The photographs of Steven B. Smith put us on familiar ground. Smith spent nine years shooting suburbia for his project "The Weather and a Place to Live: Photographs of the Suburban West," the winner of the second Honickman Book Prize awarded by the Center for Documentary Studies. But viewers who think they know suburbia-either as a subject of artistic scrutiny or simply as home-may be surprised at what they see in his book and accompanying exhibition, displayed in the Perkins Special Collections Gallery.
These black-and-white images are stark examinations not of suburbia itself, but rather of where suburbia comes from. Smith approaches his subject with the eye of a landscape photographer exploring the deserts of the Western United States. In place of pristine mountains and dunes, however, he finds the destruction of natural topographies to make way for housing developments. The title of the project is from a quote by author James McMichael, who accused modern developers of "selling the weather and a place to live," leaving behind nothing else of the original country.
"To me the landscape was a real, vivid portrait of our cultural values at this specific time," Smith said. He said he believes these landscapes result from a post-war American dream that dictates that "people should be able to live in suburbs, and their lives should be ruled by the car. They should also have a single-family home, and they should live a certain distance apart from each other but also still together."
Smith, who teaches photography at the Rhode Island School of Design, admits some similarity between his work and other recent landscape photographers, especially Lewis Baltz of the New Topography school. Comparisons to Baltz and Robert Adams come naturally enough. But the careful, form-driven compositions Smith frames with his view camera also give his images the feel of Edward Weston's Oceano landscape work. This attention to composition and Smith's skillful use of light imbue even the most sardonic images with an undeniable beauty.
This beauty presents an unsettling contradiction: How can a photographer create beautiful images of a controversial subject without somehow morally condoning it?
Smith said he believes the answer lies both in the nature of the art object and a careful deployment of humor in his work.
"For me, the smart way to make a social comment/criticism of something...is to fetishize it," he noted. By turning the destruction and development of desert terrain into objects of art, Smith succeeds in opening the topic up to interpretation and discussion.
Smith goes one step further by framing this discussion with spot-on visual humor that perfectly captures the absurdity of suburbia. In Draper, Utah 1999 (see middle image, above), Smith gives us a twilight scene at the edge of a lawn, where grass gives way to dirt and gravel. A view of mountains and a distant valley, spotted with city lights, is truncated by an opaque fence. Instead of the distant landscape, we are made to focus on two small spotlights in a gravel pit. The lights illuminate a pair of rocks no bigger than bowling balls, pathetic remnants of the rugged terrain tamed by development.
Smith employs a similar tongue-in-cheek approach to maximum effect in a shot of Utah's Interstate 15. Again, he foregrounds man-made structures-in this case, the highway and the noise-reducing wall that abuts it. Mountains tower in the background of the wall, hinting at another dazzling view obscured. Etched onto the wall is a design mirroring the contours of the mountains it hides-an emblem both of human knowledge of the destruction we are causing and our willingness to accept cheap substitutes.
Thanks to the Honickman prize, Smith's photographs are now available to a wider audience in book form. From the valleys of California to the outskirts of Boston, consumers everywhere can purchase copies of Weather and a Place to Live to take back to the pristine suburban homes that are slowly replacing everything else.
Smith will speak about his photographs and sign books in the opening reception of "The Weather and a Place to Live: Photographs of the Suburban West" today from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Rare Book Room in Perkins Library.
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