The Weather and a Place to Live.
Photographs of the Suburban West.
Photographs by Steven B. Smith. Essay by Maria Morris Hambourg.
Duke University Press, Durham, 2005. 128 pp., 80 duotone illustrations, 10x9".
On the heels of Larry Schwarm’s On Fire comes the second
volume enabled by Duke University’s Center for
Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in
Photography. Smith, a Utah native who now teaches at
Rhode Island School of Design, grew up near Salt Lake
City. His black-and-white, large-format photographs
show the texture and topography of suburban sprawl in
California, Utah, Nevada, and Colorado over the last fifteen
years. There’s a distinct appeal to these images,
deriving in part from their historical
value but also from their
dead-on description of the
headlong, heedless character of
these developments. Smith captures
the almost quaint (almost,
if it weren't eating up land and
resources at such alarming
rates) incongruity of building against the odds in landscapes
ill suited to such dense habitation (to habitation
by much beyond lizards and cacti). The concept of
Manifest Destiny has been reduced to the humble, futile
aspirations of these domestic geometries attempting to
tame the rough edges of nature, and bring it to heel on
the property line and beside the picnic table (the spread
on pages 86 and 87 offers a hilarious illustration of this).
There’s none of the graceful power of Toshio Shibata’s
images of Japanese civil engineering or the earnestness
of Bill Owens’ subjects in Suburbia present in these
images; Smith’s work falls in between, offering direct
demonstrations of the clutzy, inept quality of growth
without sense. Hambourg, who selected Smith for the
award, places Smith in the lineage of Timothy O’Sullivan
and Carleton Watkins on the basis of his “breadth, formal
elegance, and concision”; Smith leavens and updates
that legacy with a healthy dose of New Documents’
social critique and New Topographics’ ironic engagement
with the built environment. - GEORGE SLADE
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