Photographer Lawrence McFarland, the William and Bettye Nowlin Endowed Professor in Photography at The University of Texas at Austin, has spent most every summer of the past four decades on the road exploring the western United States. One of his photographs from the road, Dave’s Van, Searles Lake, California, is featured in the Blanton’s exhibition Go West! Representations of the American Frontier, on view through Sept. 23. Below McFarland writes about how the west has inspired his artistic pursuits and curious nature.
My formative years were spent in Dodge City, Kansas, where, as a young boy I went to the theater every Saturday to watch cowboy movies. These Westerns movies instilled in me my perspective for life — to be straightforward and honest. I am very grateful for those influences. However, there was one thing that always bothered me about the movies that were frequently set in my boyhood home. When I walked outside the movie house and looked out across the plains I did not see the lush open spaces and the mountains that were portrayed in the cinematic representations of the West. One day when I was around nine years old, I went looking for that landscape thinking it was just beyond my view. I was not running away from anything, rather I was running toward a mythical place that seemed to exist somewhere out there. As a result, I decided at that early age to explore and document the terrain of my youth.
During my photographic trips over the years I have researched the history of the Western States, particularly the historical period from 1804 to 1890. I selected this time period because it marks the opening of the west by the invading American culture from the east. The heroic journey of Lewis and Clark up the Missouri River between 1804 and 1806 opened the territory to new explorations but at the same time started the downfall of an older culture that existed long before the invasion of the Armies, explorers, trappers, hunters, mountain men, farmers, families, miners, and many others from the east that followed them. My interest in this time period ends with the killing of Chief Sitting Bull and the massacre that took place at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in late December of 1890 which I believe, concluded or forever changed the Western High Plains way of life for Native Americans.
I work in a straightforward manner that is associated with a photo documentary style of photography to make images that convey what space feels like, not simply how it looks. I believe that my images contain both poetry and information. I work on several projects at once. This tends to make my images stronger and more complex, and for me it also makes my different bodies of work open-ended with each project informing the others.
As a young and now older man I look out over the High Plains with wonderment. I am eternally curious about what lies just over the horizon. I have continued to pursue that magical place and to find what is revealed once I reach the space where earth and sky meet. When I finally arrive at that space, the horizon line, what is revealed, of course, is more exciting landscape to be explored.
My photographs function as a metaphoric poem. They define not only my photographic journey but in a larger sense, my life. My life’s journey is about remembering where I came from, the people I traveled with, and what I have learned and experienced. It is about how I have reacted to crisis and how I honor beauty. It is about how I treat the weak and helpless. This journey is about who I have become through photography.
The history of the Western States is the driving force behind my fifty plus years of photographing the West. My images become a record of my journey, my encounters, my integrity, and my curiosities. They show the joy and the sorrow of the open road, the horizon line that you can never meet, and the pursuit of the spaces that I seek. My images show, and I consider this to be the core of my work, the optimism of the journey, the wonder of discovery, and the revealing of events that happen if you pay attention. The amount of time and energy that I have expended over my lifetime in pursuit of my images depict an epic journey of my commitment and my passion for life and photography. They are an impressive description of my quest to find the mythical landscape that exists out there someplace inside my mind.
Today, at my age, I am looking back at my entire life and my history as I am examining the places that captured the attention of my youth. In many ways the focus of my personal research is now internal and not external and I intend for my current and future work to reflect the clarity of that understanding.
The image in the exhibition was made in 1982 near Trona, California. At that time my sole source of income was from the sale my photographs, lectures, and odd jobs I found from time to time. The work that I was making I referred to as “Culture Vestiges.” To me this was a reference to important venues of culture that were being ignored and destroyed by my society.
When I made this image I was helping my friend David Harrod move some items from Arizona to California for his grandmother. I had my faithful companion Kodak, my dog, with me, (he is the one digging in the trash bag in this image next to David’s van). During this trip, David and I explored as much of this barren desert landscape as we could by asking locally about nearby roads and things of interest. The roads in this area led to Barker Ranch in the mountains above Death Valley.