To see the American landscape through the lens of Victoria Sambunaris’ 5×7-inch field camera is to see beauty and majesty—the stuff of patriotic hymns—held in contrapposto with the destructive acts that fuel the nation’s so-called progress: extraction, expansion, exclusion. Mining pits. Railroad tracks. Border fences. Her photographs ask a viewer to meditate on the impact of development on vast parts of the country that largely go unseen. And, in making them visible she shows us what is at stake and what has already been lost.
Sambunaris has an intimate relationship with these panoramas. Every year since 1999, the year she graduated from Yale with an MFA, she’s embarked on a months-long journey to document transformation across the country. Currently, she’s driving through California and Nevada, seeking out sites critical to water resources in the West—places, that in these drought-prone states are long victim to what she describes as “hucksterism and speculation.”
“After over twenty years on the road, I continue to see more encroachment on the natural environment whether it is a subdivision on what was once farmland or a mine that is broader and deeper or a mine closed down and reclaimed by the natural elements,” she says. Her large-format photographs tell time on an anthropocentric scale. For example, her image of the Bingham Canyon Copper mine from 2002 charts the growing demand for copper from 1848, when the Bingham brothers first discovered the precious ore on their land. “I’m sure today it looks completely different from when I shot it in 2002,” she adds.
Late last year, Sambunaris was named the 2020 recipient of the Julius Shulman Institute’s Award for Excellence in Photography, an honor also held by notable artists known for picturing the built environment, such as James Welling, Catharine Opie, and Iwan Baan. To mark the occasion, the Los Angeles-based Institute presented an online exhibition features work from her ongoing series “Taxonomy of a Landscape.”
Where some might see it forced to draw parallels between these ecological portraits and Shulman’s iconic midcentury images, Sambunaris finds shared personal histories (both grew up on the East Coast in immigrant households) and an interest in architecture, noting, “We also share a concern for the physical environment and a mission to reveal an alternative perspective in the use of land and the impact that humans have on it.”