The Fortieth Parallel
Fate of the Elms
The View Home
The Fortieth Parallel
The line N 40° 00’ 00” roughly bisects the county and runs from the New Jersey shore through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, running along the border of Nebraska and Kansas, then traversing Colorado, Utah, Nevada, ending in Northern California. I am photographing the view from the intersection of 40th parallel with each whole of degree of longitude across the United States. This panoramic series unites many of my interests and references several “histories”—my personal history, the history of the mapping of the US and photography’s role within it, and the history of GPS and new locative technologies. I am fascinated by our human desire to create systems and then locate ourselves within them.
The core idea of this project came to me while I was living for a year in Boulder, Colorado in 1991. A friend and I were sitting on top of Flagstaff Mountain and gazing at the scene. I noticed that the road we drove up, Baseline Road went east in a straight line as far as I could see. I asked my friend if he knew why it was called this. He replied that it was the 40th parallel of latitude, and went on to explain that it was the baseline for creating townships and homesteads, and was a key marker to the settlement of the West. I had a project: I was going to document these arbitrary points of human measurement and the landscape found at the intersections.
The project gradually crystallized into a large undertaking. Initially, I began to collect maps just trying to see where it was going to take me. This was significantly before GPS devices were available to civilians at reasonable sizes and prices, yet I continued to be interested in this new technology. In 1998, prices came down and I bought my first Magellan unit for $300 and began photographing. The space between each photograph is about 53 miles; there are 50 longitudinal points that intersect the 40th on land plus two coastal points for a total of 52 images. To date, I have been to 30 sites, and fit trips in whenever I can. At each confluence, there is approximately a 20 square foot area in which I am able to work and compose a view with the scene I am given.
What you don't see in these pictures...
After living with the project for a while, I have learned even more about this line and its wide-ranging and cross-disciplinary importance. In the 1760s, the 40th parallel was thought to be the border of Pennsylvania and Maryland, and was the initial reason for the laying of the Mason-Dixon line. Between 1867 and 1869, Clarence King, who later became the first director of the US Geological Survey, surveyed part of the 40th parallel from California to Colorado accompanied by a team of scientists and photographer Timothy O’Sullivan. King’s survey was one of several 19th century survey projects in the American West undertaken by the government for the purposes of expansion and the railroad. By chance, interstate US 40 weaves in and around the parallel from New Jersey through Ohio and across the west to California.
Early on in the era of exploration, mapping was important for commerce and shipping; now we have GPS navigational systems in our cars. Simultaneously, such lines, maps, and devices are both meaningful and arbitrary. We want to locate ourselves in space precisely, yet somehow I feel we often miss both the larger and the smaller picture. Ironically, many people don’t even know where these points are; yet, most of the intersections are on or very near roads. It is my hope that this project spurs viewers to consider the history of landscape photography, American development, but most importantly, their own relationship to place.
Methods and Medium
I am photographing this series with my 8x10 Deardorff camera using color transparency film. Similar view cameras were on the very first surveys of the West and yield fine clarity and detail. I produce panoramas by taking 3 individual frames of Ektachrome (basically, large 8x10-inch original slides), moving the camera from left to right in time and space, and later print them together, leaving the tell-tale signs of film’s frames intact. In 2009, Eastman Kodak donated 190 sheets of this film, enough to finish the project. Just this spring Kodak has announced that they have discontinued their entire E6 family of films, leaving very little time for me to conclude this series.
I have chosen the panorama as it perfectly unites the form and content of this project, both aesthetically and philosophically. Most importantly, this triptych format emulates a person’s field of vision. I currently scan my film and make archival ink jet prints, and mount them on aluminum in two sizes, 8 x 30 inches and 16 x 60 inches.
The Washington Elm
“The Washington Elm” is a project documenting the tree under which George Washington allegedly took command of the Continental Army in Cambridge, MA in 1775. These images are the first in a larger undertaking that considers the role elm trees have played in the history and civic life of American cities. The overarching series, entitled “Fate of the Elms” taken from a poem by Robert Francis, will include the Elm, other scions or clones, and artifacts from around the country.
By beginning with one tree, which is itself not the original, I invite the viewer to consider how history is represented and memorialized within the built environment and via connections to the natural world. Washington and troops did indeed muster on Cambridge Common. However, according to a nineteenth-century legend, perhaps by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, this event took place under the shade of an elm. Many scions—a rooted clipping that is genetically identical—of this witness tree have been planted around the country. Interest in cultivating these elms grew during the nation's centennial, but the most widespread effort was led by the Daughters of the American Revolution on the anniversary of Washington’s birth in 1932.
In 1923, Cambridge city workers, in an effort to keep the original Elm alive, cut off a limb, unbalancing the tree and causing it to topple and die. Fortunately, a Harvard alum and University of Washington professor had planted a scion on the UW campus in the 1880s; it was from this Elm that the current tree on the Common was grown. In making these photographs, I am interested in the how the Elm sits within its environs, what people's interactions are with the site, the ways in which the monuments support or contradict history, and the physical beauty of the tree itself.
“The Washington Elm” is supported by a Cambridge Arts Council grant and selections will be shown, along with artifacts made from the Elm and related ephemera, at the Cambridge History Society October 28, 2015 to January 2015.
Fort Juniper is the name of a small one-person house in the woods of Amherst, Massachusetts. It was built by the poet Robert Francis (1901-87) in 1940 and served as his home until his death. Presently, it is used to host poets-in-residence through the Robert Francis Trust.
While wandering in the woods as a teenager, I often encountered an older man in a cap, someone I assumed to be a poet but never spoke to; many years later, I learned that the man who tipped his hat to me was Francis. It was in this area of Amherst where I first forged my sense of intimacy with the land and it was these same environs that Francis would walk for inspiration. Via Francis’s poems and prose, I am seeing my former hometown with new eyes and capturing the intersection of his understanding of this place with my own experience.
Many people know of the other two great poets from Amherst, Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, and an additional aim of this project is to bring more attention to Francis and his work. For Francis, Fort Juniper was more than just an abode in which to reside, it was a fort to shelter him, a lens through which he viewed the world, and a mirror with which to observe his inner states. In researching Francis, I have read his autobiography, poems, and many of his newspaper columns. Tales of walks and neighbors, trees and chickens, these are the observations made with the eyes of a poet. It is from Francis’s reflections and poetry that I occasionally cull titles and inspiration for my images.
The area being photographed is growing naturally to include parts of the river that flow away from Fort Juniper towards my childhood home and other locations related to Francis. In essence, this project allows me entrance into a world I had left many years ago and the opportunity to explore how and where our lives interweave through time.
The View Home
“The View Home” uses the language of surveying and navigation to consider my longing for a sense of home throughout my life. For this project, I traveled to the 14 places I have lived in Massachusetts. Standing on the land’s public space with my 8x10 camera, I photographed the view from each of these places to where I live now.
Under each image is the location information, including the street name and number, the length of time lived at each residence, and the distance and compass bearing to my current home. The printing and presentation references 1970s landscape photographs as well as historic survey photography.
Together the photographs form a constellation of my life with attendant personal history at each site. In essence, the work is a search for something that cannot be seen—referenced by its absence—a place not pictured.