|Prison Photography - Pete Brook|
Thursday, January 29, 2015
Social Justice Interview - Sugar-Coated, Corn-Fed Dioramas Query Big-Ag’s Food Production and the Naturalness of Landscape
Prison Photography (PP): You’re talking about industrial food production. Is this a concern to you specifically because you are Midwest based?
Lochman & Ciurej (L&C): We built these views to examine consumption, progress and the changing landscape.
As Midwesterners, we have seen the landscape transformed from family farming to agricultural industry. This is not exclusive to the heartland, however, Big Ag and food processing facilities cross the country. In Processed Views: Surveying the Industrial Landscape, we are thinking about trends in consumption, ideas of progress and the changing geography of our country.
We came to Processed Views from an earlier project which addressed the nature of nurturing. In those photographs, we were interested in picturing the emotional and physical energy that flows through the act of preparing and sharing food. We could not ignore, however, the flip-side of food consumption in America: a complex, impersonal system of industrial agriculture, food processing and marketing.
PP: Why use Watkin’s images as the conduit to these issues?
L&C: Watkins’ sublime views framed the American West as a land of endless possibilities and significantly influenced the creation of the first national parks.
However, many of Watkins’ photographs were commissioned by the corporate interests of the day; the Central Pacific Railroad, the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, North Bloomfield Mining and Gravel Company and other lumber and milling interests. His commissions served as both documentation of and advertisement for the American West. Watkins’ images upheld the popular 19th century view of Manifest Destiny – the inevitability of America’s bountiful land, justifiably utilized and consumed by its citizens.
L&C: June 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Valley Grant Act, legislation that preserved the land for public use and set a precedent for America’s National Park System.
PP: Given the anniversary, Processed Views was good timing, no?
Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center presents an exhibition Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums (April 23–August 17, 2014) in celebration. Tyler Greene recently interviewed curators and scholars, Alexander Nemerov, Erik Steiner and Corey Keller, associated with the exhibition.
PP: You’re fans of Watkins?
L&C: We turn to history and mythology to clarify and anchor our research.
Looking back 150 years, Carleton Watkins iconic photographs honored unsullied nature and documented human behavior on the frontier. They were a revelation at that time. His images record a critical time in the ongoing relationship between industrial development and conservation. We are at another such a moment now and the current discourse is fractured. How can the state of our health, industrial agriculture, chemistry, biological modification of plants and livestock, water and land use, finite natural resources, demographic and geographical change be included in a single conversation?
Referencing Watkins’ sublime views and sites of nascent technological activity in California and Oregon, are an invitation to viewer to consider an alternate reality in which the trajectory of our agricultural production is taken to an extreme. We fast forward to seductive, garish and static monocultures.
We allude to Watkins’ far vista in our tabletop landscapes, hinting at vastness, yet stranding the viewer in a swale of familiar processed food products. The photographer’s 18″ x 22″ Mammoth Plate Views were extraordinarily large and detailed in their time, but are now considered small. We use this format to force the viewer into an intimate encounter with the average American diet. We have oversold our technological commitment to bend the forces of nature in order to fulfill fantasies of a yummy life and heroic expectations of feeding the world. Should we rethink our fun-food utopia?
PP: Were Watkins’ landscapes pure?
L&C: An answer to this question is as vast and deep as Yosemite Valley!
Most recent thought regarding landscape is defined by scholars like Lucy Lippard in The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society. Landscape is not just an aesthetic experience, it must be thought of in terms of community, land use, contemporary perceptions of nature, what is produced on the land and how it shapes the inhabitants through time. Rebecca Solnit’s writing projects Infinite City and Unfathomable City are exquisite examples of this approach.
Tyler Greene discusses Carleton Watkins’ photographs and the transformation of California agriculture a century-and-a-half later in a recent New York Times Lens blogpost.
In the book Print the Legend: Photography and the American West, Martha A. Sandweiss provides a great in-depth discussion of the motivation behind of 19th-century landscape photography.
PP: What for you are the main concerns about industrial food production?
L&C: Processed Views reflects our concern with current trends in consumption, ideas of progress and the changing geography of our country. All indications are that we are headed into an uncharted, unbalanced, unnatural territory. This terrain is garnished with unintended consequences for our health and for the environment. Why must we thoughtlessly degrade the soil by our technological-agricultural experiments? We must re-evaluate our man-made “utopias”.
PP: Where can we read more on these issues?
L&C: There are striking stories daily, many of them contradictory. We record ideas in our food-based notebook (blog). Recent posts mention books, articles and websites addressing the American diet (Nina Teicholz, Michael Moss, NPR’s The Salt blog) and industrial agriculture: corn production and marketing, meat processing (Christopher Leonard, Maureen Ogle), photography and social history.
PP: Thank you both.
L&C: Thanks, Pete.