There’s nothing like flying to the beginning of your road trip to feel like you’re not only cheating — like a marathoner taking a cab to the midpoint of the race — but maximizing your carbon footprint. So perhaps it’s fitting that the first art I laid eyes on in Kansas City (after flying from Houston to St. Louis, where I rented my car) was Laura McPhee’s extraordinary series River of No Return, which is on view through Sept. 22 at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.
Using an antique 8-by-10-inch camera, McPhee shot the monumental photographs — each measures six by eight feet — in the Sawtooth Valley of Idaho during 2003-2006 as the initial Alturas Foundation artist-in-residence. (She’s interviewed about the series by Kemper curator Erin Dziedzic on this podcast.) The series poetically documents the complex interactions of various humans — ranchers, hunters, environmentalists and recreationists — with the vast landscape, and more subtly with each other. As such, the series extends the thread of her work with which I was previously most familiar, photographs she made in collaboration with my former teacher Virginia Beahan, with whom I took an unforgettable intermediate black-and-white photography class at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston back in the 1990s.
Beahan, a powerful presence with a booming voice, couldn’t remember my name, even when it was much more low-maintenance than it is now, until the end of the continuing-ed course. But when I presented my bad-Robert-Frank-meets-bad-Nan-Goldin photos that I’d slaved over all semester together with text passages I’d written the night before, she read every word, took off her glasses and seemed to look at me for the first time. Then she tried to talk me into going to RISD so I could develop my writing through cross-registration with Brown University. I ended up matriculating at MassArt instead because it was so much cheaper, and that’s where I met McPhee, who’s a professor there. I wasn’t around long enough to study with her — I got it in my head that I had to move to San Francisco before I turned 30 — but she joined my color photography teacher Barbara Bosworth to critique our final presentations. This time I presented bad-Nan-Goldin-meets-worse-Nan-Goldin photographs I’d slaved over all semester together with text passages I’d written the night before. McPhee, like Beahan, raved about the writing before adding: “I just wish the photographs were better.” You and me both, McPhee. You and me both.
I can’t say the same about her photographs, which were thrilling to see in person. Like the landscape she documents and the issues surrounding it, they’re bigger than you are and are perhaps most achingly beautiful at their most frightening. I just wish my writing about them was better. Maybe if I’d taken Beahan’s advice and gone to RISD it would have been.