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Western Landscape Work - Dan Powell

Artist Statement - August 4, 2009

My work done in the western landscape began in 1984.  I had been teaching for 3 years in Iowa and began to teach a view camera course, and consequently started using the tool myself.  My former teacher, James Sahlstrand, gave me an 8x10 camera in this year also, which I didn’t use in the landscape until 1987 when I bought a new one.  I did use the 8x10 for studio work, however, such as “Studio A and B” series.  My new interest in large format, and the formalism available to it, combined with a tremendous yearning for the desert country of my youth.  So in this year, 84’, I began by photographing in the badlands of South Dakota, on a short trip through this country.  This trip confirmed my desire to photograph in these desert environments. 

This marked the beginning of a rather split career for the next 6 or so years, where I was involved in studio work as well as landscape work.  It was a major turn in my work, and though immensely different these 2 things were, there were definite relationships as well.  One began to inform the other.  It was the beginning of expanding my studio space to the outdoors.  It was the beginning of photographing on (and often from) the road.  Driving and drifting through the landscape, ‘seeing’ that constantly continues to unfold and change into something else, akin to watching a movie, or the way in which language itself operates (images and meanings re-combining constantly).  Always new connections being made as past glides into future.  Ironically being a still photographer, I was interested in locating some point of interest within this ever-moving scenario.  The work I did in the west, and this idea of drifting, was extended in the work I did in Europe and the northern Mediterranean later on.  I found great contentment in the combination of traveling and photographing, initially with only loosely felt intentions regarding camera vision. 

Regarding the notion of drifting I was very influenced in my youth by…… watching tv programs in the late 50’s – 70’s, such as “Route 66” and “Kung Fu”, where new adventures beckoned with every new town, and where simply ‘moving on’ was intricately linked to desire.  Being young in the 60’s also was equally as influential to me, traveling and living once for 6 months in a Volkswagen bus, which provided for me an early and romantic model of the sublime pleasures of drifting (movement from place to place with few intentions).  Not to mention the idealized carefree lifestyle of this entire period; shunning the system and its sense of order and establishment values, in favor of activities that made an issue of irresponsibility toward those values.  

In 1985 I traveled to Europe and photographed there, but also drove back to Washington and photographed in the Mt. Saint Helens region 5 years after the eruption.  The landscape was devastated and I certainly photographed this, but was also interested in cultural developments there, memorials, rest area, cars crushed in the eruption, all of which indicated the way in which we rush in to enculturate and commodify a natural disaster. 

It was during these early years of landscape work that I decided to create a landscape portfolio of images.  Richard Zauft, a printmaking faculty member at the University of South Dakota at that time consented to make portfolio cases for the limited edition of 20 portfolios titled “Western Lands”  The portfolio contained 14 images.  It took several years for the cases to be finished, during which time some images were replaced by newer ones that I had taken.  It was finally made available in 1988-89.

In 1986 and 87 I again returned to Washington to photograph with the 4x5. 1987 was the year I began teaching in Oregon, which fit perfectly for my work in this region.  Once stationed here, I took trips constantly into the central and eastern regions of Oregon on weekends and vacations, and began using 8x10 as well as 4x5 cameras.  In 1990 I received a summer research award from the U of Oregon to travel and photograph throughout the west.  I divided the summer into 3 distinct trips:  1.) Central and Eastern Washington state 2.) Eastern Oregon and Western Idaho, 3.) and finally the longest of the trips which was through California on rte. 395 to Death Valley and through Nevada, Arizona and the Canyonlands of Utah, Nevada again and back through Oregon.  These trips occupied most of the summer and were taken alone so that I could deal with what came along as I wished.  I’m also sure that constant stopping and starting (I was constantly pulling over to consider a scene) would be maddening to anyone along for the ride.  I took 4x5 Wista field camera (always set up on tripod ready to go in the back seat) and a backup 6x9 cm. Fuji camera, which I made a great deal of negatives with.  I sometimes stayed in motels (mostly when I needed to change film holders) and also camped out often.  (I always had to see the room before checking in to see if I could cover the bathroom window to make a dark room.)  It was one of the most perfectly free experiences of my life, and I was devoted to the cause of photographing. It was an extremely productive period and many of the images come from that summer. 

However, over time, direction in the work set in more and more.  In photographing, the intentions I came to have involved formal investigations which were fully in accord with the view camera.  Attention to composition, juxtaposition of unrelated objects and conditions, light, and other formal treatments were important.  Later, particularly in the work of late 80’s and 90’, I wanted each image to explode with references and meanings that were complex, yet subtle.  In finding these ‘sites’ I was moved to treat the landscape as a vast ever moving stage upon which a wide variety of visual dramas played themselves out, and a sense of irony, a rather postmodern mix of information that manifest itself.  These things became intentions through experience, and developed slowly as I continued to photograph, and as a result of using the road as my guide.  For instance, early work in 84 was much about a fascination for detail and  photographic ordering of the land itself (I once spent a few weeks just photographing a stand of giant sagebrush near Ellensburg with the 8x10).  As I continued in later years, the work became more about the land as body.  The way the land is used and occupied by us, tears in the land, boats cutting through water, roads coursing through devastated landscape, drainage pipes emerging from the land, a tire stuck in a crevice of rock, all have an uncanny sense of the medical and a kind of sexuality as well.  I was interested in ways that we live on the land and how we create landscape through our own image.   I was interested in human marks on the land, a flickering back and forth between land and culture that typify the west in a sometimes easy, sometimes uneasy relationship.  A leisurely but also often a very disheveled way of interacting with the landscape was compelling to me.

I was less interested in being a landscape photographer and more interested in carrying forward and transforming my interest in constructed imagery and studio juxtaposition into the land.  I thought of it as a vast, constantly moving theatre or studio.  And I also allowed myself to be a product of my times, and as many landscapes were available to me, shifting and combining, I photographed what I saw and didn’t limit myself to a singular specific vision.  Consequently, the images in this collection constitute a wide variety of attitudes and conventions within image making in the land-from purely pictorial to work (though I wasn’t specifically interested in this but couldn’t resist when it presented itself) to work that is more in keeping with the ‘New Topographics’ movement in landscape work and therefore more conceptually and culturally influenced.

In 1991 I began my second marriage which was significant to this conversation because  though my wife and I did continue to travel and photograph  for awhile in Oregon, our allegiance soon shifted to a different kind of travel in the northern Mediterranean region of Europe in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.  Also, during the entire time I was photographing in the west from 1984-1991, I was still doing a great deal of studio work.  In fact, as my love for photographing in the land developed, I decided that I would be able to split my devotion to both of these purposes.  It turned out to be more difficult than I thought, however, as the two investigations were so different.  As a consequence also, I showed the landscapes very little, it was really a bit of a closet activity for me in relation to the showing record I had already set up as a constructed image photographer.

Visit Dan Powell's website.

Last revision: 10/09/2011
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