bonneville Salt Flats of western Utah.

Las Vegas
Writer and critic William L. Fox reviews Las Vegas, by Nicole Huber and Ralph Stern, probing the improbable success of the gambling-entertainment world-city constructed in the midst of the Mojave.

Urbanizing the Mojave
America's greatest boomtown has gone bust. Architects Nicole Huber and Ralph Stern explore the cultural and environmental consequences of the rapid expansion of Las Vegas into the Mojave Desert, tracing a troubled history of mining, militarization, tourism, and water politics.

MORE BY Mark Klett

07.15.13: Camino del Diablo
09.27.11: The Half-Life of History
07.11.11: Views Across Time
09.08.09: Placing Memory
More by Mark Klett >>