by Jon Feinstein

Published on 06/28/ 2016

American landscape pilgrimages are one of photography’s most heavily repeating tropes. Extending from the US Geological Survey in the late 19th century through the indiscriminate New Topographics photographers like Stephen Shore and Lewis Baltz in the 1970’s – this visual journey may appear to have been done to death. But as land, politics and culture changes, it continues to manifest itself in increasingly relevant ways. For nearly two decades, Victoria Sambunaris has breathed a distinct perspective into this largely over-charted terrain, deeply rooted in her experience as a child of Greek immigrants, and her desire to explore the mythology of the American landscape and its notions of prosperity and success. While her ongoing series Taxonomy of a Landscape covers the breadth of the United States, she’s been particularly drawn to Texas and its border.

Sambunaris first found photography as an early teenager, growing up in a strict household in Lancaster, PA. Much of her time was spent with her family, taking Sunday drives to the Amish countryside in their pink Rambler station wagon. Her parents had emigrated from Greece to the United States in the 1950’s to pursue the “American Dream,” which they envisioned as a full assimilation into the American professional-cultural landscape. When she was fourteen, Sambunaris saved up for a Nikon FM camera, took her first photography class, and was hooked. “The camera offered solace and a place to hide," she says, "while I could frame the world that I wanted—or maybe even needed–to see.” This would cement Sambunaris’ practice as offering one of today’s most unique visions of the continuously shifting American landscape.
Sambunaris as a child visiting the Parthenon with her family

While Sambunaris has traversed the entire country from the east coast to the west coast, north, south, and nearly everywhere in between for 16 consecutive years to make Taxonomy of a Landscape, Texas has held a unique place in her work. Since beginning informally in 2000, she’s returned to different regions within the state on multiple trips, and since 2013 has focused on the petrochemical shipping industries within the state’s gulf coast. For Sambunaris, Texas’s vast landscape – the second largest state in the United States with one of the largest economies encompassing energy, shipping, agriculture and defense - which can take more than thirteen hours to drive from one side to another, its ongoing border issues and rich geology, functions as a metaphor for a broader United States topography.
Untitled (Red Containers, Wet Ground), Fort Worth, Texas, 2000
Untitled (Road). Fort Davis, TX. 2011. © Victoria Sambunaris

Sambunaris was initially drawn to photograph in Texas in 2000, shortly after completing her MFA at Yale. During graduate school, she was nominated for a traveling grant in which she proposed to photograph the 18,000-acre Alliance Transportation Hub, owned by Ross Perot Jr, a continuation of what she had been doing at Yale, with a vivid architectural focus. She didn’t get the grant, but received some helpful advice Gregory Crewdson, one of her professors at the time.

“Two pieces of advice from Gregory Crewdson: ‘get used to rejection’ and ‘do the work anyway…’ His advice has stayed with me 16 years later.” - Victoria Sambunaris

Taking Crewdson’s advice, she pursued the project without funding, and spent three months photographing in the region, and continued down to the border in Laredo. One of the first images she made there, Untitled (White Building with Bush), 2000 depicts a cold, windowless white building cutting across the land. It’s surrounded by healthy green shrubs on one side, which transition from a healthy bush at the corner of the building in the center of the frame into scorched, dying shrubs on the right. The building’s hue nearly matches the muted, overcast sky, and could easily vanish with anonymity, which might parallel its lack of windows, becoming a curiosity to what goes on beyond its façade. “I am curious about change,” she says, “how we are evolving and the new American landscape. It is almost like soul searching and trying to make meaning of everything around us.”
Untitled (White Building with Bush), 2000 © Victoria Sambunaris
Untitled (Celadon trucks), Laredo, Texas, 2000 © Victoria Sambunaris

For the next few months, she continued to make photographs of NAFTA development in the region encompassing industrial terminals, warehouses, shipping containers and trucks. She was attracted to the homogeneity of the landscape, and how these elements appeared under a similarly overcast sky, which she felt created a neutrality as opposed to photographing under a bright blue sky. “I saw these minimal boxes on the stark landscape as our contemporary monuments," she says. "The infinite rows of trucks that line our highways, the containers that are stacked on trains, endlessly moving through the landscape and containing all the consumer goods we fill our lives with.”

“I saw these minimal boxes on the stark landscape as our contemporary monuments.” - Victoria Sambunaris

Shortly after, in 2002, Sambunaris accepted a residency in Marfa, Texas from the Lannan Foundation. There, she spent a month making new pictures that largely reflected her ongoing interest in minimalism, particularly the work of Donald Judd. “West Texas is so amazing…” she says “total ‘ranch country,’ endless open land, big sky, Mexican culture, cowboys, tumbleweed and then you hit this anomaly of Donald Judd, rigorous minimalism, and boxes in the landscape.”
Untitled (Orange Schneider). Fort Worth, Texas, 2000. © Victoria Sambunaris
Untitled (Moving Container Train). Marfa, Texas, 2002 © Victoria Sambunaris

Untitled (Moving Container Train), 2002, for example, depicts a quiet, muted, terrain. Aside from a few small patches of grass, the dusty plains descend back without life, to shallow hills resembling sand dunes. Like many of her other pictures, the frame is defined by its human presence. A multi-colored container train passes through, frozen by her shutter in an alternating swatch of blue, green and orange that are just as much about human impact as they are about abstraction and formalism. The Lannan residency occurred during the months in between her gig as a professor in Yale’s school of architecture, which kept her original ideas of the constructed landscape on her mind. For Sambunaris, it’s been important to see the world through varying perspectives whether it’s archeologists, writers, architects, historians or ranchers. “It adds layers to seeing a place,” she says, “ and makes it much more engaging and interesting. While this image lacks the “built landscape” present in so much of her work, Sambunaris’ gaze is still decidedly formal.

For the next few years, she continued alternating between teaching during the year and photographing across the United States during the summers. In 2003 she drove to Alaska from NY, to the North Slope following the pipeline from Prudhoe Bay down to Valdez encountering army corp engineers, miners, fishermen and outlaws. along the way before heading back through Texas for the third time in 2006 while driving to Hawaii. She skirted the border on that trip thinking about a future project regarding the US/Mexico border. That year, she also quit teaching, and traveled to Texas again en route to Hawaii. The physical divisions drove her to the border, where she began thinking more specifically about its implications in relation to the rest of the country. “I was starting to think about the border in a physical way,” she says. “It’s obviously political as well, but all that I was absorbing from my encounters in geology and history were coming through in my work.” On this trip, Sambunaris ultimately only made a few photographs, and instead used her time heavily scouting and researching, in preparation for concentrated body of work she would make upon returning in 2009.
Untitled (Blue Trucks). Laredo, Texas, 2000 © Victoria Sambunaris
Untitled (Man on Horse in Rio Grande). Big Bend National Park, Texas, 2009 © Victoria Sambunaris

In October, 2009, she returned to Texas to focus on the border. For Sambunaris, the perimeter stretching from Texas to California is in many ways its own country unlike the rest of the United States, and the convergence of people and cultures is a particular driver to this work. “There is a quotidian stream,” she says, “of human traffic that exists both aboveground and underground and an exchange of customs flowing north and south that has survived for centuries.” Early in this leg of the project, she photographed Big Bend National Park, which has a status as the largest protected area of Chihuahua Desert Topography and ecology in the United States, and forms the border between the US, and Mexico.

Her photographs here often use natural divisions such as the Rio Grande River and other manmade and natural divisions to explore the physical implications of the border. Untitled (Boquillas del Carmen), 2009, illustrates this divide rather eloquently, compressing five layers of space on a single plane. From where Sambunaris stands, we see a layer of overgrown grass, just before the body Rio Grande, which separates her from Boquillas del Carmen, a 90 resident town on the other side of the border, which was closed by the time she made the photograph. Small houses sit on the horizon line, not unlike the minimal structures of many other Sambunaris’ images. With her signature muted hues, they lack a human presence. “This town existed on tourism, but once the border closed, 90 residents remained from the 300 of the past.” She says. “I haven’t been there recently but apparently the crossing is now open again with a video border station”
Untitled (Boquillas del Carmen), 2009 © Victoria Sambunaris
Untitled (Santa Elena Canyon) Big Bend National Park, Texas, October 3, 2010 © Victoria Sambunaris

Untitled (Santa Elena Canyon) Big Bend National Park, Texas, October 4, 2010 © Victoria Sambunaris
Untitled (Santa Elena Canyon) Big Bend National Park, Texas, October 5, 2010 © Victoria Sambunaris

Sambunaris’ work since 2013 has focused on shipping operations and fossil fuel infrastructure along Texas’ Gulf Coast, with a keen lens on trade and energy industries. She’s particularly interested in how her photographs can tell a specific story about the region’s political, cultural and economic landscapes. As her work has evolved, she’s started combining her slowed-down large format photographs with objects collected along the way: mineral specimens, journals, road logs and thousands of snapshots that create a more layered and complementary narrative. For Sambunaris, Texas is intriguing because it represents a spectrum of American culture, and in many ways serves as a gauge for the country’s larger cultural landscape. “It has everything: massive industry and is almost a country in an of itself. It’s so diverse in its population…it’s the only state where there’s a secession movement and children pledge the American flag and the Texas flag. It makes for rich subject matter in regards to the work and an interesting cast of characters that makes my time on the road abundant in many respects.”
The Big Bend Of The Rio Grande – reference material for study and preparation of Sambunaris’ travels. Courtesy of Radius Books
Journals from Sambunaris’ travels. Courtesy of Radius Books

“A huge part of what goes into the frame—this ephemera, is never seen.” - Victoria Sambunaris

Like so many landscape photographers in photography’s history, working with a large format camera is essential to Sambunaris’ process and the psychology of how she approaches and experiences the land. Shooting only a few frames of 5x7 film per shot allows gives her work a meditative focus, and helps her establish a deeper understanding of her subject matter. “Shooting minimally is not important to my work, per se;” she says “rather, for me, the camera slows down my process and forces me to observe.” This process parallels heavy research into her subject matter and locations, giving it an additional layer of mindfulness. “I return to the same place multiple times, contemplate the shot, wait, look, wait again and maybe snap one or two sheets of film," she says. Frequently, I return to the same site on a different day, a different time of year and shoot the same thing again. A huge part of what goes into the frame—this ephemera, is never seen.”
Victoria setting up a shot with her 5x7 field camera. © Jason Schmidt
Victoria setting up a shot with her 5x7 field camera. © Matt Ducklo

“I never saw the West until I was about 30, so I’m approaching it with a different sensibility, but I’ve picked up a bit from both spending time in a place, researching etc.” - Victoria Sambunaris

Sambunaris’ distinguishes her practice from her predecessors through a combination of photo-historical “insider” and “outsider” traditions. Ansel Adams, for example, was based in the West, and much of his work corresponded to that experience, while photographers like Stephen Shore were looking at the land with freshly outsider eyes. “I feel like I’m coming at it with a little bit of both,” says Sambunaris. “I never saw the West until I was about 30, so I’m approaching it with a different sensibility, but I’ve picked up a bit from both spending time in a place, researching etc.” She also likens much of this combined influence to the work of nineteenth century US Geological survey photographers like William Henry Jackson and many of the Farm Security photographers because of her heavily researched approach. “All of that history…” she says "I call them ‘road warriors,’ it’s photo history that needs to continue to be made.”
Untitled (bridges), Del Rio, Texas 2013 © Victoria Sambunaris