Projects > 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.