Photography, Environment, and Politics: Sawdust Mountain

The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center actively encourages faculty and students from across all departments and programs to view the art collection as a teaching tool and the galleries as a learning site. Perhaps this is nowhere more evident than in this fall’s half-semester course, “Photography, Environment, and Politics: Sawdust Mountain.” The course, which is cross-listed as Political Science 183 / Environmental Studies 183 and led by Professor Peter Stillman, builds on the Art Center’s special exhibition of photographs by Eirik Johnson, Sawdust Mountain. Students  read pertinent contextual works in environmental studies, political science, photography, and literature, and work with Art Center staff in the galleries to gain an art historical perspective that deepens their understanding of the body of work in the exhibition.

Johnson’s images of communities and landscapes in the Pacific Northwest dwell in the liminal region between documentary and art photography, and they raise questions about where, or whether, the line between the two genres exists. Students in Professor Stillman’s class have worked to tease out the environmental, social, and personal meanings that can be read in Johnson’s photographs; these are their perspectives on fifteen of the images in the exhibition.

 

Shipwreck and Salmon Fishermen on the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon

Shipwreck and Salmon Fishermendepicts a moment after the prosperity and affluence of the vast fishing and canning industries along the Columbia River and before any change has occurred for a different industry to move in. The river had long been an important resource for fishing. Later, its power was harvested instead, and change started to spread across once-affluent areas that had to close down the fishing industries and canneries.

Johnson seems to observe this scene from a dock, for there is a large amount of space in the foreground that immediately confronts the viewer. It is filled with battered old lines of wood from ruined docks and structures that lead the eye to the ship. The water is strangely still, an effect most likely created by a long exposure, smoothing out any hint of movement or life. In contrast, the water in the background is very empty, with few boats or even debris to suggest that the river is active, like it once was. Overall, the piece is void of any humans or animals, which creates an uneasy feeling, for it is implied that it was once a more active area and leaves the viewer to question what might have caused this great change.

Emily Lavieri-Scull

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Arlington, Washington

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