Fine art photos explore issues of community and conservation
The interconnectedness of communities and the way people form a sense of place are central themes in Confluences, an ongoing, lens-based project by Dennis DeHart, assistant professor of fine art at WSU Pullman. Through landscapes, portraiture, video, and archival images, DeHart’s multimedia project explores a large portion of the Columbia River Basin, in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming, and Western Canada.
“The images engage with Native American history, land use, environment, energy, poverty, agriculture, and industry…to express the unparalleled beauty and tragedy of the dynamic and complex landscape and its inhabitants,” DeHart said.
He has published the work at different stages in an architecture journal and in an exhibition in Dublin, and lectured about it at the Université de Nantes, France. It next will appear in a solo exhibition opening Sept. 28 at University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif.
A river’s broad reach
A native of Oregon, where the Columbia River is a dominant feature of the landscape, DeHart completed his master of fine arts degree in New Mexico and worked in New York and around the Puget Sound before moving to the Palouse in 2010. As he began exploring the area around his current home, he felt drawn back to the river and its network of contributing waters.
He also began exploring the concept of bioregionalism, a system of thinking that defines areas not by political borders but by geographical features and ecological similarities. These new insights inspired him to take a wide view of the area, leading to the creation of Confluences.
“I’m trying to find connections amongst different communities that maybe politically don’t share a similar ideology,” DeHart said. Among connections he has found is “we all like rivers for the most part.”
By speaking with a range of people—from landscape architects to scientists, environmentalists to salmon researchers—DeHart started to piece together an understanding of the Columbia Basin, and how the river systems connect and feed the identity of the entire region.
Looking beneath the surface
The ongoing work began in 2012 and currently includes four parts, which he refers to as “short stories.” He is now working on photographs and video pieces that explore the historic significance and current challenges faced by salmon. The fish, which are culturally significant especially to Native American in the Northwest, travel hundreds of miles to and from the Pacific Ocean through the inland river systems.
In his research, DeHart was “struck that there is this unifying creature that links the Northwest identity,” he said. Salmon “are amazing creatures [with] a certain poetry and grace in them.”
Part one of the project provides an exploratory overview of the region. We see tree farms, shooting ranges, boathouses on a glassy lake, and bridges that span the rivers. In one image, a signpost in the shape of a salmon stands at a section of river, bearing a warning for fishermen or swimmers. In another we see the front gate of a military chemical depot.
DeHart’s portraits show people he came across—mostly by happenstance—during his explorations on foot, by bicycle, and by car, often with his children in tow. In one photograph a bleach-blonde young woman poses in front of long-vacant storefront. In another, a ranger at the Nez Perce National Historic Park in Idaho stands in her uniform with her arms at her sides.
For “Heavy Metal,” the series that forms the second part of the project, DeHart made photographs along a 73-mile recreational trail built atop a former railroad in Silver Valley, a large, former mining district in northern Idaho that is a Superfund site. The tranquility and natural beauty of the landscapes belie the environmental impact of the mining operations.
While exploring the region by bicycle, DeHart wrote in an essay, “I encountered a black bear crossing the trail, a river otter building a home in the wetlands, and waterfowl fishing in Lake Chacolet, all while rolling along a thick asphalt cap built to contain a century’s worth of toxic waste.”
Multiple views converge
DeHart’s approach to the project is multidisciplinary, imbued with shifting layers and entry points. “I am examining place by employing a diversity of creative and conceptual strategies that weave together multiple points of view and disciplines,” he said. He has consulted with hydrologists, geologists, and other experts to learn about the environmental history, ecological impacts, and future of his focus area.
“American space is a mosaic of government, private, public, and indigenous lands” that arouse many different, often competing, interests and ideas about their function, management, and stewardship, DeHart said. “Confluences is looking at a very small slice of the American landscape in order to explore and creatively express analogies about American spaces as larger phenomena.”
One of DeHart’s primary aims for the work is to spark discussions about land use and conservation, river ecosystems, and other issues. “I’d like people to enjoy the photographs, to visually be engaged with the spaces and the people and the places, but I’d [also] like to have a conversation,” he said.
He’s interested in “this broader idea of place and what place means, and valuing place and understanding my own place. I’m really passionate about what I’m doing and I’m always just excited about learning more,” he said.
Adventures in making connections
When teaching about photography, DeHart emphasizes the difference between the conscious act of “making” a picture and the passive act of “taking” one, which he calls a form of recording.
“Making a picture is fundamentally an active process that is about conscious choices, which includes framing the image technically, conceptually, emotionally, aesthetically, and formally,” he said.
Making photographs for Confluences calls upon DeHart’s spirit of adventure, as well. Often physically tired from scrambling up hills with a camera and tripod, he feels invigorated from interacting with the environment, he said. “There is something quite satisfying in experiencing the elements—rain, snow, heat, sand…as one negotiates varying spaces.”
During the past five years, DeHart simultaneously has been developing a series of photographs titled At Play, presenting a semi-autobiographical exploration of fatherhood, family, and nature play. “As a child, I spent a significant amount of time with my grandfather, who was an Oregon mountain-man type, who had a passion for the outdoors,” he said. Spending time in nature is part of his cultural heritage that he wants to pass along to his children.
In some ways DeHart’s episodic approach to Confluences echoes the concept of bioregionalism, of connections that are organic rather than strictly imposed. “We often want to make things succinct and tidy, and tied up in a nice package,” he said, “but as a visual artist, I have the luxury of being a little more open ended.”