Boston

Laura McPhee

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In the photograph used on the museum handout for Laura McPhee’s recent exhibition, smoky rays of sunlight stream into dense forest as fire licks at the roots of trees in the center of the frame. In the foreground, more sunlight illuminates underbrush while branches to the upper right and left almost touch the lens, creating a path for the eye that seems to lead a hundred feet deep. The highly theatrical composition resembles nothing so much as a picture by Gregory Crewdson, and when one realizes that Understory Flareups, Fourth of July Creek, Valley Road Wildfire, Custer County, Idaho, 2005, is not staged, one has to wonder why it was treated so formally, so luxuriously, with such a sense of portent.

The wall text provides an answer—in format, technique, and subject matter, McPhee is referring to the nineteenth-century painters and photographers of the American landscape. McPhee’s choice of large-format, unretouched prints nods to the (very) old school, and her presentation of them at such large scale references the work of Albert Bierstadt and friends. But neither tactic succeeds beyond simply helping make serviceable depictions of the obvious—that the West is full of contrasts—seem a few degrees more delicious. Despite her claims to a less romantic eye—she portrays, for example, a cyanide-evaporation pool at a mine, a settler’s cabin from the 1920s just down the slope from a recent housing development designed to look like log cabins, and endangered salmon at a fish hatchery—her West is just as thoroughly aestheticized as that of her nineteenth-century referents.

Surprisingly, there is little relationship here to the recently much discussed American roadster photographers of the ’70s, who were the first to use color in fine-art photography and to trace their roving landscaper impulses and taste for large-format plates to figures like William Henry Jackson. Little indicates that McPhee has learned from their example how to depict ugly America without too much attitude: Her inability to resist using a model-beautiful local girl, while an interestingly old-fashioned impulse, produces a very contemporary hint of Abercrombie and Fitch.) And rather than start from the baseline idea that all landscape is human, she sticks primarily to the depiction of binaries (old and new, rural and industrial, etc.).

Two pictures in the show highlighted, for opposite reasons, the problems presented by the rest. In Skinned Elk, White Cloud Mountains, Idaho, 2004, one of a trio of shots of a gutted elk bloodying a snowy forest clearing, a mess of boot prints in the picture’s lower right generates a surprising sense of texture and human presence. Here, McPhee abandons her own standards of beauty to positive effect. In another, Igloo Built from Downloaded Plans, Park Creek, Custer County, Idaho, March, 2005, a small, lopsided igloo lit from the inside glows against a nocturnal landscape—a funny, found moment of outer space on earth that begs for, and receives, all the benefits of McPhee’s technical and aesthetic skill. These two prints suggest that McPhee has ways and means of portraying the normal, the strange, and the vast territory in between without sealing them completely away from us under a perfect skin or overstating a quality of mystery that’s already there.

Larissa Harris