Victoria Sambunaris, Taxonomy of a Landscape

Victoria Sambunaris is a road warrior, and we should be thankful to her for it.

Since 2000, Sambunaris has spent over a decade traversing the United States taking photographs and inquiring into our relationship with the land. What do we do to it? What does it do to us?

This has culminated in her first monograph Taxonomy of a Landscape.

Untitled (Alaskan Pipeline at Atigun Pass), Brooks Range, Alaska, 2003 © Victoria Sambunaris

Following in the footsteps of earlier “road warriors,” photographers who’ve spent their lives on the road, Sambunaris cites photographers from the US Geological Survey in the 1800s, and from the Farm Security Administration in the 1930/40s as her sources of inspiration. More recent sources include photographers from the New Topographics movement, Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, and Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Starting from a position of curiosity about a place, industry, or culture, Sambunaris begins:

“My motivation to traverse the American landscape is the attempt to reveal the layers of a place. I resist approaching a landscape strictly as an expanse of scenery but view it as an anomaly with an abundance of information to be discovered.”

In the end though, Sambunaris is posing an ethical question to us:

“Upon returning east, the mural-size photographs that I make inspire awe and wonder of a particular terrain and act as a catalyst to an ethical need to penetrate a grander question about landscape and our place within it.”

The photographs which make up Taxonomy of a Landscape are, almost without exception, awe inspiring. They capture grand vast landscapes of grasslands, sand-dunes, valleys, canyons, and open-pit mines. Beautifully lit and aesthetically pleasing, even stacked red storage containers become monumental and beautiful under Sambunaris’ gaze.

The photographs are also full of silence. And in this silence we notice the, not always at first apparent, signs of human activity. Roads, railways, border fences, and pipelines, slice through many of the starkly framed landscapes.

In this taxonomy, humans are builders, movers, stackers, and liner-uppers. Imposing our order on the land as we, or rather our goods, travel through it. Flesh and bone human beings are notably absent from Taxonomy of a Landscape, there is I think, only a single man on a horse crossing a river, in its entirety.

Because of this absence, I read Taxonomy of a Landscape as primarily a meditation on geology. And a love of geology.

It is the mountains, rivers, cliffs, canyons, and open-pit mines (inverted mountains), that are at the heart of this taxonomy. Human activity by contrast seems fragile and transient set against this backdrop. We are exposed as visitors, using and moving through the land, not living with it or in it.

It is for this heart that I am thankful to Sambunaris. At a time when many people live in urban areas, a trend which is set to increase, Sambunaris shows us the vastness of land that exists, and has existed for millennia, outside our everyday workaday thoughts.

Long before we had workadays and everyday.

Untitled (Houses), Wendover, Utah, 2007 © Victoria Sambunaris