The long view Victoria Sambunaris displays an eclectic sense of classification in her big volume of color prints, Taxonomy of a Landscape (Radius Books). Sambunaris, raised in Pennsylvania, has taken to mounting road trips across the American West with a 5-by-7 wooden field camera. The word taxonomy in her book’s title suggests that the images will be broken into particular and definitive categories. But instead of being grouped by season, geography, or physical feature, they reveal another type of taxonomy altogether, one that developed naturally as Sambunaris conducted her travels and gathered her film. An essay by Natasha Egan helps explain Sambunaris’ eclectic take on taxonomy. (A strange but related short story, “The Mappist,” by Barry Lopez, is included as an insert.)
The book first focuses on freight and the means of moving it. We see long rows of big-rig trailers parked on wet concrete; coal cars strung out against a flat brown prairie; and the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline snaking across the tundra. Then Sambunaris shows us marks made on the land, including mining pits and their terraced destruction and small towns sitting amid sprawling landscapes.
Nearly all the photos capture human impacts, whether they are roads, rails, power wires crossing skies in front of rows of prefab houses, or bridges across rivers. They’re composed in a way that grants perspective to the viewer, suggesting a diminutive presence looking into a vast ocean of space. You feel as if you’re standing with the camera.
Two things are common in all the photos. The first, aptly for a book on the western landscape, is the horizon. It’s as if the photographer is saying, Yes, the land is wide and large, but the sky is larger. The second is the perspective provided by stray figures in the vastness. A tiny man on a tiny horse fords the Río Grande, a string of container rail cars twists out of the foreground and far into the distance, and a house is tucked at the edge of a shadow in a wide rumpled landscape.
Sambunaris discusses her work and sign copies of Taxonomy of a Landscape at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 9, at Radius Books, 227 E. Palace Ave., Ste. W, and at 2 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 10, at Tipton Hall, Santa Fe University of Art & Design, 1600 St. Michael’s Dr. Call Radius at 505-983-4068 for information.
— Bill Kohlhaase