When Jack Spencer began the 13-year, 80,000-mile odyssey that would result in his ravishing book of photographs of the American landscape, he was in a very bad mood.
“It was the jingoistic, flag-waving, let’s-go-bomb-everybody stuff after 9/11 that was excruciating for me,” Spencer says during a call to his 8,000 square foot studio “right in dead center Nashville,” where he has lived for the last 28 years.
Spencer’s photographs of vast American landscapes and iconic wildlife are beautiful and strangely inspiring.
“I was absolutely and totally against going into Iraq, and I thought America was going nuts. The terrorists had accomplished what they wanted to, which was to throw us off our base. I had a show in Sun Valley, and I decided to drive there, take my 4×5 Polaroid camera and just take off. I drove this gigantic loop across America, 9,000 miles in a six-week period. I was a little bit on the bitter side. But I wanted to photograph the land and try to get some bead on what America really was.”
In the ensuing years, Spencer’s mood has mellowed. “It’s been a transitional journey,” he says, in a gravelly, Southern-accented voice that reminds one of Waylon Jennings. “I was making a collection of images that were about an awareness of this land that we live in, this planet we live on, actually. It’s deeper than just America. We live on this beautiful planet, and we take it for granted.”
5 HORSES 2005, Montana
Spencer’s route to this book and to a remarkably successful career as a fine art photographer has been circuitous. He was born in Mississippi in the early 1950s but grew up “mostly in Louisiana.” Sounding somewhat mystified, he notes that he has always been interested in art, in making things, even though no one in his family had a similar interest. So Spencer went to Louisiana Tech “for about a year and a half,” majored in art, “but mostly learned how to drink beer.” He dropped out and headed west to work as a musician. Then in the 1980s he returned to the South, Mississippi at first, and, with renewed eyes, “dove head first into photography and worked really hard at it,” with the result that his first book of photographs, Native Soil, made a big splash.
“Basically, I taught myself photography,” he says. “I tell people all the time that I don’t understand why people go to school for four years to learn how to be a photographer because I can pretty much teach you everything you need to know in about 15 minutes. It’s a fairly simple process that really has nothing to do with the mechanics of it. It’s just about seeing, getting what you’re seeing and what you’re feeling. It’s a very strange process.
“Any kind of artwork asks questions of the artist in every step of the process. The piece itself lays out the guidelines. As an artist, I just pay attention to what the piece is asking of me. Of course, this is not a conscious thing. It could better be described as a sort of trance-like process, though that is not a very good description. But it is the best way for me to describe it. The work reaches its own conclusions.”
Well, yes. A great photograph is not about technicalities; it’s about vision. But that vision has to be supported by technical proficiency. So the gorgeous photographs in the new collection This Land have been carefully, digitally rendered according to Spencer’s artistic intuition.
CLOUD / TREE 2008, South Dakota
“I think I’m more influenced by painters than I am by photographers,” Spencer explains. “In this [book, I think] one can see Rothko, Hopper, Bierstadt and others if you look closely enough. But you’re unlikely to see many photographic influences. As an artist, I’ve never really liked the literal. I don’t care for the perfect exposure. I don’t allow my camera to do my work for me. Ansel Adams talked about the negative as the score, and then he goes into the darkroom and interprets that score. I see it the same way. Whenever I make an exposure, it’s just the starting point for me.”
Thus, the 150 or so stunning photographs in the book often evoke mixed feelings about life and about America. “It’s certainly not a Hallmark card presentation of America,” Spencer admits. “There is a certain kind of loneliness and desolation in some of the photographs.” But his photographs of vast American landscapes and iconic wildlife are beautiful and strangely inspiring.
Notably, This Land has very few photographs of people. “The people in the photographs are relatively anonymous,” Spencer acknowledges. “As well they should be—because the book is not really about Americans. It’s trying to explore what America means to Americans.”
Spencer says he has lost track of how many forays he made into the American countryside for this book. In a succession of Denali SUVs he refers to as his mobile living room, he traveled through all lower 48 states, deliberately avoiding the interstates. “I kind of equate it to fishing,” he says. “Some days you catch way past your limit. Some days you don’t even get a nibble.” Spencer caught enough past his limit that he believes he could fill three books of photographs. For Spencer and his editors at the University of Texas Press, deciding what to include was excruciating.
Spencer also says that his travels left him unsurprised by Donald Trump’s electoral victory, but he worries what it might mean for the land. “I knew that this is a beautiful country, but I didn’t know how deeply beautiful this country is. There are plenty of things that can be done to make money. You don’t have to despoil beautiful landscapes just to get some oil. In some ways that’s the point of this book, to say to people go out and take a look at this beautiful land, this beautiful planet we live on. People need to pay attention.”
Photography from This Land copyright © 2017 by Jack Spencer
Author photo via
This article was originally published in the March 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.