Am­ber waves in black and white

Pasatiempo - - Cd Reviews - Michael Abatemarco For The New Mex­i­can

The land­scape of the Amer­i­canWest is fre­quently thought of in terms of the de­pen­dence of hu­man be­ings on re­sources they can cul­ti­vate in the soil. But there is an­other, op­po­site vi­sion of this land­scape, which fo­cuses on the land­scape’s de­pen­dence on man. Santa Fe-based pho­tog­ra­pher Don Kirby cap­tures both per­spec­tives in his im­ages of the Kiowa Na­tional Grass­lands. Th­ese im­ages, alive with a sense of pres­ence that lends grasses, trees, and bushes per­son­al­i­ties, form part of a larger body of work. Kirby’s gelatin sil­ver prints are not ma­jes­tic in the sense of Ansel Adams’ work but have a more in­ti­mate feel, a first-per­son view of the land. One senses that the pho­tog­ra­pher’s abil­ity to cap­ture moods in the land­scape comes from knowl­edge gained through fa­mil­iar­ity. “I’m do­ing all 20 of the Na­tional Grass­lands in 12 dif­fer­ent states,” Kirby ex­plained. “I had a his­tory of work­ing with grass. I started pho­tograph­ing wheat coun­try in­Wash­ing­ton State in 1991. Wheat is a grass, of course. I pho­tographed ev­ery year in the wheat coun­try for 15 years.”

Kirby be­gan pho­tograph­ing the Na­tional Grass­lands in 2005 while re­search­ing camp­ing sites in Colorado. “In 2005, my wife and I were plan­ning on go­ing camp­ing in south­ern Colorado, and I saw aWeb site for the Na­tional Grass­lands. I had never heard of Na­tional Grass­lands. That got me in­ter­ested, be­cause they’re a re­cov­ery ef­fort from the Dust Bowl days. On that camp­ing trip, we went over near La Junta, Colorado, and looked at one and pho­tographed there. I made three or four ex­po­sures and one print and re­al­ized it was go­ing to be very tough pho­to­graphic work, be­cause there are no graphic pat­terns out there. There’s no ter­rain re­lief, and there’s no con­trast. You can point your light me­ter at the ground and it doesn’t move.” Grass­lands like the Kiowa in north­east­ern New Mex­ico are flat and rel­a­tively fea­ture­less; they are ar­eas where the wind blows force­fully be­cause there is noth­ing to break it. “All the grass­lands are windy,” said Kirby. “The Kiowa is tame com­pared to what you get in the Dako­tas.”

Kirby’s pre­vi­ous work with wheat de­vel­oped out of an in­ter­est in geo­met­ric pat­terns that caught his eye while trav­el­ing through east­ernWash­ing­ton state. “There were two things go­ing on that I re­sponded to ini­tially,” he said. “The pat­terns were made by the com­bine go­ing through the field in one di­rec­tion, bend­ing the grass, and then re­turn­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. You also have to spread the re­mains of the wheat chaff af­ter it’s been har­vested to keep the wind from blow­ing away the rest of the soil. They come through with a har­row that also cre­ates th­ese pat­terns. It’s ei­ther the com­bine or the har­row.”

The grass­lands project has re­sulted in a book, Grass­lands, that was pub­lished by Nazraeli Press in the fall of 2009. (Nazraeli pub­lished Kirby’s Wheat­coun­try in 2001.) “I was aware that very lit­tle if any work had been done in that kind of coun­try. It was a chal­lenge. I seem to do best pho­tograph­ing chal­leng­ing sub­ject mat­ter that hasn’t been done, so I’m not in­flu­enced by any­body else’s work.” The new book con­tains im­ages of the Kiowa as well as the other na­tional pre­serves ad­min­is­tered by the U.S. For­est Ser­vice. Kirby’s pho­to­graphs, as well as land­scape pho­to­graphs by Stephen Strom and close-ups of grasses by Matilda Es­sig, are on view at Verve Gallery of Photography through Jan. 8.

“When I pho­to­graph the Kiowa, I camp over at Clay­ton Lake. I get up as early as I can in the morn­ing and pho­to­graph all day,” Kirby said. “The Kiowa is pretty close by, so I can get over there

and be pho­tograph­ing the same day. You can kind of tell that there has been farm­ing done.” Kirby il­lus­trates the point by pulling out a pho­to­graph of a stock pond bear­ing ev­i­dence of an­i­mal prints in the mud. “This pond is an ex­am­ple of that. It’s now used as a stock pond, but I’ll bet it was orig­i­nally con­structed to sal­vage wa­ter for farm­ing— which is a real prob­lem, be­cause th­ese ponds in­ter­rupt the nat­u­ral streams out there and af­fect the pro­duc­tiv­ity of the land.” Kirby is pas­sion­ate about con­ser­va­tion, and his in­ter­est in pho­tograph­ing the Na­tional Grass­lands is tied to a larger in­ter­est in in­creas­ing aware­ness of land-stew­ard­ship is­sues.

“There have been in­tense ef­forts to re­seed and reestab­lish na­tive grass­lands,” he said. Ef­forts in the Kiowa have been more or less suc­cess­ful, but over­graz­ing con­tin­ues to be a prob­lem. “There’s a pop­u­lar be­lief that if you just take the cat­tle off and let ev­ery­thing go, it’ll re­cover. But na­ture doesn’t go back and re­trace the steps it took to cre­ate it­self and re­cover. It won’t do it.” Kirby’s im­ages bear wit­ness to hu­man in­ter­fer­ence, for good or for ill, though that pres­ence may not be read­ily seen. In some im­ages, like the Santa Fe Trail marker in his Kiowa se­ries, traces of hu­man pres­ence are a given, but in oth­ers, like the im­age in the book of a con­trolled burn near Ci­mar­ron— which re­sem­bles im­ages of ap­proach­ing dust storms from an­other era— they are not so ob­vi­ous. Black An­gus, a pho­to­graph in which cows on the hori­zon are the only ob­jects that stand out in an oth­er­wise fea­ture­less land­scape, may present a threat to reestab­lish­ing nat­u­ral grass­lands.

In th­ese im­ages is a sense of fore­bod­ing, as though they con­vey a mes­sage be­yond mere nat­u­ral beauty. The frag­ile al­liance of man and na­ture is threat­ened. Though in­ter­est in grass­lands is steadily grow­ing, thanks in part to the ef­forts of peo­ple such as Kirby, their fu­ture re­mains in the bal­ance.

Don Kirby:

Top, Cloud Re­flec­tions, Kiowa Na­tional Grass­lands, NM,

Stock Pond, Kiowa Na­tional Grass­lands, NM,

gelatin sil­ver print

gelatin sil­ver print

Santa Fe Trail Marker, Kiowa Na­tional Grass­lands, NM,

gelatin sil­ver print

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