PDN – Out West

Out West – Exhibit Review

By Conor Risch
Photo District News / February 2, 2010

A long-term project photographing the sea of grass stretching across the American West presented self-taught landscape photographer Don Kirby new challenges—in the field and in the darkroom.

Horsehead Creek Drainage, Oglala National Grassland, Nebraska, 2006. Kirby had to develop new darkroom techniques to coax graphic patterns out of the largely monochromatic grasses.

For Santa Fe-based fine-art photographer Don Kirby, picture making began as a hobby, grew into a serious interest and eventually developed into a second career. In late 2009, Kirby exhibited his newest body of work, a series of black-and-white landscapes shot in the nation’s arid grasslands, at Verve gallery in Santa Fe. Nazraeli Press released a collection of the work, their third book with Kirby, last fall.

Kirby first became interested in the grasslands that stretch over large portions of the American West after stumbling onto the U.S. Forest Service’s National Grasslands Web site in 2005. The Forest Service administers 20 public grasslands totaling 3.8 million acres in the Dakotas, Colorado, Texas and other states. The government created these public areas in response to the “Dust Bowl” crisis of the 1930s, when severe drought and mismanagement of the land crippled the country and caused widespread poverty and starvation amongst farming communities.

After a 2005 trip to Southern Colorado to photograph spring runoff, Kirby spent a day in the Comanche National Grasslands, where he made four exposures with his Linhoff Technika 4 x 5 view camera. He made two prints, and knew he’d stumbled upon a project that would challenge his abilities as a photographer and printmaker.

Over the course of the next three years, Kirby made images in the 20 National Grasslands and on private ranches in the Sandhills region of Nebraska, driving over the land in his truck until he saw something that interested him.

Though he considers himself an environmentalist and is well informed about the conservation and land-use issues still surrounding the publicly and privately held grasslands, Kirby’s photographic interest in the subject is purely formal. “I am just trying to make lyrical, wonderful photographs that people can appreciate for the beauty and feeling that I hope is in them. That’s what I’ve been after in all of my work.”

Images in Kirby’s previous long-term projects, like his work in the “Wheatcountry” of Washington State, which has been widely exhibited and was the subject of his first Nazraeli book, were as graphic as the terrain he photographed. Kirby found creating compelling images of the grasslands more difficult. In the field Kirby uses a 1-degree spot meter to check contrast and determine exposure. “Examining the range of light values in the grass portion of an image, the variation is usually less than one stop (less than one zone in the zone system), sometimes no variation at all,” he says. To coax an extra two to four stops of contrast out of the grass portions of his images, he develops his negatives for 60 to 90 minutes: “My normal time’s 12 minutes,” he says.

The “very dense” negatives Kirby produces makes printing the images equally tricky. Developing the negatives so the ground shows contrast means the “sky [portion] takes off,” becoming extremely bright. To create his prints, Kirby uses the highest contrast filter on his enlarger for the landscape, and then burns in the sky with a low contrast filter for a longer period of time.

Kirby first became serious about photography while working as an aerospace engineer in the Los Angeles area. To get out of the city, he began “climbing mountains and backpacking and running rivers” on weekends, taking snapshots along the way. On a trip up the California coast, Kirby traded his slide film for black-and-white film, then built himself a darkroom and started teaching himself photography from Ansel Adams books.

After a long period juggling two careers—building satellites during the week and making photographs in his spare time—Kirby dedicated himself solely to photography in 1991. “Been free ever since,” he says. He now spends a large chunk of his time on the road, camping out in an RV and making photographs, often accompanied by his wife and fellow photographer, Joan Gentry. Kirby plans to expand his grasslands work to private ranches with progressive land-use practices, beginning with those around his home in Santa Fe, but hasn’t yet mapped out any new major projects. “I’m a landscape photographer,” he says, “I just get out and go to new areas, and when something happens it becomes a project.”