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Interview: Victoria Sambunaris - Part I

Interview Interview: Victoria Sambunaris - Part I In Part I of our two part interview, photo-eye's Melanie McWhorter talks to Victoria Sambunaris about becoming a photographer, her documentary process and her new publication Taxonomy of the Landscape from Radius Books.

Taxonomy of a Landscape. By Victoria Sambunaris.
Radius Books, 2014.
Victoria Sambunaris has been photographing the far reaches of America for over twelve years, venturing out on solo journeys to the Alaskan frontier, Hawaiian volcanic landscapes and the United States/Mexico border among many other locations. Her desire to document the grand idea of the American Dream and how it manifests itself in the culture and landscape are based in her personal and professional experience and her exploration of many fields of study including geology, cartography, economics, and art. In her documentary process she uses journals, Polaroids and large format photographs to convey her ideas and create a personal record of her numerous explorations of the country.

The new book Taxonomy of a Landscape reproduces a selection of photographs from the long-term project. Hardbound with a pocket on the interior back board modeled after many of Sambunaris’s geological resource books, Taxonomy of the Landscape includes three mini booklets: an accordion fold of her Polaroids, a small pamphlet containing a short story by Barry Lopez and a perfect bound book with photographs of a few of her journal pages, a commissioned project in Yellowstone and rocks and other ephemera collected along the way (including her hatchet). Sambunaris’ work is multi-layered and to convey this complexity concisely in a book presents an enormous challenge, yet Radius Books succeeded in creating a publication that depicts the many stratum — if I many borrow a geological term — of Sambunaris’ work.

In August 2014, Radius Books and Lannan Foundation hosted Sambunaris in Santa Fe for two exhibitions, a book signing and lecture. I was honored to have the privilege to sit down with the artist for an interview. We are pleased to present part one of that interview here; Part II can be read here.—Melanie McWhorter


Melanie McWhorter:     I attended your Radius lecture in early August 2014, which you started with a photo of your family. Tell us a bit about why you start with this photo.

Victoria Sambunaris:     Because I'm talking about being from a family of Greek immigrants. My family came to the United States in the 1950s, so I show that photograph because we're sitting on pillars in front of the Parthenon, which I'm quite sure you can't do today.

I reference back to that photograph when I show a photograph by William Henry Jackson of Yellowstone National Park with people in front one of the geysers, and another photograph that was taken 14 years later by Carleton Watkins of people standing on the travertine terraces at Yellowstone National Park.

I was shooting at Yellowstone while researching its history and geology and found these photographs very interesting. Now there are walkways all over and you can't actually walk on those terraces. You can't touch things. You can't experience them in the same way that you could during another period of time.

Taxonomy of a Landscape. By Victoria Sambunaris. Radius Books, 2014.

MM:     Yes, it's interesting that you mention that your parents came over in the 1950s, because there were so many things going on in the United States at that time. It was post-World War II and suburbia was expanding. You talk about the idea of the American Dream. How has that influenced your work, especially being a first generation American?

VS:     Very much. My parents came in the 1950s, so there was a big exodus from Europe after World War II. They had big expectations for what this country would provide them and their family.

Throughout our childhood, our Greek heritage was very much a part of our lives. There was a big Greek community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and we were very much a part of that.

My parents imposed their ideas and expectations for what their children would become -- what the American Dream was to them, and how that would translate to their children. Education was number one. You educate your children. There was no doubt that we were all going to college, and we were all going to become professionals. "OK, doctor, lawyer, business." Those were the choices.

I remember I got my first camera at 14. I loved photography, and I took classes. My relationship to photography was really through Life Magazine and just looking at those picture magazines. I took black and white classes in High School and really fell in love with the medium. I remember saving my money to get the camera, and wanting photography to be somehow part of my life. But that really wasn't what my parents wanted for me. They didn't come this distance for me to be a poor artist.

I did my undergrad in Business, and tried. I was still doing photography and still interested, taking classes constantly. Then I came out with this Business degree, and I thought, "What on earth am I going to do?” Because this is not me.

I was living in Washington, DC, and I packed my bags, and I came to New York and kind of started again, started fresh. I didn't know anyone. I was staying in the Martha Washington Hotel for Women. I'll never forget; it was 1987 and I was looking out at this brick wall. I didn't know anyone, and I was crying. I thought, "What have I done? I left all my friends."

Taxonomy of a Landscape. By Victoria Sambunaris. Radius Books, 2014.

MM:     I think a lot of people have been there when they first got to New York.

VS:     Yeah, I think it's the typical experience when you first come to New York. But it's a really beautiful time, because you're alone and you're experiencing the city, or the place, for the first time. I guess in some way, that translates back into my work, because that's what I do in my work. I show up in some town that is foreign to me. Then I have to navigate my way through it, and discover it.

It can be hard psychologically. Sometimes I ask myself, "What am I doing here?" But once you start navigating it and researching and looking, a whole world opens up. It becomes so interesting. There are many parallels to my life -- and my youth, and my heritage and growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania -- in the way I conduct my life now.

I ditched my parent’s idea of the American Dream and created my own American Dream. And no regrets.

But you know, the American Dream also meant getting married and having a family.

MM:     Especially from a Greek background…

VS:     Oh yeah, yeah. Something that is hard for them to understand, especially being a woman and doing what I do. Going out alone on the road and not wanting to settle down. Just constantly searching.

MM:     Since you mentioned your gender, there was a lot of discussion about your background, even a little bit about your political inclinations, in your talk and the essays, but neither discusses gender. How do you feel that being a woman guides how you work and travel around the states?

VS:     Sometimes being a woman can work to your advantage. So many of the places I go are male dominated industries. I think they are curious as to who I am and what I’m doing here. What is this for?

As a photographer, they think either I’m a photojournalist, or ask “Where do these go, in calendars?” “How do you make money?” is a question that comes up. It's like, “No, I'm doing this for myself.”

But sometimes doors open up because I'm a woman. But then sometimes they don't because I think maybe... I'm remembering a couple instances where I may not have been taken as seriously.

But very few. I just have not found being a woman to be any kind of obstacle at all. In some ways, it has empowered me. When I'm camping alone other people at the campsite are usually recreating. I'm just needing a place to sleep. I'm not recreating, I'm not out there rock-climbing or roasting marshmallows. And I'm alone. It's interesting because there have been a number of times that women have come across the campground to me and asked "What are you doing? Why are you alone?" I explain to them I'm a photographer, and I'm alone because I want to be. I'm working.

For the most part, they are always good. I can only count a few shady instances, maybe on one hand. But it's all been good. People are really open and friendly. Regardless of politics.

Taxonomy of a Landscape. By Victoria Sambunaris. Radius Books, 2014.

MM:     When you go out, how long do you usually go for?

VS:     A minimum of say, three months. 2000 was my first trip out alone. I graduated from grad school in 1999 and I did this trip across the country with another grad student. Immediately after graduation, he said, "I'm going to LA, do you want to drive across the country with me?" I said, "Sure."

I packed all my equipment and I had never been West. I had only been up and down the East Coast. So we're driving west, and I kept repeating that I couldn't believe everything I was seeing. I thought, "This country is amazing. I can't believe I've never seen any of this."

I couldn't take one photograph on that trip because it was too grand -- too much. It was almost like I didn't know where to put the frame of the camera. It was overwhelming.

I got to California, flew back. Then decided, “OK, I've got to get on the road.”

June of 2000 was my first trip. I had been teaching, so waited until the school year was over, and then off...

MM:     That's where the three months comes in.

VS:     Yeah, for the first few years I only had three months to work. I would have to figure out where am I going, and what am I doing?

In 2003 I went to Alaska, and that is when I had to learn to camp. Because I did not camp up until then. I was staying in cheap motels.

Taxonomy of a Landscape. By Victoria Sambunaris. Radius Books, 2014.
MM:     Because there were no other options in Alaska?

VS:     There were no options. The first few nights driving across Canada, I would find an excuse, "Oh, it's too late to find a camp ground." Honestly, I was afraid, I guess.

Then I met this woman. She had a dog and I had a dog. She must have been like 80 years old. She said, "Are you camping here tonight?" I said, "Are you?" She said, "I'm camping. I'm going to keep going, but I'm camping." I said, if she can camp, I can camp.

I found the first camp ground, and pitched my tent. Some man comes in and camps near by. I'm like, "Why the hell is this guy camping so closely to me?" That's what you do when you camp. [Laughter] I had my hatchet in the tent with me, ready to whack somebody over the head.

I slept like a log, and I was the last one to wake up in the campground. Everybody was gone. I'm like, "This was amazing!" That was the beginning of the end. Now I really love camping more than I do motelling it. When moteling, I'm always at the worst of the worst ones because they are cheap. When camping, I don't have to worry about bed bugs in my stuff. I don't have to unload all my equipment. And I'm at the car. It's really perfect. I feel like I'm much more productive when I'm camping, too. I'll sit and I'll write, rather than turning the television on or something.

Taxonomy of a Landscape. By Victoria Sambunaris. Radius Books, 2014.

MM:     You're influenced by economics, geology, photography, cartography, and of course art, especially some of the Hudson Landscape School and Thomas Moran. How do you consider all these influences before you start the trip? And then how do they influence you along the way?

VS:     Everything you pick up and you see and you read just infiltrates the way you see the world. All the things that interest you; including music, including literature, including history, current events. Everything.

I think in the beginning the first trip that I took in 2000 I had a definite agenda. When I was in graduate school I was making work about my idea of the American Dream, and I was shooting suburban landscapes, and corporate campuses, and government campuses.

It was more of a literal idea about what the American Dream was, because that was the life that I was supposed to lead. I was supposed to have a good corporate job. Live in a nice suburban home with my family. I was exploring those ideas, and I was talking about them when I was in school, about the American Dream.

But this was in graduate school. And then I took the trip where I didn't take any photos. I'm suddenly looking at this whole world.


Read Part II of our interview with Victoria Sambunairs.

Sambunaris' book, Taxonomy of a Landscape, has just been published by Radius Books. Order a signed copy.