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 Read Publisher's Description.

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