Since 1999, Sambunaris has traversed the United States equipped with a five-by-seven wooden field camera, tripod, and sheets of color negative film. Inspired by the intrepid 19th century photographers whose work helped to define our understanding of the American West, Sambunaris explores the intersections of the natural environment and modern civilization.
In 2016, Sambunaris curated an exhibition entitled Historical Echoes at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, for which she selected the work of a number of early landscape photographers, including William Henry Jackson, Charles Roscoe Savage and George Edward Anderson who helped establish a powerful iconography of the seemingly uninhabited West. Displaying their photographs and the archival material from their expeditions alongside her own work enabled Sambunaris to produce new insights into traditional iconography and expose a re-visioned landscape having to do with the allure of those seemingly impenetrable landscapes which are no less powerful today than over 150 years ago.
The seven large-scale works that comprise Land Mark were created over the course of two years, from 2016 – 2018, mostly in Utah. Sambunaris’s subjects include a train crossing the Great Salt Lake, a new housing development, and a 17-mile coal conveyor belt. Consistent photographic methods, including straight-on framing, precise focus, and uniform lighting, offer a slightly dizzying effect for the viewer, as their attention is not directed toward any one part of the image. In Pump-jack, Draper UT, for example, it may take some time to absorb the vast, angular terrain, and only secondarily might the viewer’s attention be drawn to the pump in question. There is a sense of the deliberate slowing down inherent in Sambunaris’s analogue process – integral to the equipment she uses. Like the photographer herself, the viewer is enticed to look more closely and to take enough time to consider what they are looking at.
Sambunaris’s photographs subtly reveal the changes made to these landscapes – a tension alluded to in the exhibition’s title. Her seemingly detached approach to her subject matter underlines the contradiction that lies at the heart of society’s relationship with the natural world: we are often in awe of the power of nature, while simultaneously seeking to harness it for material gain. As the artist explains, “It is the anomalies of an ordinary landscape that have become the locus of my work: massive warehousing, infinite distribution facilities, and systematized shipping terminals. These numerous paradigmatic structures, I sense, portend the future of landscape and our relationship to it.”