Reviewed by Geoffrey Wittig
W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. $49.95 / $32.97 on Amazon
I love books of landscape photography, both as collections of beautiful images and as inspiration for my own work. Like many folks I started out with the usual suspects—Ansel Adams, the Westons—and moved on to pristine color landscapes by photographers like Art Wolfe and Robert Glenn Ketchum. I’m still a sucker for such eye candy, but with age I’ve come to appreciate the subtler, more commonplace beauty of austere or agricultural landscapes. Richard Brown’s poetic images of rural New England got me started. I can’t handle what you might call grunge landscape like much of Robert Adams’ or Richard Misrach’s work; too ugly and depressing. But not every beautiful landscape image has to include crashing surf or a towering mountain. Sometimes an endless prairie sky is enough.
West of Last Chance is an unusual amalgam of large format images by Peter Brown and short prose pieces written by Kent Haruf. Fiction readers may know Haruf as author of Plainsong (Knopf, 1999), a novel deftly crafted of spare, direct prose echoing its prairie setting. His work here shows the same skill, with brief vignettes that capture the essence of rural life on the Great Plains. Brown’s photographs are equally understated yet direct. Dirt section-roads run to the horizon under cloudless skies; a single bored-looking cow lies down amid limitless acres of stubble. The occasional junkyard or derelict tourist trap is offset by breathtaking views of that immense high-plains sky, or a lone cottonwood in a sea of grass. There are also a number of nicely done environmental portraits. The consistent color palette is one of subdued pastels, worn by years of sun and wind. Many of the small town images of hand-lettered signs, grain elevators or empty storefronts suggest David Plowden’s work, done in color. They have the same elegiac feel, as these farm communities are rapidly dying out.
The grasslands have a subtle beauty that is difficult to capture photographically. Likewise, the tiny farming towns on the plains have a rough-hewn character less obviously attractive than a quaint New England village. Brown's photographs have a quiet grace that does justice to their subjects. I’ve made several extended visits to South Dakota. Standing in the prairie wind under an impossibly huge sky, one feels very small. It’s almost like being on the ocean in a small boat. Peter Brown’s photographs, and Kent Haruf’s prose, succeed in conveying that feeling.
Physically the book is very nice. Its size at 10.2 x 12” permits large enough reproductions to see what's going on in the images, and none are defaced by printing them across the fold. The paper is semi-matte, with little sheen and very minimal gloss differential. The typeface chosen for Haruf’s text is, I believe, a Century Schoolbook variant, plain as a school primer, set in a smallish point size that whispers rather than shouts. Good work all around.
West of Last Chance was supported by Duke University’s Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor prize, awarded to Brown and Haruf in 2005. The prize recognizes work in the spirit of An American Exodus (1939). This was a pioneering book combining Dorothea Lange’s iconic photographs with her husband Paul Schuster Taylor’s eclectic mix of quotations from dust bowl refugees, farmland sales brochures, newspaper clippings and historical anecdotes. Their goal was to produce a book that would inform readers about the Depression-era farm refugee crisis more completely and vividly than simple journalism could. For an interesting take on An American Exodus and its subsequent influence, check out A.D. Coleman’s erudite essay in Photo Techniques magazine, November/December 2006.