Dan Powell Western Landscape work
Fine Art Photograph Collections
Dan Powell: Western Landscape work
Photographing in the western landscape began for me in 1984. Having taught for three years at the University of Northern Iowa I found myself simultaneously learning and teaching view camera, and soon began to use the tool in my own work. I first used the 4x5 and 8x10 for studio work such as the "Studio A and B" series, but soon 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, on a short trip through the badlands of South Dakota, I began photographing the west. This trip confirmed my desire to photograph in the land, and particularly in desert environments.
This marked the beginning of a rather split career for the next six or so years, where I was involved in studio work as well as landscape work. It was a major turn in my work, and as different as these two endeavors 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, was similar to the constant shifting and changing that I had always experienced in setting up a constructed image in the studio. This was a significant way in which my studio work informed my work in the land. I felt it was 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. Being a still photographer, of course, 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 satisfaction 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 1950s -- '70s, 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. Equally influential in my early 20s were authors such as Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller, and influence of Eastern Philosophy so prevalent at the time. All of this was tied up with being young in the '60s, and openly receptive to its magic. Hitchhiking, for instance, was not only a means to get from one point to another, but was also a social rite. Traveling and living for six months in a Volkswagen bus 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 five 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 endeavored to create a landscape portfolio of images. Richard Zauft, a printmaking faculty member at the University of South Dakota at that time, made portfolio cases for the limited edition of 20 portfolios titled Western Lands The portfolio contained 14 images with essay. 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 University of Oregon to travel and photograph throughout the west. I divided the summer into three 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 was constantly pulling over to consider a scene, which I knew would be maddening to anyone along for the trip. I took a 4x5 Wista SP 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 in which I could change film.) 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.
Over time, direction in the work set in more and more. My intentions involved formal investigations that were fully in accord with the view camera. The juxtaposition of unrelated objects and conditions, a kind of mixing of languages became important. Particularly in the work of late 1980s and '90s, I wanted each image to explode with references and meanings that were complex, yet subtle. In finding these "sites" I was again moved to treat the landscape as a vast ever moving stage upon which a wide variety of visual dramas played themselves out, wherein a sense of irony, a rather postmodern mix of information manifested itself. Reflected in the work also is an attention to 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 possess an uncanny sense of the medical and a kind of sexuality as well. I was interested in the wound created within the way that we occupy the land: there is no easy divide between the land and our own image. Subtle human marks on the land and a flickering back and forth between land and culture typifies the west in a sometimes easy, sometimes uneasy relationship. A leisurely but also often a very disheveled and antagonistic way that we interact with the land 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 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 of the '80s, and therefore more conceptually and culturally influenced. The landscape images were seldom exhibited as my career as an artist was already so dependent on constructed studio imagery. During the 1990s and through 2001 my photographic interests shifted from the west to the northern Mediterranean region of Europe.