WildFire Prophecies

WildFire Prophecies is a series of photographs that documents the blackened remains of forests after raging wildfires have decimated their ecosystems. These forests are home to threatened species: Sequoia and Redwood trees, ancient Douglas Fir, and Western Red Cedar. These trees are the keepers of time that thrive in old-growth forests. Old-growth forests embody slow time, a past made up of ancient trees and immovable glaciers. As wildlands vanish into ash, the structural legacies for old growth conditions are erased. Their scorched remnants embody the sublime.

A FireScape is an area of burnt forestland recovering back to an intact biodiversity. Named after a Coronado National Forest program for the survival of bionomically sound forests, FireScapes are sites of despair and rejuvenation that exemplify fast and slow time. Wildfires rage to the sound of runaway trains, dormant seedlings emerge from the combusted soil.  As the trees go up in smoke, these haunted WildFire Prophecies are a warning that climate change is upon us. 

Lands in The Public Trust

The National Parks are America's jewels but they occupy a tangential space in the American psyche.   They are beset by news of unprecedented fires, disappearing water and mismanagement.  They are under budget and under-staffed and despite public idealization our parks are not considered a voter concern in elections.  They are places to flee to in a  pandemic world, but an uneducated stream of visitors has trampled their fragile ecosystems. The impacts on National Parks from governmental neglect, overuse, resource extraction, wildfire and environmental degradation have made them vulnerable in ways they have never been before. 

My photographs celebrate the beauty of the natural world,  but they also chronicle how humans harm the biology of plants, animals, lakes and rivers and forests meant to bring them harmony.  My recent focus has been on the spectacle of the burnt forest as a harbinger of a  new natural landscape that bears echoes of the sublime.  As climate change continues to evolve these haunted  landscapes will increase in number and will stand as a reminder of what mankind has done to the planet.

Chasing The West

The images in Chasing the West, are panoramic photographs made when I was traveling westward on summer pilgrimages from the Midwest to my home. Stuck in the landlocked state of Iowa, it was a comfort to believe my ideal of the West still existed in all its natural beauty. I camped in my 1964 Airstream, from National Park to State Park and felt like I was almost catching up with what I'd missed. But climate change and population growth throughout the Western states wreaked havoc on the natural world in my absence. I found existing industries, mining, gas, and timber extraction, continued to mar the terrain. 

I considered how to use the physical form of the photograph in an historic manner and employed a Horseman SW612 Panoramic camera, in addition to my 4x5  Linhof,  both as an homage to the Western expedition photographers I'd studied with Beaumont Newhall at the University of New Mexico, and with a nod to the amateurs I encountered on the highway, using the “stitch”mode of their Kodak or Panasonic digital cameras to capture the full expanse of the natural world as they saw it. 

Inventory of My Mother's House

Inventory of My Mother’s House,  is an installation of images of the objects in my parents' house. As a group these photographs reflect  their willingness to consume the  products that symbolize the good life, a treasure trove of post-industrial kitsch. These images testify that mass production has created an effluvium of products with  little or questionable value, objects whose functions are emotional, collectibles and Franklin Furnace statuary that stand for the "authentic."

In many ways my parents' house was a postmodern space. Organic and unintentional, its evolution from necessity to ornament mirrored both their economic status and the robust health of an insatiable economy inclined toward the production of trifles. The walls of their house displayed all eras and styles, all represented with equal weight, nothing was more important than anything else, and so nothing could be thrown away. This collection of discardables, impossible to dispose of, decorated my childhood.

My parents steadfastly refused to part with their collection, it made me wonder if these objects were incantations of their past. The house belonged to my parents, and certain objects were my father's, but this collection was orchestrated by my mother. Together, these images propose a narrative beyond the discretion of one nuclear family, encompassing a middle class post war American utopia whose promises were never kept. 

Tree Rings - Keepers of Time

Keepers of Time, is a photographic study of tree rings from the Laboratory of Tree Ring Research (LTRR), at the University of Arizona, Tucson.  These archeological remnants are central to disciplines that span biology, archaeology, aesthetics, climate reconstruction, wildfire recovery and environmental studies.  The LTRR’s multi-taxon collection is an irreplaceable source of biological and human information that includes a record of the oldest trees in the world. The images in The Keepers of Time, also document the transformation of tree specimens into objects of study: embedded with artifacts of research: scientific notations, bits of tape, wads of cotton and strands of string, new identities accumulated in their lives as dendrological subjects.

Making these photographs, and living with them over time has allowed me to engage in magical thinking about the hidden lives of objects, combining the scientific facts they provide, the personal narratives they invoke, and the historical and cultural associations they engender.

Through my camera’s lens, I discover the messages held within these specimens, and through my photographs, I relay these messages as the pictures tell their stories.

Dear Melda,

Dear Melda, is a series of photographs from an abandoned house in Iowa City, Iowa in 2015.  The owner, Melda Black, had been transferred to hospice care in Minneapolis. After she died her house remained unoccupied for years.  Upon entering her domain, I found myself attracted to the data Melda left behind, not her personal belongs, bursting closets of clothes, knick-knacks, and furniture, but stacks of moldy newspapers in her basement, bundles of letters, photographs and notes tied together with rubber bands and sequestered in shoe boxes. The belongings that mattered the least to other people meant the most to me.  They narrate an average Midwestern woman's propensity to collect and save bits of information, markers of history as it were. Whatever the circumstances, her receipts and Christmas cards became her relics, place-marks of nostalgia. They are a record of her tragedies and disappointments interspersed with ordinary moments in her life.  Soon after I discovered her house, it was razed by bulldozers and hauled to the dump. I believe metaphorically, that was her actual demise.  Unless one considers these images linking her to the accumulation of digital ephemera, and stored in some imaginary cloud, a rational repository.

911-The World Trade Center 2001

Visiting the site of the World Trade Center in the weeks following the 911 attack was an emotional experience.  The tourism of terrorism drew an army of visitors, standing ten and twelve feet deep, 24 hours a day, gazing into the smoking pit that was America’s new relationship with terror.  When one brave visitor poked a hole in the canvas, unveiling a dead-on view at the ruin of the towers, a queue of spectators lined up to take turns peeking through the tiny aperture, like a lens in its prescribed range and fixed angle, to observe what was unbearable, a “forbidden” sight.

Television crews, workers, police and National Guardsmen were granted access to the site as it was excavated. You could get a better view on television than you could in downtown Manhattan.  The need for a personal encounter with ground zero drew people despite themselves.  The site of the WTC was a place of many transparent interposed realities.  The memory of the buildings, their placement and familiarity, was counter-posed with their absence.   The aftermath of skeletal remains became a haunting metaphor of loss, enormous elegiac tombstones.  Armed National Guard, U.S. Army and New York City Police stood before the barricades insisting no photography was allowed, yet every means of depiction from Instamatic snap shooters and home video cameras, to digital imaging systems were everywhere. Everyone had a camera, and all seemed compelled to record the scene in front of them.

Unlike the mediated glimpse offered by network news, looking at the ruins was an “event” in which the duration and level of scrutiny were self-determined.  The bridge between the network’s media events and our incomprehensible gaze was the photograph.  The photograph with its inherent nostalgia and intrinsic loss confronts and comforts us: culture tells us that if we take a photograph, we have accomplished something. The photograph doesn’t replace language or vision or reality, but it plays a role in how we adjust to the capricious nature of existence.  Photography replicates that moment, whether random, mindless, or merely arbitrary when the world changes from benign to monstrous.  Like a phantom limb the emotional caliber of the photograph speaks to that which is truncated, missing, eviscerated, disappeared.

Here Is New York, was created from a gallery space open to anyone who made photographs of 911 during and after the towers fell in Downtown Manhattan in 2001.  My work was included in the subsequent publication by the same name.

A Spy In The House That Castro Built

My trip to Cuba was the most challenging travel destination of my life. My intention was to photograph street life as a tableau emphasizing the architecture of Cuba. I had made similar work in  Shanghai, China, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and New York City. This required making multiple stitched exposures using a tripod. My second day there I tripped getting off a bus, and dropped my tripod. That was the end of my proposed project. I soon realized there are no photography shops or camera stores in Cuba, and no repair shops to fix a broken tripod.  I learned that Cubans use strips from beer or Coke cans to repair broken equipment.  Three different men tried to add small strips from aluminum cans to my tripod, but to no avail.  I didn’t have the tools I needed and had to change my project.

As a photographer, I’ve traveled all over the world, but I did not understand Cuba. I wandered into the barrio in the middle of the night with my Canon 5D, never realizing I was in danger, or that no sensible woman would venture there after dark. I was soon lost, no one spoke english, and I ended up walking around in circles with my expensive camera in the dark, it was not a good experience. When I told people what I did, they were astonished that I survived. One woman related a story of an Italian woman in the same area who was hit over the head with a bottle and robbed the next day. I will always believe I used up a few guardian angels that night.

I returned to my undergraduate pursuit of old-fashioned Street Photography. I also returned to my study of objects as messengers or icons of meaning, as I had in, Inventory of My Mother’s House. I was interested in depicting all levels of society, through places, objects, manner of dress and posture. I stayed in Casas Particulares, rooms in people’s homes, and I was regarded with suspicion by men wearing Cuban army fatigues. In Havana I ate a sandwich from a small shop recommended by my host and got debilitating food poisoning, which lasted three days. I could neither eat nor drink anything but water and eventually yogurt.  I had to cancel part of my trip. They have first aid stations at the tourist hotels. I had to visit the nurse three times before the symptoms abided. I think she finally gave me antibiotics.

The next day there was a tremendous rainstorm, the electricity went out in parts of Havana, streets and homes were flooded. I was staying at the Parque Central Hotel and part of the dining room ceiling caved in.  I moved to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba where it was raining inside the elevators. Watching workman on the street trying to fix the power was horrifying as bare wires dripping with rain dangled from the outsides of buildings.

I had never been to a resort, they cost the same as a hotel in Varadero, where I landed from Vancouver Canada, so I gave it a try. I was mesmerized by the branding of guests at differing levels of economic status using colored wrist bracelets, with only a few granted access to updated more elaborate facilities.  It was eerie walking on the beach, seeing different colors of bracelets from up and down the strip, each signifying access to low dollar or glamorous resorts.  It gave me pause, I thought about how people are branded in general by the color of their skin, their work, how much money they make, where they live and how they present themselves.

Thus, this work is a mishmash of people and places, both private and public, in small towns, in resort towns, in the countryside and in Havana.  While these considerations were part of my original intention, the means of depiction changed. I believe they tell a story of this sliver of time. I did feel like a spy, I was certainly treated as if I was a spy, thus the title: A Spy in the House That Castro Built.

The Gated Resort: A New Colonialism

 I became interested in photographing resorts after a visit to Cuba, where I encountered the systematic division of guests, through hierarchically coded wrist bracelets, signifying their status and indicating their level of privilege. I continued photographing resorts because it was such a perfect tableau of rich and poor, of dark skin and light skinned people, working class and service class individuals. This hierarchy was an ancient old-world system that echoed the relationship between Western colonizers and the colonized populations of Third World countries.

I have considered myself an outsider and been treated as one many times. As a single lesbian in a playground full of heterosexual couples, I did not fit in to that cultural agreement nor did I want to.  In this case, the separation between me, and the resort community was comforting. Or so I thought. Of course I was there, a paying guest, so despite my efforts to separate myself, I was just another resort guest with a camera, just like the other resort guests. I thought the difference was that they pointed the camera at each other, and I pointed the camera at the staff, the cooks, the housekeepers, the pool boys, and the groundskeepers.  But my camera’s gaze was interpreted as any other scrutinizing lens by my subjects, whose rehearsed poses and automated smiles were for outsiders, just another part of their job.   I believed I could make a statement with this work, but it placed me into a hierarchy more brutal and suspect than the assignment of colored bracelets.  I wanted no part of this world, even though I was inextricably bound to it through the color of my skin, my leisure wear clothes, and my expensive camera. I do not go to resorts any longer, but I live in the world that echoes their sensibility and mirrors their unquestioned participation in the first world and all that it offers.

Later, I returned to a resort I had frequented and handed out portraits to the people that worked there.  One man, a dish- washer, came to me with tears in his eyes and told me no one had ever taken his picture and given it to him.  This was small comfort and did not erase the sins I felt I had committed in our unequal positioning, but it was one good deed.

The images were made in resorts from a variety of locations including Cuba, Mauritius, Mexico and the United States.

The Living and The Dead: The Neapolitan Cult of the Skull 

The Living and the Dead: Resurrecting the Neapolitan Cult of the Skull, is a photographic record of the vast system of catacombs and aqueducts that snake beneath the streets and crumbling churches of Naples, Italy. The photographs examine the relationship between religious tradition, ancient architecture, and the cult of the purgative soul. They trace the roots of early Christian religious traditions, offering evidence of mankind’s totemic need to manifest belief in a cycle of death and rebirth. These images peer into spaces that recall early Christian history, building bridges to the otherworldly rituals in which the corporal skull represents the ephemeral soul. It is this subterranean maze, binding together the skeins of religion and family ties, historic architecture and abandoned spaces that compels my work.

During my first visit to Naples, in the summer of 2000, I was fascinated by the subterranean labyrinth of aqueducts, crypts, and catacombs beneath the city. Using photography, I explored the cabalistic nature of the catacombs, recording the bizarre hierarchy and ancient configurations of skeletal remains. These hidden spaces provided insight into the social structure of Naples, a culture that has sustained the practice of the “Cult of the Skull,” for centuries, and whose unique character has been commented on throughout history by an array of literary figures such as Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Walter Benjamin. 

The ritual practices of the catacombs also collapse time, continuously reframing them as ruin, as memorial, and as a link to the afterworld.  Using images from The Living and the Dead: The Neapolitan Cult of the Skull, I mean to extend the definition of the photographic document. These images continue my investigation of spaces that represent accumulated histories and experiences, spaces that continue to define and inform the present. These images physically replicate the past, not only as relics but also as events, bearing traces of bodies in their most elemental form. 

After 911 I kept seeing the partly shrouded bodies in the damaged churches as embodiments of the eviscerated souls from the World Trade Center.  The photographs were made from 2000 and 2003.

China: A Walk Through Time

These panoramic photographs document urban spaces in Shanghai, and in the rural communities in Yangshuo County, in China in 2009.  The Chinese migration from countryside to cityscape drew thousands of people from small villages to the fringes of major cities. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese have moved to Shanghai to build the enormous construction projects that will house “Expo 2010”. The slogan to promote Shanghai’s Expo is “Better City, Better Life.”  The long-term effects of Expo 2010 remain to be seen.  The eventual fate of its workers is an unknown factor in how Shanghai will look and feel after many of the enormous structures created for International World Pavilions have been torn down.

I made panoramic photographs in Yangshou County, Guilin and Xingpingzhen, small towns clustered around the Lijiang river, documents of life in rural China where there are no buses, most people do not own cars, and traveling is principally conducted by motorcycle, bicycle, or on foot.  I loved it there; the Karst mountains and the crystal blue river were an astonishing complement to one another.  I rented a bicycle and rode around the small villages, and made photographs, it was bliss. 

All photographs were made in Shanghai and Yangshou, China in December of 2009.

Vietnam: The Street as Community

These photographs document the disparate architectural amalgam of population centers, such as Ho Chi Min City, Hanoi, and Hue, with small town life.  In Vietnam the contemporary landscape is a constantly evolving canvas.  Altered by American carpet-bombing in the sixties, colonized by the Chinese and the French for hundreds of years.  And now subject to an array of government projects, that alter both the land and sea including a Marine Economic Zone in the central province of Quang Tri, which includes dredging an “artificial deep-waterseaport”. 

Vietnam is a true urban palimpsest, a composite of French colonial architecture, traditional stilt buildings made of wood, and spiffed up tourist destinations to meet expectations of authenticity for tourists.  Christian churches, Buddhist shrines and spirit shires all crowd the visual terrain along with remnants of the post Vietnam War landscape, or the American War, if you are Vietnamese, including cemeteries, and monuments to fallen heroes erected in cities, towns, and villages, all adding to this complex dynamic. 

These palimpsests serve as a visual reminder of the dynamic between public space and politics.  Perhaps the notion of the palimpsest applies to both the real and historical landscapes of Vietnam, but also to the many existing photographic depictions the county is burdened with.  This work adds a few more visual descriptions of contemporary Vietnam to the plethora of interpretations by invaders, opportunists and well-meaning historians and documentarians to define it. 

Detained in Purgatory 1997-2000

Detained in Purgatory: America's Abandoned Prisons, provides access to places viewers might not venture—either physically or spiritually--and attempts to provide emotional and mental images of the current state of America’s Prisons.  These photographs of abandoned prisons around the United States re-describe a system of incarceration whose countenance is represented in the public mind as young Black, Native American, or Latino males, and women of color.

The contemporary American Criminal Justice System, or as Angela Davis has described it,"The Prison Industrial Complex," represents many prurient interests, the most visible are economic and racial.  The prison system is the fastest growing industry in the United States, and privatization one of the hottest topics as private prisons are seen as a viable means of reviving small communities with vastly expanding prison populations and shrinking natural resources and industry.                                

These photographs were made at Alcatraz Island, Ellis Island, Eastern State Penitentiary and Jamesville Penitentiary.  They propose all prisons should be abandoned, the prisons we are building should be halted and incarceration in the county reexamined.  Previously prison was seen as rehabilitation, reintroducing individuals to society as viable members of their community.  Modern prisons are truly penal,  they are constructed and organized around punishment, and make no effort to reconstruct either bodies or souls.  Finally, these abandoned prison spaces are embodiments of the gothic nature of imprisonment, its barbarity, its isolation, its intolerance, and its basic inhumanity. 

One Picture is Worth A Thousand Words

The photographs in One Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words, are combinations of image and text that are my reading of the dignity and richness of the family image.  The aphorisms, or sayings, are a record of the vernacular wisdom of early twentieth century America.  Each image is poster-sized, 2 by 3 feet, and like a product of popular culture signage has stenciled text applied onto the surface. By grafting the text directly on the photograph my intention is to altera nd subvert the reading of the image.  For example, Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction: is an example of how amateur photography subtly captures picture making strategies from the larger cultural arena.  When I was working with these photographs I believed I was re-inventing their meaning, but I discovered that meaning had already been placed there by their makers—my parents.  Media of all types had already inculcated them with the means to interpret their experiences and strategies, and to present themselves within that context.

In my family, awareness of self, and the presentation of self, was articulated through quaint bits of language, often in a quasi-religious context.  For example, Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth, both language and image share equal provenance.  My family used proverbs in a primitive way that belonged to a tradition rapidly being supplanted by institutionalized speech.  For them, the aphorisms, such as those displayed on the photographs, were linked with literary aspirations and old world Irish folklore that imparted an essential rightness to what was spoken. 

In retrospect, I believe my parents used these witticisms and directives as a defense against a shifting and unreliable world.  It was telling that these negatives, found in their basement, already expressed their beliefs. Whatever their intentions, language itself became their consolation, more valuable than the experiences themselves. I found the opposite equally true, language, like the photograph is empty.  The photograph never reveals the past but mystifies it. The photograph becomes its own truth, revealing not the past but the inert contents of the image itself.     

New York Narratives

These large format photographs of New York City combine traditional and contemporary styles of looking at the urban landscape.   By working in a “classic” manner--with large format black and white film—and using New York City as subject material, I am following in the footsteps of women photographers who worked with large format cameras to generate aesthetic records of New York.  Bernice Abbott in the 1930’s and Margaret Bourke-White in the 1940’s and 1950’s made seminal images of New York that stand today as among the most carefully seen and beautifully rendered images we have of the city.

 This work poses questions about how photographs are defined as “modern” or “postmodern,”“contemporary” or “traditional” by their users and makers.  The deliberate use of slow shutter speeds creates a dynamic between moving and still figures and emulates the nineteenth century practitioners who made documents of urban spaces with limited means of describing motion.