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The Weather and a Place to Live: Photographs of the Suburban West

by Steven B. Smith
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2006
128 pp., 80 duotone photographs. Trade, $25.95
ISBN: 0-8223-3611-1.

Review by John F. Barber
School of Arts and Humanities, The University of Texas at Dallas


At first look, The Weather and a Place to Live, a new book by Steven B. Smith, documents in compelling, often stunning black-and-white photographs how the sprawling suburban development of the western United States is reconfiguring what was once vast, unpopulated territory. More to the point, Smith documents cheap prefabricated and commercialized building overrunning the historic, romantic idea of the natural landscape. Smith's photographs, taken at the surreal intersection of the American appetite for suburban development and the rolling, arid country of the desert West, frame simple truths hiding in plain sight. They show landscapes scraped bare, re-sculpted, and then bolstered in some way to prevent erosion before the building process can be completed. Based on this collection of photographs, Smith was winner of the biennial Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography.

Smith's eloquent and award-winning photographs show folly masquerading as progress, capitalist venality defiling the land, a vision of the future where the desire for home ownership is pitted against development in epic proportions, a vision of the earth as property to be physically shaped, delimited with boundaries, and viewed. As Smith documents, the earth itself is material to be managed, to be scraped and shaped, to be overlain with concrete or asphalt or boulders and pebbles that have no use other than the support of decoration or visual display.

These altered landscapes force us to consider the consequences of human design battling natural forces to produce a fragile and contorted balanced equation in which nature becomes both inspiration and adversary. For example, Smith shows a concrete sound wall edging a newly constructed roadway through empty desert country. The wall is painted to mirror the mountains in the distance, the view of which is blocked by the wall as one drives along the roadway. Buttresses and berms, sometimes constructed of natural stone, other times from concrete blocks, terrace, shape, divide, and delineate the landscape, often for the sole purpose of providing car parking for new suburban home owners. Irrigation control measures become massive sculpted scars across the landscape itself wrapped in jute matting, waiting to redirect the inconvenient runoff from rainstorms that might threaten cheap houses built on bare hillsides.

These houses are not attached to the land but are rather an occupying force, aliens metamorphosing into a vast suburban frontier. First, this frontier occupies the easy valleys and, then, jumps up to the summits for their views, then down to the less-desirable slopes, filing in toward the center. The greater the approximation between the built and natural landscape, the more rocks in the yard, the more dramatic the retaining wall, the greater the self-satisfaction of the amorphous intersection of human, climatic, and geographical realms.

What Smith wants to show is what we consider the underlying value of changing the land. If human changes to the natural environment, no matter how dramatic, reflect the local environment, then homage is considered paid to the existing landscape. Whether or not homage is paid, however, the changed landscape is more valuable than the original.

Smith's photographs of this constructed landscape confront us with the beauty of images as images, yet push us to reflect on the massive devastation possible in the act of choosing a place to live. The deeper cumulative effect, as Smith shows, is that this commercial and geographic devolution leaves no sense of home, and in many cases no plant or animal life, only the weather and a place to live.




Updated 1st April 2006

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