In American Monuments (2019), David Benjamin Sherry rushes to document National Monuments threatened by President Donald Trump’s ongoing war on protected wildlands. An American photographer known for his analog darkroom technique and deep engagement with queer politics, environmentalism, and color, Sherry’s landscape photography works to erode the boundary between humans and the land. In a previous collection entitled Paradise Fire (2015), Sherry highlighted the imperfect ways humanity interacts with and exists in natural environments. In this new collection, human bodies are absent, but their presence looms as a constant, invisible threat. Using his characteristic monochrome color palette, Sherry turns these landscapes into vibrant, emotional images of memory, loss, and change.
Sherry’s project is driven by two impulses. His use of monochromatics draws on the tradition of black-and-white landscape photography—Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Minor White—but adds to this aesthetic a painterly use of color that can make familiar spaces seem alien. In a series of purple-and-orange-tinted landscapes taken from Muley Point in Bears Ears National Monument, desert scenes turn into stark Martian habitations. In other photographs, such as “Little Finland,” a crenellated outcropping of sandstone, tinted green, is transformed into something fungal and living. The land becomes animated, growing, and verdant, as opposed to weathered, fragile, and unprotected.
This transformation requires an act of imagination that can turn even the harshest landscapes, places we know deeply as part of the narrative of the American West, into spaces teeming with fresh meaning. The interplay of color and landscape in Sherry’s photographs, as he describes it, revivifies and radicalizes American landscape photography. From one page to the next, the images may shift from factual to fantastical. This is part of the beauty of the collection, the way that Sherry can confound our expectations with the simple use of color and framing, juxtaposing the realistic elements of photography with the private and painterly elements of darkroom manipulation.
The second impulse behind Sherry’s project seeks to establish him as part of a long tradition of preservationist landscape photographers, a tradition that goes back to the US Geological Survey (UGSG) of the nineteenth century, when photographers brought back images of the American West that induced Congress into establishing the National Park system. Sherry is known for his use of predigital analog photography, darkroom techniques, and 8×10 large-format cameras, which he employs to achieve a level of extreme detail reminiscent of his nineteenth-century models. In both technique and subject matter, Sherry’s photographs reference those earlier moments in landscape photography while also attempting to amend the patriarchal, masculinist history of oppressing indigenous cultures in the American West. Sherry notes this history in his essay attached to the collection, and his photographs bear the marks of his nineteenth-century predecessors.
But there is an important difference between Sherry and the iconic photographic projects of the past. While William Henry Jackson (1843-1942) and other USGS photographers advocated for the future preservation of landscape with their art, Sherry’s photos respond to the elimination of this same protection. The photographers of the nineteenth century used their art to imagine a future in which some landscapes were spared from the ravages of industrial extraction. Sherry instead reflects on how much of these previously protected landscapes will be left once those industries come and go.
This difference puts him in a distinctly modern American relationship to his subject. Instead of the sublimity and grandeur of nature, I find Sherry relying on themes of change, borders, and hope. His pictures of petroglyphs draw attention to a history of desert habitation by indigenous Americans. Photographs like “Newspaper Rock Petroglyph” and “Falling Man Petroglyph” reflect the shared history of marks left by humans on the land, while also hinting at the difference between our current indelible markings—climate change, natural gas and oil extraction, suburban sprawl—and the artistic, arcane messages inscribed on rocks in the desert.
Sherry’s “Controlled Burn” takes us to the boundary between the livable and unlivable. Taken in the Hanford Reach National Monument, originally a buffer zone for the Hanford nuclear plant in central Washington, the photo shows the remnants of a grass fire—black ashes with tire tracks and a hazy, bleak horizon. The composition of the photograph implies the continued movement of the charred aftereffects of the fire. The contact zone between the grassland and the burn forms a contested and uneven border, like our protected spaces, between what is preserved as livable and what is offered up to be consumed.
Western nature writer and conservationist Terry Tempest Williams, in her introduction to the collection, attests to the way Sherry’s color tinting reflects the quality of light in the desert. Her essay focuses on the disruptive and exclusionary history of the West, a history that Sherry’s photographs subvert in what Williams identifies as a “queering of the American landscape.” Environmentalist icon Bill McKibben contributes a meditation on the history of our relationship to protected lands and the troubled future of our ability to relate to them.
It is fitting that this book of photographs includes these essays. Sherry’s collection shares a relationship with the genre of the nature essay in its attempt to mediate objective knowledge about the earth with deeply felt personal experiences. Images of trees throughout the collection help to root this relationship. The cottonwoods of Bears Ears National Monument, a lone palm growing in a sandstone cliff, Joshua trees, and a juniper in Rio Grande del Norte National Monument remind us of other kinds of living beings that make their home in these spaces. Trees have long served as symbols of memory for their ability to act as natural historical records and for their monastic stillness in the landscape; they are uniquely equipped to serve as mediators between the human and the landscape. Photographs like “Two Intertwined Cottonwood Trees” showcase the metaphor of tree as connection, spreading and reaching out to each other. Many trees in this collection have been endangered by the opening-up of protected land to extraction, while others, like the lone palm in Gold Butte National Monument, are barely holding on, precariously perched in a changing environment. Sherry’s trees serve as a reminder of the deep lines of connection between these spaces and the many lives that inhabit them—human and nonhuman, past, present, and future—and the tenuous quality of preservation, itself an endangered idea.