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In graphic transformation

Documenting suburbia's march into the Western wilds, Steven B. Smith finds art in the land even as it's being tamed.

January 29, 2006|Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writer

ABSTRACT loops of heating coils spread across a Utah driveway awaiting a covering of concrete. A river of discarded wall mud compound solidifies on a hillside in Valencia, flanked by empty cardboard boxes. Below the empty windows of an unfinished house in Castaic, earth slopes away under a carpet of rough mesh, like surgical bandages over flayed skin.

Photographer Steven B. Smith photographs landscapes. Not romantic vistas, but the terrain of transformation: mountains and desert covered in tar and concrete, walled off, scraped and gouged by developers eager to satisfy the demand for ever-spreading suburbia.

The disconnect in designing and managing land, Smith says by phone, is "selling an idea of harmonious coexistence with nature -- as you pave over it."

Smith's black-and-white photography, shot in California, Utah, Nevada and Colorado from 1995 through 2004 with a large-format camera, is collected in "The Weather and a Place to Live, Photographs of the Suburban West" (Duke University Press).

In her forward, Maria Morris Hambourg, founding curator of the Department of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, describes Smith's work: "Concretions of cultural beliefs and practices, these landscapes are material evidence of who we are. They reveal a vision of earth as property to be owned, physically shaped, delimited with boundaries, and viewed."

Smith, winner of the Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography and the recipient of a Guggenheim grant and an Aaron Siskind Fellowship for Photography, is professor of photography at the Rhode Island School of Design. His work is in a number of museum collections and has been seen in solo and group exhibitions, including at Gallery Luisotti in Santa Monica.

His proximity to many of these landscape sites was no fluke. Smith worked in construction to pay his college bills and, after completing his master's degree at the Yale School of Art, became a contractor in L.A.

His self-described "anthropological portraits" came about when he began seeing the systems necessary to restrain the land and redirect the water "as a visual language of symbols that represented our ideas about how to add value to the landscape, how to change the landscape and what was necessary to co-exist with it."

He mentions a photograph taken in Hurricane, Utah, of two nearly finished homes, fenced off from each other, each with a view of vaulting sky and mountains.

"Here's this simple, spare space between two homes, and here's the view that they're trying to secure for themselves."

The rough jute cloth that covers denuded earth to protect nascent plantings recurs in several of Smith's compositions, making a statement about "how things are kind of held down in place, re-patched, re-mended and welded. To me, it tells a story of what is necessary to control and sculpt the land and it also makes its own beautiful, artistic patterns."

At a housing development in Mesquite, Calif., Smith photographs a stucco fence shaped to mimic the contours of a southwestern landscape.

It might be regarded as simple kitsch, but through his lens Smith shows "how people can stamp a little pattern of nature on something and feel comfortable in the notion that they're existing in an eco-friendly, harmonious relationship with nature."

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Photographs by Steven B. Smith From "The Weather and a Place to Live: Photographs of the Suburban West," published by Duke University Press and the Center for Documentary Studies

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