Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Photography Exhibit at UMFA Explores The Shape of Utah

Installation view of Shaping Landscape: 150 Years of Photography in Utah. Image courtesy of Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

As you probably are aware, the place currently called Utah represents a large and diverse landscape. With its arbitrarily drawn borders, this almost-a-rectangle state in the middle of the American West encompasses a remarkably diverse geography. From Rich, Cache, and Box Elder counties in the north to Washington, Kane, and San Juan in the south, no other state can boast a similar degree of difference. It could be argued, in fact, that no country can match the breadth of Utah’s scenic possibilities. 

What you may not know is that Utah and the American West have played an important and even oversized role in the history of photography. From the photographs of the postbellum surveys to Ansel Adams and beyond, generations of photographers have examined and captured the West’s unique landscapes. For more than 150 years, photographers have also documented the incursion and exploitation of this important region. This is particularly true within the last half century with the work of those associated (directly and indirectly) with New Topographics and the Rephotographic Survey Project. 

Centrally located within this region and within the West’s visual drama is Utah, a state with a remarkably deep photographic tradition. Photography was less than ten years old when Mormon settlers began colonizing the Intermountain West, and, as photo-historian Nelson Wadsworth has chronicled, the medium was present and active from the establishment of the territory. In the 19th century photographers like C.R. Savage and Charles W. Carter established studios in the capitol, providing supplies and a base for nearly every important photographer working in the West. Later George E. Anderson, Elfie Huntington, and a host of others brought photography to every corner of the state. From 1900 to the present, photographers were inevitably drawn to Utah’s diverse places as they continued to crisscross the American West. 

It is for this reason, that the current exhibition on the second floor of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) may seem lacking, at first. Indeed, the first impression of Shaping Landscape: 150 Years of Photography in Utah is that it is far too small for such a large and important topic. That said, the exhibition, which features 21 examples, whether intended or not, is organized around a space that physically mirrors the state of Utah, setting up a nice, if subliminal, dynamic. With its spatial constraints, Shaping Landscape is selective in purpose and wisely does not try to do everything. Drawing exclusively from the UMFA’s rich collection, the curators instead focused on images that reveal the various ways in which Utah’s landscapes have been shaped by human intervention.  According to the opening statement, the exhibition features photographers who have confronted “humanity’s impact on the lands since the 1870s – the railroad, highways, mines, and other forms of infrastructure that puncture the ‘natural’ landscape and shaped our perception of this place.” With its focus on the various structures that have pierced the Utah landscape, which could also include tourism, art, and agriculture, this exhibition will not please those who desire a vision of the state as an untrammeled outdoor paradise, in the vein of Ansel Adams or Josef Muench. It is safe to say that this is not a shining view put forth by the chamber of commerce, nor should viewers ask, “What would Ansel say?” Rather, it is important to remember that Shaping Landscape is a confrontation with what Utah has become more than a portrait of what we want it to be. 

Photographs by William Henry Jackson. Image courtesy of Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

One of the historic tensions in photographing Utah and the West is between “out there” and “here.” For much of this history, photographs of the West were made by and for those in the East who desired to know what was “out there.” The purpose of these photographs was to instruct and engage those who may only know this space through photographs. The first images of the exhibition feature the work of William Henry Jackson, a member of the Hayden Survey and a pioneering photographer. Jackson produced thousands of photographs of the West using the tedious wet-plate process for his federal sponsors as well as eastern audiences who were eager to know more about these wild places beyond the Mississippi River. These audiences wanted to see these new places as well as the progress to exploit them. “Ute Pass” (c. 1870) shows a rugged western landscape intersected by a dirt road blazing boldly into the receding space. A second photograph of the original “1,000 Mile Tree,” which marked one thousand miles from Omaha, was a well-publicized landmark for rail travelers heading West toward Ogden. Barely visible is a large sign hung from the lowest branch declaring its significance to passengers. Yet, more would have known the tree through photographs than those who commuted past it. 

Nearly 150 years ago, Jackson captured places that were significant for his audiences that may not be recognized as important today. With the creation of the national parks and monuments, other places began to occupy the attention of photographers. Indeed, Utah’s famed parks have drawn legions of photographers trying to capture the best version of “out there.” There is, however, only one photograph of a national park in the exhibition. Instead, Shaping Landscape focuses on other geographical landmarks that have attracted photographers. 

One of these sites is the Kennecott copper pit which has attracted artists as diverse as Robert Smithson and Victoria Sambunaris. Edward Burtnysky’s large photograph of the massive, terraced walls of Bingham Canyon with its emerald pond at its ever-deepening base commands the entire end wall of the exhibition. The size of his Kennecott photograph only reaffirms what David Nye called the “American industrial sublime,” or the power of human beings to radically alter (and destroy) existing landscapes. Burtynsky focuses on industrial sites around the world, and he has a keen eye for form that he uses to frame ecological trouble spots. Wonderfully, his photograph also dialogues with other images in the exhibition. In 2013 the collaborative Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) documented the aftermath of the colossal land slide at Kennecott which occurred on April 10 of that year that was so large that it produced a small earthquake. As seen in the photograph, the slide flowed down the pit like a viscus, yellow sludge over the industrial space; the mine’s hard lines were transformed by the free flow of nature. It is hard to image that CLUI and Burtnysky photographs are of the same place. Although the site was quickly cleared so that the operations of the world’s largest open pit mine could continue, the event was a powerful reminder of nature’s power and ability to reshape a landscape. As such, CLUI’s photograph comes closer to a more fundamental meaning of the sublime. 

Installation view with works by, from left, John Telford, Gianfranco Giorgioni, John Telford and Edward Burtynsky, right. Image courtesy of Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

Installation view with images by, from left, Ernesto Pujol, Center for Land Use Interpretation and Russel Albert Daniels. Image courtesy of Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

The distinct landscapes of the Great Salt Lake are also well represented in this exhibition. This includes “Spiral Jetty,” the influential earthwork, which is located off Rozel Point. In 1970 the Italian photographer Gianfranco Gorgoni followed the Jetty’s creator, Robert Smithson, to the West to document its construction and its final form curling out majestically into the lake’s northern shore. Due to the changing level of the lake which soon covered the artwork, most people at the time came to know Smithson’s work through Gorgoni’s photographs. It is also safe to say that more people know of this pioneering example of land art from outside of the state than from within. 

Gorgoni’s photograph also highlights how the perception of Utah has been shaped by art. This is also evinced by Ernesto Pujol’s color photograph “Lost (America),” which features the Cuban-born artist crouched in the nude on the white, salty floor of the Salt Flats. With its past connections to Pujol, it is understandable that the museum would include the internationally recognized performance artist, who was an artist-in-residence at the UMFA in 2010. Yet this work seems out of place, especially without an explanation of its context or importance. The Salt Flats are one of the most interesting and emblematic landscapes in Utah, attracting a wide variety of uses from speed racing to art. In its austere, abstract beauty it is an intriguing space, but it can also be a challenge. As evinced by legions of lack-luster wedding portraits and high-school photo projects, this space can easily become a cliché. In his investigation of life and death in a seemingly nebulous, unformed world, Pujol’s photograph falls into this trap. The cartoon chicken tattooed on his right arm and his ovate position only seems to fall into yet another time-honored cliché of what came first. 

Another problem with the inclusion of Pujol’s photograph is that it overwhelms other important works. This is certainly true of Olive Garrison’s small photographs on the adjacent wall. Garrrison used a camera to document her trip out west in 1951. As part of her visit, the 59-year-old, eastern artist recorded Checkerboard Mesa in Zion National Park and a washed-out bridge. She also made a self-portrait standing alongside her convertible Studebaker Champion on a dirt road climbing Boulder Mountain. Unlike Pujol’s photograph, Garrison’s photographs require intimate investigation. They are also emblematic of the growing number of tourists who began traveling out west after World War II. It was this generation of travelers who solidified the association of cars with cameras, and the western road trip with photography. With over 1300 photographs by Garrison in the UMFA collection, it is clear that more needs to be done on this artist and her trip to the West. As the only woman photographer featured in the exhibition, it is also clear that more women need to be included in this discussion.

One of the strengths of Shaping Landscape is its focus on photographers who lived and worked in Utah, photographers who understood the importance of “here.” Savage’s sweeping photograph of Salt Air, the once-popular amusement park that attracted generations of bathers and visitors, marks the beginning of this tradition. Yet, the best discovery of the exhibition may be the large photo album that was created by George Neslen Ottinger, the son of Savage’s former partner, the multi-talented artist George M. Ottinger. The album of 31 hand-colored photographs was a gift to Heber J. Grant decades before it was acquired by the UMFA in 2006. Long overdue in being exhibited, Ottinger’s album offers a diverse view of Utah including well-known locations like Zion, Bryce, and Cedar Breaks (not on view), as well as a number of local sites that have changed drastically over the past century such as the tranquil Parley’s Canyon reservoir which is today better known as “Suicide Rock.” The intact album provides an important window into Utah and its nascent tourist industry, and most of the images are available to view on the exhibition’s website (https://umfa.utah.edu/shaping-landscape). The page left open to visitors is of a car parked next to Red Canyon’s rock-tunnel. As in Garrison’s photographs, the automobile is featured prominently in this work, a symbol of greater mobility and access to the state’s scenic wonders. The UMFA has rightfully used this image as the exhibition’s marquee, and nearly a century later the famed tunnel, which lies enroute to Bryce, is still used in promotional materials to attract tourists to the “pretty, great state.” 

Photo album by George Neslen Ottinger. Image courtesy of Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

For more than 50 years local universities have played an important role in Utah’s photographic tradition. Indeed, the state has benefited from good photography professors who, in many cases, enjoyed long tenures at their institution. John Telford from Brigham Young University, Drex Brooks from Weber State, and Craig Law from Utah State are all featured in this exhibition. Shaping Landscape includes two photographs from Telford’s evocative investigation of the south shore of the Great Salt Lake. Wallace Stegner praised these images of salt, sand, and water “as shining and heavy as mercury.” Telford’s photograph of the ancient wooden pylons that once held up Salt Air, standing like “jutting bones,” provide an intriguing juxtaposition with Savage’s photograph (printed by Telford) of the popular attraction in its halcyon days. Few places in Utah offer such a stark reminder of ruin and decay. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine Salt Air’s grandeur when compared to the worn and melancholic state of the south shore of the lake today. 

Known beyond Utah for his work and technical skills, Craig Law is represented by two works that hint at his abilities as well as by Drex Brooks, one of his former students. Brooks, who passed away earlier this year, has two photographs in the exhibition from his acclaimed series, Sweet Medicine: Sites of Indian Massacres, Battlefields, and Treaties. This series is one of the most important bodies of work to have come from a photographer working in Utah. It embodies Brooks interest in Indigenous studies as well as his opportunity of living “here” to visit important historical sites across the West and in Utah, which he photographed in the deadpan, cool detachment characteristic of the New Topographic aesthetic. As with other examples, however, Brooks’s photographs require more explanation to grasp and understand their importance. While some visitors may be able to deduce the importance from the titles, it might be hard to square its impact with the photograph. Brook’s “Mountain Meadow Massacre Site,” for example, features seemingly nothing more than four visitors seemingly lost in the overgrowth. It is a fitting reminder of how the past, landscapes, and photographs all require explanation. 

Photographs by Craig Law, left, and Drex Brooks. Image courtesy of Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

There is another tension inherit in an exhibition that focuses on a native landscape. For outsiders who may only experience a place like Utah visually/virtually, photographs may be an adequate proxy. They may never get to go “out there.” Yet, for those who are “here,” it could be asked why look at an ersatz version of a landscape when you can experience it? It is this notion that has launched a thousand road-trips, which, ironically, usually include a camera. Even photographs of places in “our own backyard” can help us see, understand, and appreciate this remarkable “here” better. This will be especially important in the decades to come when more and more people are projected to move to Utah, which will only continue to shape this important landscape.  

The final photograph in Shaping Landscape is Russel Albert Daniels’s 2023 aerial photograph of fracking sites in eastern Utah. Daniel’s photograph faces Burtynsky’s, and together they act as bookends to the exhibition. Few activities, the two photographs remind viewers, alter a landscape more than brute extraction. Daniels is a talented photographer who has created insightful series on the Wasatch Mountains, Bears Ears National Monument, and other important sites across the state. Furthermore, as an Indigenous photographer, Daniels is in a remarkable position to continue exploring the landscapes of Utah and documenting what the changes evident in them can mean. 

Russel Albert Daniels, “Fracking sites near the White River.” Image courtesy of Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

A small label announcing the recent acquisition of Daniel’s photograph into the collection is a important reminder that the UMFA’s photography collection of this material is growing and evolving. For years the UMFA has been amassing an important photography collection through donations and purchases. In recent years through exhibitions such as De/Marcation (2019-2020), it has also supported the work of younger photographers working in this varied place. While Shaping Landscape succeeds in presenting an important thesis, it also suggests the tantalizing possibility of doing more. Returning to the opening panel, this exhibition sought to show “how generations of photographers have used this technology [i.e. photography] to construct an image of Utah.” This is not a closed discussion, and few organizations are in a better position to shape the larger narrative of what the camera has done in Utah better or with more authority than the UMFA. Let’s hope that there is still a lot more to come. 


Shaping Landscape: 150 Years of Photography in Utah, Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City, through May 3, 2024.

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