This episode looks at the work of Steve Fitch. Landscapes in Passing: Photographs by Steve Fitch, Robbert Flick, and Elaine Mayes (July 26, 2013 -- January 20, 2014) presents forty-eight photographs that depict the American landscape in passing, as drive-through scenery rather than the entrancing wilderness of the nineteenth century.
LISA HOSTETLER: The next group of pictures is called “Diesels and Dinosaurs.” It’s a series by Steve Fitch, who made the photographs between 1971 and 1976. They’re photographs of roadside attractions, drive-in theaters, motels, the iconography of American car culture. It was inspired by family road trips that he took growing up, and he tells a story in the introduction to the book about how there was this fight between his father and his grandmother as they were driving through a thunderstorm. His father said, “You know the tires on the car will insulate us from the lightning,” and his grandmother pointed out that if God wanted to kill them, he would. This made him wonder which was stronger: his father’s Buick or his grandmother’s God, but it also kind of sets the tone for how he would view the road in his work later on as this place where supernatural forces and modern industrial technology kind of played themselves out.
Also, throughout the series, you can see this sort of innocent wonder at this landscape outside the car window with huge dinosaur sculptures and flashing neon signs and elaborate drive-in theaters. He was also known for his night photographs at the time, and you can see that in several photographs from this series where the motel lights are kind of beacons beckoning weary travelers towards their respite there. In his work, the Western landscape kind of has its own natural history and mythology, and he talks about the 18-wheelers traversing the desert landscape as comparable modern incarnations of the dinosaurs that strode across the lands in prehistoric eras. I think the series gives us a really good sense of the emerging eye candy of American road culture.
Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and G Streets, NW)
The American landscape has inspired generations of artists, but the 48 photographs in this presentation— by Steve Fitch, Robbert Flick and Elaine Mayes— are a far cry from traditional representations of the subject. Where painters of the Hudson River School saw the sublime and survey photographers of the 19th century discerned supernatural majesty in America’s landscapes, Fitch, Flick and Mayes find evidence of civilization’s rapid expansion into suburbs and exurbs. This view updated the idyllic portrayal of the American landscape that had persisted into the 20th century, notably in photographs by Ansel Adams. Informed by the reality of the interstate highway system and the increasingly mediated culture of 1970s America, these photographers depict the country in passing, as drive-through scenery rather than entrancing wilderness. Their images, created between 1971 and 1980, foreshadow today’s even more media-saturated environment and the telegraphic relationship to the natural world that it encourages.