Past and Present Collide
“Story is first and foremost in my work,” notes photographer Laura McPhee MFA 86 PH in discussing River of No Return, a solo show that continues through September 22 at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, MO. Featuring 28 large-scale photographs taken in the desolate Sawtooth Valley in central Idaho, it is an edited version of a much larger exhibition originally on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2006. Yale University Press also published the River of No Return series as a book, one of eight monographs of her work produced to date.
The breathtaking 6- x 8-foot photos in the current exhibition embrace the stark, open spaces of the American west, capturing the beauty of the landscape and poignant moments in the lives of its permanent and migrant residents. McPhee’s images raise issues about the impact of humans on the land and related tensions among ranchers, hunters, environmentalists and recreational visitors. The family depicted in some of the photos – whom the photographer stayed with as an Alturas Foundation artist-in-residence – almost look like they were shot 100 years ago. “You feel the past and the present in one place,” the artist says of her work.
A former Guggenheim and Fulbright fellow, McPhee teaches photography at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and creates all of her images on film using a large-format Deardorff camera. The classic camera and traditional approach help her to envelop viewers in the sheer scale and warmth of her photographs, while also capturing the timeless quality of her rural subjects down to the finest details – including specks of blood from a butchered elk in the snow, bubbles in the ice of a frozen lake, faint scars on the hands of a teenage girl.
In recalling her first impression of the Idaho landscape, McPhee says she immediately connected the place with stories of her own grandmother. “I stood on Galena [Pass] and I thought about her passing from one mining town to another as a child,” she told the Sun Valley Guide. “And for me that was the hook – an emotional, autobiographical hook.”
Last spring McPhee exhibited Desert Chronicle, another stunning series shot in the American West, in a solo exhibition at the Bonni Benrubi Gallery in New York City. And her travels to India recently inspired her to create a series known as The Home and The World. Her work is included in the permanent collections at New York’s Metropolitan Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art and is represented in collections at the J. Paul Getty Center Museum in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, among other major venues nationwide.
In an interesting RISD twist, McPhee first got into photography as an undergraduate at Princeton University, where she took an introductory class in 1977 taught by renowned photographer Emmet Gowin MFA 67 PH (who also just had a major solo show – at Fundación Mapfre in Madrid, Spain). Less than a decade later, she graduated from RISD herself, moving on to a rewarding career making powerful pictures.
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