In Brief: Water In The West

Unbridged Crossing Destroyed By  Flood, Salt River, 1983; Mark Klett; Places

We have a wonderful range of articles planned for this week on The Art of the Rural and would like to begin today by briefly pointing folks toward yet another excellent feature on the Places site – an enlarging companion to last week’s article on the Epicenter project.

In this essay and slideshow, Mark Klett discusses the decade-long project Water In The West, and situates the work of these photographers and critics within the tradition of landscape photography of the American West. From the 1970s forward, these artists anticipated the kinds of discussions that are now occurring across this region. The work of these many artists counters the popular notions of this genre, as Mr. Klett describes it in his introductory paragraph:
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.  
The work which followed these photographers sought to correct the iconic romanticism of such views; for The Water in the West group, they acknowledged that “the clash of nature and culture has become the default subject for the landscape photography of our time,” and worked to create art that not only contained a pointed political critique, but could, more importantly, create a conversation:
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.
Mr. Klett’s essay and extensive slideshow of this group’s work can be viewed at Places, and it illuminates some prescient rural-urban concerns. From this article folks can also follow links to similar articles published in Places that consider both the history and the changing face of the American West.