This Land will be published by the University of Texas Press in March, 2017. For more information, visit utexaspress.com. Below Jack Spencer shares with us an essay, along with a selection of images from the book.
Recently, on the final shooting trip for this book, I was traveling on New York Highway 14 along the western flank of the Finger Lakes on my way to Watkins Glen. It had been a very long day, starting at five a.m. back in Pennsylvania, then up to Buffalo and on to Niagara Falls, which turned out to be a jarring experience. This is a place I’d always wanted to visit, and like the Grand Canyon it’s challenging to describe adequately in words or pictures. Surrounding the falls on both the U.S. and Canadian side is a tourist-trap riot of motels and fast-food joints and lame attractions, and most people seemed more interested in taking back-dropped “selfies” than in this powerful scene that nature had displayed before them. Although the falls are truly spectacular, the overwhelming crowds and runaway commercialism were so unsettling that I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
As I continued south on Highway 14 that same evening, on a bucolic and peaceful stretch in the dramatic early-evening light that some photographers refer to as “the golden hour,” out of the corner of my eye I saw a young girl – perhaps ten or twelve years old – running down a hillside. Out of instinct I braked slightly, causing the tailgater behind me to sit on his horn, no doubt in a great hurry to get someplace hugely important. I’m quite used to such impertinent impatience, having seemingly been on every single narrow and decrepit backroad in the United States – dogged by irate speed demons and missing some great shots because of their impatience. The scene itself was out of an Old World painting. The girl was Amish and wearing a plain cotton dress, with bonnet in hand as she scurried down to the mailbox, conceivably to retrieve handwritten letters – nowadays unheard of – from family and friends. Above her on the hill, her two sisters watched from a horse-drawn wagon. The fantastic light and the tumbling landscape, along with three wonderful subjects, was an artist’s dream. But there was no chance of capturing this, not with a car riding my bumper and nowhere to pull over. So I drove on, dismayed but thrilled by the experience of an extraordinary moment that has stayed with me ever since, as an idyllic reminder that the simplest of lives are often the happiest as well. The Amish are of course an anomaly in American culture, and as alien to most of us as actual extra-terrestrials. Though I disagree with their religious strictures, I admire their tenacious independence and the purity of their way of life. Also, you never see them flipping off their fellow travelers.
The contrast between that scene and the America I found elsewhere on my journey is stark and bracing. Mostly, this society has a deepening, narcissistic and consumer-driven neurosis that urges its members to buy something – anything – in order to fill some unidentified hole in their lives, and to get someplace – anywhere – as quickly as possible. The majority are largely oblivious to the world around them and fail to notice golden-hour light steaming across the lake or any of the other tranquil and poetic instances that occur almost daily, and not only in wonderland circumstances. To be sure, there are many people whose awareness is attuned to the America I was seeking. But on these trips I was constantly stunned by the sheer volume of sleepwalking masses.
The twenty or so images presented here for this article represent the final piece of an 80,000-mile journey that began 13 years ago as I embarked upon an odyssey that was propelled by my disgust with America going to war with Iraq and the jingoistic rhetoric that followed. My intent was to capture a portrait of this American land – from the astounding beauty to the glaring misuse, abuse and decay. There was no shortage of either. I ended up with over 500 images that have been edited to 150 for the final book titled This Land – An American Portrait that is being published by The University of Texas Press and will be out in February 2017.
Having been through all lower forty-eight states, I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of towns and cities that were homogenized by countless nation-wide restaurants, big-box stores and massive shopping malls, all owned by the same corporations, whose employees shuffle their salaries between one outlet or another in an insane economic system where the only profit shown, other than the workers’ minimum wages, is funneled through some distant headquarters and then distributed to Wall Street investors and finally out into some mystical global ether. Like Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon, but on the other end of the spectrum entirely, this too is mind-boggling. Yet few people ever notice, because it has become so ubiquitous that it just seems “normal.” A glaring exception are European friends who, when visiting me, were astonished by the rawness of this phenomenon, and shocked and saddened that so few Americans ever really see the beautiful land they inhabit – too distracted by the cars, phones, televisions, toys and games that enable them to squander their time, after working so incredibly hard to attain these things in the first place. I’m not religious by any means, but a phrase from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas does come to mind: “The kingdom of heaven is spread out across the earth but men do not see it.”
In this project I’ve elected to stay far away from Americans per se, though their existence is evident throughout the book – not least in Dearborn or Detroit, Toledo or even Iowa, for that matter. This is the dichotomy of my country. If there’s a single word that might define it, I believe it’s irony. I have an idea of America as a vast cacophony of contradiction, at once loved/hated, ugly/beautiful, rich/poor, wise/ignorant, sublime/obnoxious, enormous/small, new/crumbling, crowded/desolate, and on and on. Literally, every last adjective and its antonym can describe it.
This final trip was difficult for me. Early on I went to Detroit which was an unbelievable display of what is these days being called “Ruin Porn.” I had read about Detroit and its problems and had seen dire news reports about its demise. But what I found was too astounding for words. It is a vast, near endless, post-apocalyptic Mad Max no-man’s land of utter destruction and neglect that I was not even close to being prepared for. There are over 80,000 abandoned buildings and miles and miles of hopelessness. The possibility of images was almost too easy and seemed like low-hanging fruit for me, and I photographed very little excepting a few images that seemed to isolate my overall impressions. On this trip, I saw the onset evidence of the same kind of decay and neglect in other cities. But nothing that could compare to Detroit.
I travelled onward to Toledo, Cleveland, Youngstown, Buffalo, Rochester and Saratoga before, finally exhausted, I decided to base out of Kingston, New York, for 4 days to make day trips out to surrounding areas. I went up and down the beautiful Hudson River Valley and up to Massachusetts and Vermont and New Hampshire. Then all through the Catskills and Woodstock and on up to Bethel and the site of the Woodstock festival and Yasgur’s Farm. From Kingston, I traveled down to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and on to Lancaster, which for me was a final oasis of serenity and pastoral beauty. After 2 weeks, 5,000 miles and around 30 or 40 finished images, I drove home through Maryland, West Virginia and Kentucky, reflecting on the immensity of this 13-year expedition. It is done. I am finished. I have accomplished what I had set out to do which now seems so faintly and hazily such a long time ago.
I have seen every corner of this land. I have witnessed unfathomable beauty. I have seen the detritus of America and the unbridled commercialism and apathy. I’ve seen gleaming cities and unheard of small towns and villages. I’ve been rained on, snowed on and bore 118 degree heat in Death Valley. From the highest point to the lowest point. From the Pacific to the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico. The Rockies, The Sierras, The Adirondacks, The Smokies, The Ozarks and The Catskills – I’ve seen them all. I would like to think Woody Guthrie might be proud.
As this body of work comes to a close, I walk away with some strata of personal knowledge about this land, and have sought to display that understanding with either brutal metaphors or more graceful visions. It is a wholly subjective interpretation, and of course not without bias. But tell me, who can be unbiased in their notions of America? None of us see the same country. We should, nonetheless, see the grave peril that apathy or ignorance ensures, regardless of political party, religion, education or economic and social status. To save the Earth cannot be left to the worst of us. To ignore (the root word of ignorance) is “to refuse to take notice of,” and that’s exactly what people who believe preservation should be restricted to national parks and coastlines are doing. Some even think these paltry gestures are too much. Whereas it should go without saying that our own back yards are certainly worthy of protection, still, there is a lot of ignoring going on.
In 1951, when I was born, the world’s population was around two and a half billion people, and the United States’ about 150 million. In 2016, as I write this, the former has tripled to seven and a half billion and our own more than doubled to 320 million. By 2050, both are expected to skyrocket, respectively, to upwards of nine and a half billion and 420 million people. With ever-recurring environmental catastrophes – droughts, floods and rising sea levels, not to mention gratuitous political fiascoes like the one in Flint, Michigan – how can the human race maintain itself in an even more intensely dystopian world? Do you know how to grow your own food, build a shelter and make clothes for you and your family? Do you respect the land you live on, and on which your very survival depends, as well as that of every last one of your descendants?
Maybe the Amish are on to something….
JACK SPENCER is a fine art photographer whose work is in major private and public collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Berkeley Museum of Art; the Santa Barbara Museum of Art; the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans; the Brookings Institute, Fairfax, Virginia; the Tennessee State Museum, Nashville; the Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson; and the Cleveland Museum of Art. In 2005, he received the Lucie Award for International Photographer of the Year in the nature category. His work has been published in the monographs “Native Soil”, by LSU Press, “Jack Spencer” by 21st Editions and “Jack Spencer: Beyond the Surface” by Vanderbilt Press, with upcoming monographs; “This Land-An American Portrait” by University of Texas Press and “Creatura” by 21st Editions. Spencer lives in Nashville, Tennessee.