Laura McPhee: River of No Return

“Laura McPhee: River of No Return” continuing through Nov. 20

Southwest School of Art

In her monumental photographs of Idaho’s remote Sawtooth Valley, Laura McPhee investigates the contemporary reality of the majestic landscapes in the West, reminiscent of landmark paintings by Albert Bierstadt or Thomas Moran. Her approach is decidedly 19th century. For three years, she lugged around a 55-year-old Deardorff 8-by-10 viewfinder camera and used the traditional darkroom wet process for printing each mammoth 6-by-8-foot color print. The scale and breath-taking clarity of the mural-size photographs in “River of No Return” is even better than HD, providing a life-size perspective that places the viewer in the midst of the landscape, though the natural beauty of the rugged mountains and birch forests is besmirched by evidence of humankind.

Calendar-perfect mountains along “Fourth of July Creek” — peaks lit by the setting sun with a picturesque, zigzagging wood fence in the foreground — provide the backdrop for an irritating parade of little red flags lined up to deter wolves from killing calves. A blue tarp covering irrigation pipes intrudes on the same landscape during a windswept Winslow Homer rainstorm. The sun streams through a birch tree grove like a Robert Frost poem, only the tree trunks have been crudely carved with the names of sheep herders.

In the grisliest image, the butchered remains of a Rocky Mountain elk have been strung from trees and stacked on the snow-covered ground. The blood-splattered snow is a graphic symbol of the close connection between man and nature. Though it’s easy for city dwellers to keep nature at a romantic remove, the 100 or so residents of the Sawtooth Valley engage daily in the messy struggle of trying to wrest a living from the land.

Read the rest in Visual Art Source

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