Getting the Lay of the Land with Photographer VICTORIA SAMBUNARIS

By Sarah Heikkinen

Summer 2014

The diversity of the American landscape can quite easily be compared to the diversity of the men and women who occupy and explore it. Traveling across these landscapes for more than a decade, photographer Victoria Sambunaris captures this diversity and its accompanying beauty in her newly released book, Taxonomy of a Landscape. Her photographs suggest a world that is both incredibly intimate and nearly alien to an audience of Americans who may believe they are familiar with their surroundings. Sambunaris’ monograph is not only a collection of her photographs, but a beautiful and compelling record of her thirteen-year-long journey across America. I spoke with Ms. Sambunaris about her book.

Sarah Heikkinen: What is the meaning behind the title of your new book, Taxonomy of a Landscape?

Victoria Sambunaris: Each year, I work in a specific area of the country with a concept in mind that has to do with a particular aspect of the American landscape. Taxonomy of a Landscape is a compilation of those places. I see the book as a catalogue of place with parameters that I have created.

SH: What about the American landscape interests you the most? 

VS: The country’s physical diversity that is perpetually changing is what interests me most. The trips are an opportunity to engage with the landscape and the culture in order to have a better understanding of the country, its politics, its people and my relationship to it.

SH: I”m sure you have a number of favorite locations across the country, but is there any one specific place that comes to mind that you’ve enjoyed photographing more than other locations?

VS: Alaska was the most challenging, the most extreme, the most diverse. It was 2003, the journey was long, I learned how to camp, I had no technology—no cell phone, no computer, no GPS. I  learned a lot about myself on that trip and toughened up pretty damn quick.

SH: Taxonomy of a Landscape includes a selection of your pictures from the past thirteen years. What inspired you to continue photographing landscapes across America for such an extended period of time? And at what point did you realize this was becoming a lifetime project for you?

VS: Curiosity keeps me going back for more. As long as I am captivated, I will keep going out there to see and learn more. The trips require time to engage with the landscape and the people who offer knowledge about their locale and the issues surrounding their lives. Part of the seduction is not only the search for whatever it is I am looking for but the many encounters that I have with miners, pipe layers, geologists, park rangers, sheriffs, campers, ecologists, conservationists. They are my teachers and keep me coming back for more.

SH: What about these treks through the landscapes of America has impacted you the most?

VS: Seeing the reality of the country and grasping it intellectually through investigating the landscape, the history, the culture and the people.

SH: Taxonomy of a Landscape includes some interesting extras in addition to the beautiful photography throughout the book–one is a story by Barry Lopez. Can you talk about why that was included and how you think it relates to your work?

VS: My work is inspired usually by something I have read so I wanted to incorporate an aspect that is a critical part of my work. The car is piled with books when traveling– geology books, travel books, maps, newspapers, magazine articles, history books or literature. The short story called “The Mappist” by Barry Lopez spoke to me on many different levels. It’s a true gem of a story that I wanted to include in the book and Barry Lopez kindly agreed. The story speaks to me about vision, conviction and cultivating what is personally important. It’s a reminder of why artists do what they do at any cost.

SH: Also included is a copy of contact sheets. What made you want to include that with the book?

VS: The pull out in the back of the book is a group of “snapshots” and a visual diary of my travels. It is a portion of a 37 foot grid of almost 1600 photographs that I took with a Mamiya 6×7 film camera during my travels throughout the years. The grid was originally installed at my show with the same title at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY in 2011 and has traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago and is about to open at the Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery at the University of Maryland in Baltimore at the end of this month.

SH: Is there any message you hope to convey through this project and this book, specifically?

VS: The work is a passion and a way of life for me. I hope that it inspires curiosity about our relationship to the landscape and encourages others to consider and cultivate what is important to them personally.

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.



The Official Site of Victoria Sambunaris

Written by Sarah Heikkinen

Photography by & Courtesy of Victoria Sambunaris

Design by Mina Darius


Photographs from Taxonomy of a Landscape, Photography by & Courtesy of Victoria Sambunaris

read the complete article