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Photography, Environment, and Politics: Sawdust Mountain

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The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center actively encourages faculty and students from across all departments and programs to view the art collection as a teaching tool and the galleries as a learning site. Perhaps this is nowhere more evident than in this fall’s half-semester course, “Photography, Environment, and Politics: Sawdust Mountain.” The course, which is cross-listed as Political Science 183 / Environmental Studies 183 and led by Professor Peter Stillman, builds on the Art Center’s special exhibition of photographs by Eirik Johnson, Sawdust Mountain. Students  read pertinent contextual works in environmental studies, political science, photography, and literature, and work with Art Center staff in the galleries to gain an art historical perspective that deepens their understanding of the body of work in the exhibition.

Johnson’s images of communities and landscapes in the Pacific Northwest dwell in the liminal region between documentary and art photography, and they raise questions about where, or whether, the line between the two genres exists. Students in Professor Stillman’s class have worked to tease out the environmental, social, and personal meanings that can be read in Johnson’s photographs; these are their perspectives on fifteen of the images in the exhibition.

  Shipwreck and Salmon Fishermen on the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon
Shipwreck and Salmon Fishermendepicts a moment after the prosperity and affluence of the vast fishing and canning industries along the Columbia River and before any change has occurred for a different industry to move in. The river had long been an important resource for fishing. Later, its power was harvested instead, and change started to spread across once-affluent areas that had to close down the fishing industries and canneries.
Johnson seems to observe this scene from a dock, for there is a large amount of space in the foreground that immediately confronts the viewer. It is filled with battered old lines of wood from ruined docks and structures that lead the eye to the ship. The water is strangely still, an effect most likely created by a long exposure, smoothing out any hint of movement or life. In contrast, the water in the background is very empty, with few boats or even debris to suggest that the river is active, like it once was. Overall, the piece is void of any humans or animals, which creates an uneasy feeling, for it is implied that it was once a more active area and leaves the viewer to question what might have caused this great change.

Emily Lavieri-Scull


  Arlington, Washington
Taken during the first year of Johnson’s exploration, this image captures what the artist was witnessing as he ventured through beautiful landscape spotted with scenes of abandoned projects of civilizations. The foreground is dominated by a lush pine as a path of gravel, interrupted by peeking blades of grass, heads towards a desolate building that sits before bare trees. This photograph is one of the few in the exhibition that reveals a reversal of a utilitarian metamorphosis that much of the wilderness in the Northwest has undergone. However, like others, it embodies a quality of factions in deep disagreement.
Nature strikes back as moss lurches up the roof while the shrubbery compromises the protection and enclosure once provided by the walls and windows. The imagined object, made from the natural structures towering over it, has been left amongst its exploited resources only to be stripped of its functional value and brought back to a basic and unaltered existence. The autonomy of the advancing wilderness and the darkness within the full-bodied pine may indeed represent the unknown and may be seen, subsequently, as irrational—irrational in the capitalist sense of its non-usage or, simply put, the non-efficiency of a tree as an end as opposed to a means.

Juan Bautista Dominguez

  Western larch seedlings, Webster Forest Nursery, Tumwater, Washington 2007
This photograph reveals an average and yet eerie glimpse into the Washington agroforest industry. Above, seedlings of the Western Larch, a type of tree native to eastern Washington, line up in rows in a Tumwater nursery located at the base of the Puget Sound. The nursery depicted in the photograph produces between eight million and ten million seedlings annually. All of these will eventually be transplanted onto Department of Natural Resources-managed land. The image captures one stage in a massive production cycle, which starts from seed and grows into “working forest.” Eventually the trees will be made into final products.
Because of the way the artist has framed his shot, it is impossible to know the actual size of the nursery. Instead our eyes blur watching the plants, in uniform green, line up forever, beyond the edges of the photograph itself. What is clear in this photograph, however, is the line that sharply divides the image into color and growth, metal and machine. Certainly, the composition of the photograph is half “nature” and half “technology.” Yet the division should not obscure the fact that the photograph is complicated in spirit: the plants have just as much to do with structure and work as the building itself. Therefore, the photograph embodies the messiness of the man vs. nature debate. Examined more closely, the trees, which we typically construe as “nature,” are growing in the same monocrop manner and in the same neat and efficient grids as corn in the Midwest. Further, “man” is absent from the depiction, as are any signs of the labor it would take to pot and tend for each of these trees. In light of current debates over monoculture and agroforestry in general, the image raises the question: Is this the most just way of doing things, for ourselves as well as the environment?

Adriana Provenzano


  Adult Books, Firewood, and Trucks for Sale
Adult Books, Firewood, and Trucks for Salereflects the degree to which industry, nature, and modern American life are intertwined. The sometimes bleak reality of supply and demand is displayed here in Port Angeles, where the “dry firewood” is showcased by a now unwanted truck in the foreground, which has a bed that has seemingly lived past its days of usefulness. The background contains other pieces of modern American life for sale—adult magazines and movies as well as sport cards are sold by the store that boasts a waving American flag, together suggesting a “do-it-yourself” attitude toward bringing in capital for the area.

Lily Doyle


  Hoquiam, Washington
Wandering along Washington’s coastal region, Johnson experienced the stillness of small towns that had grown and fallen with the logging industry. As he made his way around Grays Harbor, he passed through Hoquiam, a town with a past inextricably linked to the vast expanse of woods that surrounds it. The name Hoquiam in fact is a Native American word which means “hungry for wood,” appropriate to describe the first settlers of the region who couldn’t control their appetite for the wealth the forest provided them. Today, a few lumber companies remain in the town, and every autumn, residents celebrate their heritage with loggers from around the world at the Logger’s Playday festival.
Average days in Hoquiam, however, pass by quietly, with the occasional rumble of a logging truck taking its next shipment from the woods. A humble blue home seems to have stolen the color from a grey sky. Fresh-cut grass and potted plants contrast the wild growth behind them, marking the way in which humans have decided to control their environment to make a home. The wood stripped from the forest comes to its final use in telephone poles and the structure of the house. In essence, the effects of the logging industry which began this town and then built this home finally materialize here in Hoquiam.

Jordann Funk


  Makah tribal gill nets on the Sooes River outside Neah Bay, Washington
Johnson’s photograph of Makah tribal gill nets captures a unique aspect of the Pacific Northwest. The Native American culture in this area of the United States is very closely connected to the landscape that is being decimated, including aquatic habitats. The Makah nation is located in Neah Bay, and has a strong connection to fishing. Johnson’s photo shows how subtle the effects of Native American life are on the surrounding landscapes. The boat and gill nets hardly disturb the surrounding environment, contrasting greatly with  the damage done by the logging industry in other areas in Washington. This contrast conjures the ongoing discourse about the ways in which Native Americans and European Americans are fundamentally different regarding their reverence and respect for nature.
This photograph captures a strikingly peaceful and natural scene. The green layers of nature presented create both a wonderful harmony and a subtle contrast; the Sooes River and the forest in the foreground combined with the snow-capped mountains in the background show the complexity of nature. The desolate yet alive nature of this landscape explores the idea of wilderness, and contrasts deeply with some of Johnson’s other photographs on view.

Brooke Robinson


  Starlite Drive-In, Roseburg, Oregon
Marking a slight departure from the rest of the collection, this photograph obscures human modification of the landscape in a surreal light. The drive-in screen in the center of the composition reflects a golden sunset against a backdrop of trees cloaked in shadow. From a distance this photograph resembles a painting, an abstract experiment of color and shape. In contrast to the realistic and categorical nature of the other photographs, this element of mystery leaves space for interpretation.
Nature itself is reflected on the drive-in screen, illuminating the subtle ways in which human activities are shaped by it. The photograph blends the human world and the natural world into a hybrid of the two. The use of the drive-in screen brings to mind the fact that film presents to us stories of ourselves in moving images. The blank screen in this photograph projects to us the ultimate film: a still shot of ourselves erected and propped up by a nature we have touched and yet refuse to see.

Dion Kauffman


  Adolescent Bald Eagle, Queets, Washington
The eagle perched on the branch is a solitary and somber figure. The feeling of isolation that this photograph evokes is consistent with what one often sees in the eyes of the human subjects in this exhibition. But on closer inspection one finds that like those other photographs, this one is imbued with complex and elusive aesthetic qualities that both reinforce and challenge one’s preconceptions about the West, resource extraction and human interaction with nature. The sky looks grey at first, but is actually in the faded throes of a sunset whose orange rays color the ground of the clear-cut mountain to the right, but not the un-logged mountain on the left.
One must look very closely to see that along the treeless mountain bathed in sun a logging road cuts into the side of the slope winding up and around an iron-red ridge. Wisps of smoke can be seen at the base of the smaller hill to the left. The eagle’s tree is between the remains of two others that have been topped and limbed. Perhaps it too will be harvested, followed by the stand of trees in the middle ground of the photo. However, in the foreground, amid ancient and rotting stumps and branches, hundreds of saplings are peaking out of the wet and fertile soil.

Aidan Kahn


  Below the Glines Canyon Dam on the upper Elwah River, Washington
Eirik Johnson’s Below the Glines Canyon Dam is a microcosm of the narrative that runs throughout the exhibition of the strained relationship between modern technology and development, and the raw, even mystical, power of nature. The photograph depicts the base of the Glines Canyon Dam on the Upper Elwah River, in Washington State, disguised by moss and lichen—a hidden giant in the background of the image. The dam, nearly obscured by plant life and craggy canyon rocks jutting from the foreground, at first seems to blend into the natural scene. Upon closer observation, manmade features such as the pipe and circular opening in its face make evident its technological origins. Despite the linear composition of the photo, one cannot discern the true size of the dam from the photo alone. What is discernible however, is the looming presence of human influence on a natural landscape.

Rose Carman & Emily Crnic


  Alley mural, Aberdeen, Washington
Alley mural, Aberdeen, Washington presents a scene of a past era in the Pacific Northwest logging industry amidst the modern façade of a concrete alleyway. The painting of the hunter and his dogs patrolling the forests serves as an icon of westward expansion and man’s conquest of the land. The man is the focus of the mural and behind him is an infinite forest at his disposal. In Johnson’s photograph, the mural hangs adjacent to a wooden telephone pole attached to a power line, illustrating the modern uses of man’s domination of natural resources in post-industrial Aberdeen. To the left of the power line, a tree much smaller than the ones in the mural appears to have been planted in a landscaping attempt, which poses great irony in the context of Johnson’s collection of photographs and calls into question use value to which modern society ascribes nature. The mood of the mural shows great opportunity and prosperity, while the larger scene is considerably cold and sterile; the power lines and dull concrete walls covered in soot portray a mood much more disillusioned. The photograph contrasts images of past and present Washington and is thus able to capture the deep and complex history of the region.
At first glance, the viewer sees the obvious irony of the landscape mural on the concrete landscape, but looking closer the irony is much deeper. The concrete building evokes the idea that we have run out of wood, a resource that according to the mural was once plentiful. Rather than make our buildings out of wood we are using logs to connect power lines that connect to a host of things that now seem to connect the world. It suggests that the logging industry, and all other industries that extract natural resources, are now dead and we are in a new frontier of technology. The small landscaped tree adds another layer of irony; we have cut down all of our forests yet we plant trees to give us the feeling of nature. The deliberate intricacies and paradoxes of this photograph reveal Johnson’s ability to shoot seemingly simple scenes in a way that brings light to complex issues.

Olivia Arnow


  Sawdust, Seaport Lumber Mill, Forks, Washington, 2007
Taken at a prominent lumber mill of the Pacific Northwest, this photograph simply displays the by-product of the mill’s main task. The pile of sawdust shown is composed of fine particles of wood that collect after logs are cut, ground, or pulverized. Considered the waste of the logging industry, sawdust is sometimes used in mulch, fuels, cleaning supplies, and processed food products in the form of cellulose. If the lumber mills do not repurpose sawdust, however, piles of wood dust accumulate causing significant environmental and health hazards to workers and surrounding areas. Seeping into nearby water systems, sawdust destroys the balance of oxygen in aquatic ecosystems, as well as preventing proper drainage of rivers and streams. Sawdust is also highly flammable and is considered a human carcinogen when inhaled.
The scope of Johnson’s photograph is close and contained; we are unable to see the amount of sawdust and if it is being repurposed, or even monitored. What we can see details the frequency of this mill’s work. The machine in the foreground has seen heavy use; the makeshift building in the background is time and weatherworn. The visible sawdust mountain calls to mind the unseen refuse of the logging industry and the implications of its process.

Penelope Luksic


  Weyerhaeuser sorting yard along the Chehalis River, Cosmopolis, Washington
In this photograph, we see the Weyerhaeuser sorting yard, where we can observe a vast array of logs stacked in an acre near the center of the image, while being surrounded by the contrasting natural waters and trees found in the state of Washington. It is in this yard that logs from the Olympic peninsula are loaded and sent to a mill where they are converted to pulp in order to produce several kinds of materials.
This scene demonstrates the manner in which humans interact with nature, extracting resources such as wood and consequently altering the landscape of the environment. The image captures the ongoing process of industrialization, as nature is slowly disappearing due to the logging industries that exist within Washington. The perspective from which this photograph was taken allows us to see how the similar colors of the sky and the water blend and place an emphasis on the sorting yard, as it stands out as symbol of industrialization in the midst of what was once a pristine image of nature.

Marvin Ponce


  Harold Balderson above Neah Bay, Washington
Pictured is Harold Balderson, a twenty-year old serviceman who has returned home to Neah Bay from building bases in Iraq.  The youngest of four sons, Harold is the “outsider,” and he has no interest in joining his father’s fishing trade.
In this portrait, the figure is staged in focus, front and center, his eyes staring directly into the camera, and his severe gaze meeting that of the viewer. He stands hunched and bare-armed, looking both strong and fragile framed by the out-of-focus wilderness behind him. His high and tight haircut references his experience as a soldier, and highlights just how recent his return to Washington was.
The image presents the viewer with two disparate but intertwining visual vocabularies—the iconography of the returning soldier with the landscape sublime of the Pacific Northwest.  These visual tropes collide into one another suggesting an ambiguous relationship between service and homeland, duty and available opportunity, return and alienation.

Daniel Small & Meghan Feldmeier


  The Art of Wood Store, North Bend, Oregon
Artfully crafted wood pieces are depicted in this photograph: the caramel-colored block in the center contrasts with the darker slice of wood on the left. A wooden table enters the image from the bottom left, while a forest-green map of Oregon runs off the top of the frame. The artist juxtaposes these natural, uncut wooden art pieces with the processed planks of wood that make up the wall. Interestingly, the only element of the photograph that appears decrepit is the plastic light switch in the middle of the image.
This photograph highlights the creativity of artists in a region that has been characterized by extractive industries such as logging. Here, Johnson observes how the lumber from the trees has been incorporated into the local community, and how it has affected the lives of the people there. While this particular picture would be artistically strong on its own, it makes a more significant statement because it shows the variety of ways in which wood is used in the region.

Roni Teich


  Brad Balderson on his longliner, the Fish Hog, Neah Bay, Washington
This image depicts Brad Balderson, a veteran commercial fisherman in Neah Bay, Washington, sitting in his longliner, hands folded with wet eyes looking outward. The moment is captured through a window, with the reflection of the water and coastline blending with the boat’s wires and equipment. Superimposed over the man’s form we can see the end of the boat and water behind him, the top of his head disappearing into the clouds above the mountain.
Viewing the subject through glass makes it unclear which elements are reflected and which are direct.  Perhaps this is a metaphor for the transient stage the region has entered as the extractive industries buckle under their own unsustainability. The glare causes the fisherman’s image to fade into the backdrop, mirroring his profession’s fading relevance. His expression can be read as one of fear: fear about the survival of the species he catches and for the economy that keeps him in business, with rising fuel costs and fishing license fees met with diminishing quotas. The blending of reds found in items on the boat and hinted in the wood, with the grays of machine, water, and sky further comments of the interconnectivity of man and nature.

Kelly Holmes

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