A Spotlite on VICTORIA SAMBUNARIS
Victoria Sambunaris by Anita Marie Antonini
Victoria Sambunaris’ large-scale color photographs of broad vistas and urban expanse document the ever-changing American Landscape. She has traversed her way through the USA on every highway and byway that you can think of (plus countless dirt roads) with a determined purpose in making this decade-long body of work. Traveling has taken her on the road for up to nine months out of the year.
With a keen interest in the industry, geology and history of an area, the photographs are not only just about what appears on the surface, but are themselves attempts to dissect a place. Layers are evident in her transcendent murals. Evolution and transformation give way to the elegance of exploration that translates in her Art.
Sambunaris, in her quest for the next photograph, has spent time in such diverse places as the Alaskan wilderness, the Yellowstone hot spot areas, the salt flats in Utah, the volcanoes of Hawaii and most recently on the US-Mexican border. Intrigued by her fearless and inquisitive nature, as well as her life on the road, I caught up with this lone wolf female with a 5X7 field camera in tow to talk a little story.
Anita Marie Antonini: After the research, and mapping out of your route, what do you have in mind when you set off on a photographic journey?
Victoria Sambunaris: I travel for months on end in my truck and never really know exactly where I will be so there is a great deal of preparation that has to happen. Besides my equipment, which consists of mainly a 5×7 field camera, boxes of film, and tripod, there is camping gear, boots, books, maps and everything else I might need.
Once I get packed up and hit the road, there is an incredible sense of freedom that I thrive on and an unmitigated curiosity that drives the work. There is always the anticipation of the search for whatever it is I’m hoping to discover or see and with that comes the real work. Sometimes it might mean waiting for days for light or trying to get to the top of a mountain where you know there are bandits or tolerating extreme weather while camping. It’s worth every moment and “patience is a virtue” never had more meaning.
AMA: Inspired by author, John McPhee’s Annals Of The Former World and Geology, your photos of mines and caves feel like you were on another planet. Does that ever cross your mind while you are at a site?
VS: Absolutely. Especially after departing from my home base, New York City. Everything looks like another planet. It’s wonderful.
McPhee’s book helped define what I was seeing on many of my trips west. I typically have an abundance of reference material and books in the car, which add perspective to the journey.
AMA: Your most recent work was taken on the US-Mexican Border, one of the most dangerous places in America. How was that experience different from some other trips?
VS: Let me clarify, the violence is on the Mexican side of the border. The border town of El Paso, TX is one of the safest cities in the United States and sits opposite one of the most dangerous cities in the world, Ciudad Juarez. Regardless of where I am working, access is usually an issue whether a mine, a cave, or the border area, especially since September 11th. With this recent work on the border, there were an abundance of federal agents wondering what a girl in a dark Suburban with NY plates was doing down in those parts. Needless to say, I was stopped more than usual. But in regards to danger, I’m more worried about rattlesnakes, grizzlies and mountain lions than encounters with strangers.
AMA: When I look at your work there is femininity that translates into the landscape, and yet most landscape photographers have historically been men. As a female in the male-dominated genre of landscape photography, how do you perceive your role?
VS: Historically, landscape photography has indeed been male dominated however that has been changing over the years. Thinking about my femininity and the role it plays in my work, I have considered the dynamic that I share with people on the road and my independence but whether that has anything to do with my gender, I doubt. Perhaps that has more to do with openness and fearlessness.
When I am camping alone, I have had people approach me and ask what I am doing but I doubt that a man camping alone experiences the same reaction. For sure, I don’t come off suspicious or threatening in any way and that helps, too. Some of the situations, like mining operations, are very delicate and I need to build trust with those that will allow me access.
AMA: There are very few people in your photographs if any but there is an overwhelming sense of humanity. Can you elaborate on that as a concept?
VS: I’m interested in the vast transformation of the American landscape– how we manipulate it and situate ourselves within that landscape.
There’s a wonderful quote by a geographer named Peirce Lewis: “If we want to understand ourselves, we would do well to take a searching look at landscapes. The human landscape is an appropriate source of self knowledge because it’s our unwitting autobiography reflecting our tastes our values our aspirations and even our fears.” That is powerful!
Although, I encounter an abundance of people on the road, I’m interested in the world on a grander scale. Occasionally, I’ll do a portrait but there are various motivations for my pursuing a portrait. I do not typically put those photographs out in the world. They are a token, a memento of the trip, a bit like the rock specimen that I collect.
AMA: Traveling so much and encountering, as you say, “an abundance of people on the road,” you must have accumulated a surplus of memorable stories with and about interesting people. Please share some stories with us?
VS: Where do I begin with the myriad of people that I meet and their stories? A night of two-stepping with cowboys at a border bar or an earnest discussion with an archeological steward explaining why he will never acknowledge the border or a Mexican shepherd that crossed the Rio Grande to pick up the beer I brought him. Priceless.
Don’t miss the upcoming exhibition entitled, The Border.
Yancey Richardson Gallery: Opening on February 24, 2011.
Victoria Sambunaris received her MFA from Yale University in 1999. Each year, she structures her life around a photographic journey crossing the American landscape. Her most recent project has been following the US-Mexican border photographing the intersection of geology, politics and culture along the volatile international boundary. She is a recipient of the 2010 Aaron Siskind Foundation Individual Photographer’s Fellowship and the 2010 Anonymous Was a Woman Award. Her work is held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the National Gallery of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Lannan Foundation.
Victoria Sambunaris interviewed by Anita Marie Antonini
Written by Anita Marie Antonini
Edited by Anita Marie Antonini & Tyler Malone
Photography by Victoria Sambunaris
Additional Photography by Jason Schmidt / Courtesy of Victoria Sambunaris
Design by Marie Havens
Untitled, 2008, Distant Steam Vents, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Photography by Victoria Sambunaris
Untitled, 2002, Copper Mine, Bingham Canyon, UT, Photography by Victoria Sambunaris
Untitled, 2009, Man on Horse, Big Bend National Park, TX, Photography by Victoria Sambunaris
Untitled, 2004, Potash Mine – Distant View, Wendover, UT, Photography by Victoria Sambunaris
Untitled, 2006, Luray Caverns, Virginia, Photography by Victoria Sambunaris
Untitled, 2005, Haleakala crater with clouds, Maui, HI, Photography by Victoria Sambunaris
Untitled, 2010, Farm with Workers, Jacumba, CA, Photography by Victoria Sambunaris
Untitled, 2007, Gillette, WY, Photography by Victoria Sambunaris
Untitled, 2010, Dunes, Near El Centro, CA, Photography by Victoria Sambunaris
Portrait, Victoria Sambunaris, 2008, Schuylkill County, PA, Photography by Jason Schmidt / Courtesy of Victoria Sambunaris