The New Mexican Review
The New Mexican – Review
By Michael Abatemarco
For The New Mexican / January 2010
Amber Waves in Black and White
The landscape of the American West is frequently thought of in terms of the dependence of human beings on resources they can cultivate in the soil. But there is another, opposite vision of this landscape, which focuses on the landscape’s dependence on man. Santa Fe-based photographer Don Kirby captures both perspectives in his images of the Kiowa National Grasslands.
These images, alive with a sense of presence that lends grasses, trees, and bushes personalities, form part of a larger body of work. Kirby’s gelatin silver prints are not majestic in the sense of Ansel Adams’ work but have a more intimate feel, a first-person view of the land. One senses that the photographer’s ability to capture moods in the landscape comes from knowledge gained through familiarity. “I’m doing all 20 of the National Grasslands in 12 different states,” Kirby explained. “I had a history of working with grass. I started photographing wheat country in Washington State in 1991. Wheat is a grass, of course. I photographed every year in the wheat country for 15 years.”
Kirby began photographing the National Grasslands in 2005 while researching camping sites in Colorado. “In 2005, my wife and I were planning on going camping in southern Colorado, and I saw a Web site for the National Grasslands. I had never heard of National Grasslands. That got me interested, because they’re a recovery effort from the Dust Bowl days. On that camping trip, we went over near La Junta, Colorado, and looked at one and photographed there. I made three or four exposures and one print and realized it was going to be very tough photographic work, because there are no graphic patterns out there. There’s no terrain relief, and there’s no contrast. You can point your light meter at the ground and it doesn’t move.” Grasslands like the Kiowa in northeastern New Mexico are flat and relatively featureless; they are areas where the wind blows forcefully because there is nothing to break it. “All the grasslands are windy,” said Kirby. “The Kiowa is tame compared to what you get in the Dakotas.”
Kirby’s previous work with wheat developed out of an interest in geometric patterns that caught his eye while traveling through eastern Washington state. “There were two things going on that I responded to initially,” he said. “The patterns were made by the combine going through the field in one direction, bending the grass, and then returning in the opposite direction. You also have to spread the remains of the wheat chaff after it’s been harvested to keep the wind from blowing away the rest of the soil. They come through with a harrow that also creates these patterns. It’s either the combine or the harrow.”
The grasslands project has resulted in a book, Grasslands, that was published by Nazraeli Press in the fall of 2009. (Nazraeli published Kirby’s Wheatcountry in 2001.) “I was aware that very little if any work had been done in that kind of country. It was a challenge. I seem to do best photographing challenging subject matter that hasn’t been done, so I’m not influenced by anybody else’s work.” The new book contains images of the Kiowa as well as the other national preserves administered by the U.S. Forest Service. Kirby’s photographs, as well as landscape photographs by Stephen Strom and close-ups of grasses by Matilda Essig, are on view at Verve Gallery of Photography through Jan. 8.
“When I photograph the Kiowa, I camp over at Clayton Lake. I get up as early as I can in the morning and photograph all day,” Kirby said. “The Kiowa is pretty close by, so I can get over there and be photographing the same day. You can kind of tell that there has been farming done.” Kirby illustrates the point by pulling out a photograph of a stock pond bearing evidence of animal prints in the mud. “This pond is an example of that. It’s now used as a stock pond, but I’ll bet it was originally constructed to salvage water for farming — which is a real problem, because these ponds interrupt the natural streams out there and affect the productivity of the land.” Kirby is passionate about conservation, and his interest in photographing the National Grasslands is tied to a larger interest in increasing awareness of land-stewardship issues.
“There have been intense efforts to reseed and reestablish native grasslands,” he said. Efforts in the Kiowa have been more or less successful, but overgrazing continues to be a problem. “There’s a popular belief that if you just take the cattle off and let everything go, it’ll recover. But nature doesn’t go back and retrace the steps it took to create itself and recover. It won’t do it.” Kirby’s images bear witness to human interference, for good or for ill, though that presence may not be readily seen. In some images, like the Santa Fe Trail marker in his Kiowa series, traces of human presence are a given, but in others, like the image in the book of a controlled burn near Cimarron — which resembles images of approaching dust storms from another era — they are not so obvious. Black Angus, a photograph in which cows on the horizon are the only objects that stand out in an otherwise featureless landscape, may present a threat to reestablishing natural grasslands.
In these images is a sense of foreboding, as though they convey a message beyond mere natural beauty. The fragile alliance of man and nature is threatened. Though interest in grasslands is steadily growing, thanks in part to the efforts of people such as Kirby, their future remains in the balance.