Makeda Best, Editor – Devour the Land

Review by Douglas Stockdale •

While we at PhotoBook Journal tend to defer from broad thematic photobooks with a multitude of contributors, and in general the illustrated catalogs for exhibitions usually have little design and layout merit. I take exception with the recent exhibition publication in conjunction with Harvard Art Museums being very worth investigating. The exhibition and catalog for Devour the Land: War and American Landscape Photography Since 1970 is articulate and packaged in a smart design. It is a factual and well documented narrative about the destructive consequences of the American military on the American landscape that encompasses the environmental, social-economic, political and other broadly related issues that they have created. 

I will also share up-front why I find this book relevant and perhaps my own bias; I live on a decommissioned WWII and Korean War Navy practice bombing range in southern California, which we receive routine letters for the Department of Army on what to do if we do find a bomb or rocket. Thus, much of which is written and illustrated in this book resonates with my own experiences.

It is worth stating that after the Introduction there are a series of excellent essays; Abram Lustgarten’s American’s Legacy of Military Pollution, Katherine Mintie’s Picturing to Protect: Photography and Environmental Law in the United States, 1960-Present, Steven Hoelscher’s Wounded Landscapes: The Aesthetics of a Damaged Earth, and Makeda Best’s Bringing it Home: Photography and the Imprint of Violence on the American Landscape. Each of the essays are supported by the photographs in the illustrated sections that follow, providing a broader reading of the photographs that help augment the extensive captions that accompany each photograph.

The book has six thematic illustrated chapters; Silent Spring, Arming America, Slow Violence, Regeneration, Other Battlefields and Resistance. The majority of works are drawn from the Harvard Art Museums collections, including many of their recent acquisitions. Preceding each essay and chapter is an interview with one of the featured photographers that provides their personal context for the reason that they completed their body of work that is featured in the catalog. To break up the visual flow, the interviews are printed on color paper that is trimmed to 5-1/4” wide, what would be called a ‘half-page’ (even if it is not exactly half of the width of the regular printed page).

To provide a broader context, in addition to the photographs, other documents are included, which are printed on green paper to provide differentiation and break up the books sequencing. These include supporting information published on posters, governmental documents, handbook covers, and excerpts from other organizations related to this subject. A sobering example is the report by the United Church of Christ, 1987, on Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, which supports their research that communities of color or those who are economically disadvantaged are more likely to have a military toxic waste site within or at very close proximity to their neighborhoods. 

The 60 artists showcased in the exhibition bring a variety of practices and approaches to their work. They range from professional photographic artists and photojournalists to lesser known and emerging photographers and include: Robert Adams, Ansel Adams, Federica Armstrong, Sheila Pree Bright, Robert Del Tredici, Terry Evans, Lucas Foglia, Sharon Gilbert, Ashley Gilbertson, Peter Goin, Joshua Dudley Greer, David T. Hanson, Zig Jackson, Stacy Kranitz, Dorothy Marder, Susan Meiselas, Richard Misrach, Barbara Norfleet, Mark Power, Jeff Rich, Sim Chi Yin, Sharon Stewart, Robert Toedter, Phil Underdown, and Will Wilson. The photographs are usually composed and presented in a documentary style, predominately to support a visual project that is meant to investigate an environmental or social condition created by the government, military and supporting industry actions.

The photographs include a broad range of subjects, from the surreal image of the Wreckage of the World Trade Center by Susan Meiselas to the sublime landscapes of Richard Misrach, Bomb Crater and Standing Water (Pink). Nevertheless, many of these landscape photographs, ranging from the urban built-environment to what might be thought to be a natural wilderness, conceptually attempt to address the mostly invisible aspects of this subject. What is buried and lurking in the ground soil? What is just beyond the wooded line fence that acidic smoke emanates from time to time? What is within the industrial building walls of the various defense contractors, perhaps producing something which creates toxic chemical residuals that might be going down their drains out to the ocean, adjacent rivers or into the ground water?

The book’s title might imply that its photographs are exclusively of the landscape genre, nevertheless, the concept of what might be the American ‘land’ is investigated broadly to encompass portraits of those who live in proximity to environmental dangers. This is the land in its broader classification and a narrative about those who live adjacent to toxic waste sites created by the military and its associated industrial contractors. The impacted communities are directly seen as well as individuals having an implied presence, such as Jeff Rich’s photograph, Steve’s Chair, below. The ensuing narrative is that toxic waste sites are not just abstractions, but have a direct impact on the lives of everyone who resides in close proximity.

The wire-o binding of this catalog creates the appearance that this is an official report or that of a briefing book. While working on my own project related to living on a decommissioned WWII practice bombing range, I have encountered similar governmental reports that are spiral bound or in 3-ring binders. Basic governmental utilitarianism in the book design’s simplicity, that underlines the facts found within.

Unlike most of the illustrated volumes we review on this site, the photographs in this catalog are heavily captioned. Most of the photographic content is discussed in one of the many chapters, as a curator once remarked to me, sometimes things that are not very obvious need to be explained.

The majority of the landscape photographs are of a documentary style, although clearly show something, one cannot always be sure of what is being documented. In that regard, many of the subjects have a conceptual framework, similar to the New TopographicsThe majority of the photographs derive from documentary projects that are meant to reveal an inconvenient truth about the social and environmental practices created by our own military and its supporting industry. 

Perhaps better to think of this as a call to action. Subtle, but nevertheless after reading this dense catalog, you cannot be helped to be moved. This book is a slow read which is worth undertaking and an exhibition that I am very sorry not to have attended.

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Douglas Stockdale is the Senior Editor of PhotoBook Journal.

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Devour the Land: War and American Landscape Photography Since 1970, Makeda Best, Editor

Editor & Curator of Photography; Makeda Djata Best, Ph.D., born San Francisco and resides in the greater Boston area, MA

Publisher: Harvard Art Museums, distributed by Yale University Press, copyright 2021 (Harvard College)

Essays and Interviews: Makeda Best, Steven Hoelscher, Abrahm Lustgarten, Courtney J. Martin, Katherine Mintie, and Will Wilson. Includes interviews with artists Sheila Pree Bright, Terry Evans, Ashley Gilbertson, David T. Hanson, Stacy Kranitz, Jin Lee, Richard Misrach, Barbara Norfleet, and Oscar Palacio. Poems by Ed Roberson.

Text: English

Stiffcovers, wire-o bound, 262 pages, trim 8 x 10 inches, printed by die Keure, Belgium, ISBN 978-0-300-26008-3

Photobook Designers: Becky Hunt, Adam Sherkanowski, Zak Jensen

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Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s). All images, texts, and designs are copyright of the authors and publishers.

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