Critics’ Picks

Mattie with a Bourbon Red Turkey, Laverty Ranch, Custer County, Idaho, November, 2004

Mattie with a Bourbon Red Turkey, Laverty Ranch, Custer County, Idaho, November, 2004


Laura McPhee

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
465 Huntington Avenue
May 13–September 17, 2006

Looking as though she’s engaged in a pagan ritual, a woman in white holds aloft an instrument in a vast, sun-gilded field. In fact, she’s checking for radio-collared wolves in her nightgown. Such semi-contrived visual incongruities give shape to Laura McPhee’s aesthetic in this solo show. “River of No Return,” its poetic title, refers to a wilderness area in rural Idaho where McPhee spent more than two years taking pictures of the landscape and its inhabitants. Forty large-scale photographs set the Sawtooth Valley in a framework that moves beyond the vocabulary of traditional, sublime Western landscapes to acknowledge new forms of land use—salmon restoration, strip mining, cyanide pools, poaching. One subplot centers on Mattie, a striking teenage girl, who in one picture wears jeans and flip-flops while holding upside-down a magnificent dead turkey almost as tall as she is. In four views of a ranch with a spectacular mountain backdrop, McPhee emphasizes the dramatic role played by mercurial weather in this remote land: Snow on June 21 blooms into flowers a mere seventeen days later. No Starbucks or Wal-Mart mars these stunning landscapes. Instead, the dust risen from a lone passing car creates a scuff across sere fields, and a biologist for the Nez Perce Tribe tracks wolves while camouflaged in a suit of green leaves. Though McPhee romanticizes the land by using formalist poetics, she portrays an American West different from the expansionist ideal of famed nineteenth-century glass-plate photographs—a wilderness in sublime tension with its human populace.