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, and Missouri, running along the border of Nebraska and Kansas, then traversing Colorado, Utah, Nevada, ending in Northern California. I have photographed the view from the intersection of the 40th parallel with each 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 mapping and expansion in 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 in 1991-92 while I lived for a year in Boulder, Colorado. A friend and I were sitting atop Flagstaff Mountain and gazing at the scene across the plains to the east. I noticed that the road we drove up, Baseline Road, went out in a straight line as far as I could see. I asked my friend if he knew why it was called this baseline road. He replied that it was the line of the 40th latitude and explained that it was the baseline surveyed in 1855 for creating townships and homesteads being critical to the settlement of the West. I had a project: I would 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 would take me. This was significantly before GPS devices were available to civilians at reasonable prices, yet I continued to be interested in this new technology. In 1998, prices became more affordable; I bought my first Magellan unit for $300 and began photographing. The space between each photograph is about 53 miles; 50 longitudinal points intersect the 40th on land, plus two coastal points for 52 images. At each confluence, there is approximately a 20-square-foot area where I can work and compose a view of the scene I am given.

What you don't see in these pictures...

After living with the project for a while, I have learned more about this line and its wide-ranging and cross-disciplinary importance. In the 1760s, the 40th parallel was considered the border of Pennsylvania and Maryland and was the initial reason for laying 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 human expansion and routes for the railroad. By chance, interstate US 40 weaves in and around the parallel from New Jersey through Ohio and across the west to California.

In the era of exploration, mapping was critical for commerce and shipping; now, we have GPS navigational systems in our cars. Simultaneously, such lines, maps, and devices are meaningful and arbitrary. We want to locate ourselves in space precisely, yet we often miss the more significant picture. Ironically, many people don’t know where these points are, yet most intersections are on or near roads. I hope this project spurs viewers to consider the history of landscape photography, American development, and, most importantly, their relationship to place.

Methods and Medium

I photographed this series using color transparency film with my 8x10 Deardorff camera. Similar view cameras were on the very first surveys of the West and yielded fine clarity and detail. I produce panoramas by taking three individual frames of Ektachrome (basically, giant 8x10-inch original slides), moving the camera from left to right in time and space, and later printing them together, leaving the tell-tale signs of the film’s frame edges intact. In 2009, Eastman Kodak donated 190 sheets of this film to finish the project. In 2012, Kodak announced that they had 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, make archival inkjet prints, and mount them on aluminum in two sizes, 8 x 30 inches and 16 x 60 inches.