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Interview: Victoria Sambunaris - Part II

Interview Interview: Victoria Sambunaris - Part II In Part II of our two part interview, photo-eye's Melanie McWhorter talks to Victoria Sambunaris about her interest in geology, recent projects 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.

In part two of the interview with Victoria Sambunaris, the photographer talks with photo-eye’s Melanie Mcwhorter about how she developed an interest in geology in Alaska and her resulting passion for the writings of John McPhee. She tells how two projects that she produced along the United States/Mexico border ten years apart differ from the early years of NAFTA to the advent of the imposing border fence. Finally, the artist ventures into the world of photobook publishing by discussing her book Taxonomy of a Landscape released this year with Radius Books.

Part I of the interview was published last week. Read it here.


Victoria Sambunaris:     When I was in graduate school, I was nominated for a traveling grant. I was one of the few students who actually traveled for my work. I had a nice relationship with the architects who were housed in the same building as the art school. The photographers were in the basement, so I'd frequently go up to the sixth floor to talk to the architects, and they'd tell me about things like "Oh, you've gotta go to this place and see this community or see this building.” They had told me about this Ross Perot Jr. shipping and transport depot in Texas where containers loaded with all of our consumer goods come in on trains and are loaded onto trucks and from there travel out. The depot is actually on the Chisholm Trail, and it is a huge industrial landscape. I applied for the grant with this idea.

I didn't get the grant. I remember my professor Gregory Crewdson said, "I didn't get the grant either, but you know what? I went out and did it anyway." So I said, "Okay, I'm going to do it." So I went down there loaded with credit cards, and that was the first trip. From there I traveled south to Laredo where all the NAFTA industry was evolving. I was looking at these minimal boxes on the landscape and thinking about minimalism in art and consumerism in our culture and that was really the beginning, where I had a clear intent with a specific destination.

In 2001, I went up to the Midwest and northern states like Montana.

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

Melanie McWhorter:     What led you to Montana?

VS:     You know, I'm not even sure. I needed to see a different part of the country… not anything really specific, more exploring the territory. Then in 2003 I felt I needed to go to Alaska. I wasn’t sure what I was going to find there, but I needed more diversity, and I knew it was going to be really diverse — and there's the Alaska pipeline and the haul road that parallels it.

So I went there, and I was inspired by the many encounters I had with various people. I met Major Doug Anderson from the Army Corps of Engineers. I mentioned this encounter in the lecture that you saw-- we talked about Alaskan history and geology and why the pipeline is on the surface rather than underground and how permafrost affects the pipeline, and the way things are built in Alaska and the fact that 80% of Alaska is permafrost--permanently frozen earth. It's difficult to build because things shift as the permafrost melts so you have this pipeline that’s 4-feet in diameter, and it has hot crude oil running through it so it has to be above ground rather than below ground because it will shift.

He took me into the permafrost tunnel so I could see how they were researching methods for building in permafrost for the pipeline. We had a long drawn out talk before going into the tunnel. I was in this building for three or four hours talking about Alaskan history and the pipeline and permafrost and geology. That was the beginning, when I started investigating more and more and thinking about the many photographers who travelled like Walker Evans and the Farm Security Administration photographers going out and exploring the country, and thinking about Bernd and Hilla Becher driving their van with a ladder across the country and the whole slew of photographers that are in their cars.

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

I think you see those influences especially in my early work, and then I started to dig deeper than just the surface of making these minimal photographs. I started to investigate the landscape more thoroughly. In 2005, I drove across country to LA, got on a plane and went to Hawaii to look at volcanic landscapes, and then in 2006, I travelled the southern United States to look at caverns. I was looking at strictly geology and not looking at industry.

I almost needed those two years of looking at geology and trying to understand it in order to do the next body of work, which followed John McPhee's book Annals Of the Former World where over the course of twenty years he traveled with geologists across I-80 from New Jersey to San Francisco. It's a great book-- it explains specifics like why there's coal here in Pennsylvania and what the landscape looked like 360 million years ago. I started thinking about what the landscape was and how it’s evolved and where we are now that we are extracting coal from what was once a tropical forest millions of years ago. It added more intrigue for me and I became more and more curious and wanted to know more about what I was looking at.

In the book, John McPhee traveled with this geologist named David Love, so on that 2007 trip, I sought out David Love. I knew he was at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. I went to find him, and it turned out he had died a few years ago, but somebody told me that his son lived a few towns over and was also a geologist and a glaciologist. I found him and he invited me to go on this expedition to Yellowstone National Park in the upcoming fall. I drove back to NY, then flew back to Wyoming for the expedition and spent three or four days camping and traveling around Yellowstone with Charlie and his geology class looking at geology and thinking about why things look the way they do, the impact of geology and what exactly is happening at Yellowstone. After that expedition, I went back to NY and decided I would do a body of work on Yellowstone and the Snake River Plain in southern Idaho that has everything to do with the Yellowstone Caldera, the movement of the tectonic plates and why that landscape looks the way it does.

After that 2008 Yellowstone trip I went straight down to the US/Mexico border to start scouting. The border project was something I had on my mind for years and I knew it would be my next trip.

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

MM:     Talk a little bit about the Border trip. I was curious about it because it’s one place you mentioned you visited twice.

VS:     Yes.

MM:     Maybe not specifically the same route, but you went after NAFTA when it seemed like there was an easing of restrictions at the Border. Then you went back to see the wall... was it fully constructed?

VS:     It was fully constructed. Every time I go back the fence is higher—they keep replacing the fence and putting up a higher fence or a “better” fence.

MM:     What are the differences you saw between your trips?

Victoria: When I went in 2000, I was mostly in Laredo, and I think I may have gone through Del Rio and a few other places in 2005 on my way to Hawaii, but I wasn't looking at it the way I was nine years later when I went back to actually work the Border. The 2000 trip was just Laredo and the Dallas/Ft Worth area--I was looking at industry and the minimal “boxes” and thinking about consumerism which was very curious to me. My parents worked in factories so I guess that has something to do with my interest in whatever goes on in those windowless buildings and who's working there and what happens in there.

Taxonomy of a Landscape. By Victoria Sambunaris. Radius Books, 2014.
There was a specific reason I was down there in 2000 and a different interest in going back in 2009. After September 11, things were much more restricted. I was looking at the physical line that we’d placed in the landscape that is actually an entirety. It’s bizarre to see an enormous expanse of landscape, say a grassland with an infinite fence running through the middle of it. Or to see a fence running up the side of a mountain or dividing two towns that look like they are one. I was also exploring the natural divisions in the landscape, the Rio Grande, a canyon, etc. that create the border between the two countries. Looking at these divisions became the starting point for following that entire 2000 mile border.

I looked at how it was affecting people culturally and economically, because so many people have lives on both sides of the border-- families that were separated, farmers and ranchers who could no longer find workers. I have so much more to say about the experience of what I was seeing, and the different attitudes – predominately, Americans felt like that fence needed to be there.

MM:     You mentioned that the fence was already being built by the Minute Men.

VS:     There was a portion of a fence in Arizona that the Minute Men had started to build. But once the border fence built by the US government went up, the Minutemen abandoned their fence. If we look back at history, we can see that fences, walls don't work.

MM:     You have to invoke Sisyphus. With the Minute Men fence, it seems like it was more of a symbolic gesture than a barrier.

VS:     Another Hadrian’s Wall. In my talk, I mention how it brings up so many issues about our addictions like cheap labor, cheap goods, drugs to issues like our fear of foreigners—why isn’t there a fence on the Canadian border? It's very complex, it's very complex, the border situation.

MM:     You had your first monograph with Radius, congratulations.

VS:     Yes, thank you.

David Chickey holding a foldout from Taxonomy of a Landscape
MM:     David Chickey did a wonderful job designing it. How much did you participate in the process of the design of the book, production of the book, and what was your role aside from photography?

VS:     David was the perfect person to work with, because I was overwhelmed by the idea of doing a book. How do you consolidate twelve years of work? How are we going to put this together? But he was very gentle about the way he went about it. "Show me books that you like, and shapes of books that you like," and we started with that. That seemed very simple, so it was step-by-step, and we talked about what elements were important. We both decided that it should be chronological, which it is, and then asked how do we incorporate other elements of my work into the book? Like the ephemera, the short story by Barry Lopez.

MM:     Which is fantastic. I read it last night. It's so great.

VS:     It's an excellent, excellent story. I'm dying to meet him, and I really want to tell him how much it means to me that he gave us use of the story. I knew I wanted some element of literature. David and I had the conversation, and then I said, "What about this?" He read it and he said, "Perfect." It was a matter of tracking down Barry Lopez and trying to get permission to use it.

In the traveling museum show which started at The Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, I had a room of ephemera with all my minerals, my books, my maps, my journals, video, the gifts that people give me, and what we call Polaroids, but they're not Polaroids, they're snapshots. We did a 37-foot wall of over 1,600 snapshots that were installed in the show, so how do we incorporate that into the book?

I had shown David some geology books that I collect that have little pockets in the back for geology maps, and all types of drawings and other information about place and said, "Aren’t these books great?" And he made it happen. He figured it out. He figured out what it would be.

Yes, so I love that it references my geology books that are so important to me, that I travel with. My car is filled with books when I'm out there working. It was everything that I wanted it to be.

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

MM:     Would you consider doing a book of the snapshots or your journals?

VS:     Yes, I would. Down the line, I'll do the journals. Maybe when I'm 80 years old! I have started to transcribe some of the journals, but I think I need more experience out there, maybe more stories. There are already a lot of interesting stories and observations over the last years. The book and the museum show has expanded my work in profound ways that a show in a gallery hasn't always allowed me to do. It’s inspired new ideas for where I might go with the work.

MM:     Do you see this as an ongoing project?

VS:     Yes, absolutely. Until I die, but I feel like Taxonomy of a Landscape isn't over. It's the title of the show and the book, but it's a catalog of place, so that will continue as long as I continue, too.

Taxonomy of a Landscape. By Victoria Sambunaris. Radius Books, 2014.
MM:     You’ve already created a wonderful snapshot of a lot of the United States during a very specific time. I was reading something recently, was that the Edmund Burke quote in the essay?

VS:     Yes, Natasha Egan inserted that quote, and I just bought a book of his writing for more.

MM:     Doesn't it say something about the portrait of place in a specific time?

VS:     Place is always changing. I frequently go back to the same places and see them completely differently. In the lecture, I talk about Wendover and how many times I've been through Wendover, what it was and what it is now.

I see it differently every single time, and it's because I'm changing, too. The place is changing, but my perspective is changing, so when the first time I shot it, I was down low, looking at the white trains against the white salt flats. I was looking at specific things, closer in, and then in 2004, I went back and I pulled back, and I was looking at potash mines. It's a broader view from above. Then I went back again in 2007 and turned around and looked at the town. I'm always looking at it differently based on whatever I'm thinking about or reading or experiencing. Change keeps me interested and curious.


Read Part I of our interview with Victoria Sambunaris.

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