Between 1982 and 1999 I traveled throughout the United States, photographing some 200 sites representing about 75 different industries as part of my long-term investigation of the destruction of the contemporary American landscape. My work — published in four books: Waste Land: Meditations on a Ravaged Landscape (1997); Colstrip, Montana (2010); Wilderness to Wasteland (2016); and Waste Land (2018) — looks at the end point of the conflict in American culture that historian Leo Marx described in his book The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America.
Marx examined the relationship between technology and culture in 19th- and 20th-century America as it is displayed through our literature and art. He pointed out that one of the classic subjects in the history of art and literature—the interaction of humans with nature—has in the United States, as a consequence of our shared heritage in the taming of the wilderness, been particularly concerned with the interaction of humans and their technology with nature.
Marx perceived the conflict in American culture to exist between the Pastoral Ideal (“the garden”) and the Progressive Ideal (“the machine”, or a technological utopia). In my work, I documented the endpoint of this conflict, where the machine has ravaged, even consumed, the garden.
For two decades, I documented the contemporary landscape as a manifestation of the destructive aspects of the American spirit, a mirror of our use, misuse, and abuse of power and technology. Instead of manifesting a technological utopia, we are increasingly creating a modern dystopia, a wasteland, a garden of ashes. What we are creating is, ultimately, a landscape of failed desire.
What my work addresses, from one point of view, is the history and philosophy of Western civilization — a late manifestation of the Cartesian split between mind and matter, and the consequent separation of humans and nature. The resulting loss of a holistic consciousness has created a lack of awareness of the interrelationships between humans and the world around them. Thus we have a dialectical view of humans as separate from, even opposed to, nature and the consequent exploiting and ravaging of nature.
The progression in Western civilization, and particularly in America, from the conquest of the virgin wilderness to the rape of the land has created a rapacious, colonizing society feeding off of itself and other cultures and off the land. Indeed, it seems that the whole national identity of the United States is founded upon a paradoxical notion of progress: a destroying in order to build that has transformed, in a brief period of time, our land from wilderness to pastoral to industrial landscape to wasteland. What we are practicing, finally, is masochism (schism), the fragmentation of our original wholeness.
Instead of a sacred sense of our place within a miraculous cosmos and a deep respect for the interconnectedness of nature and our role within its vast rhythms and cycles, we have created a patriarchal society buttressed by a religion that mythologizes—and a science that justifies—the separation, even opposition, of God, humanity, and nature. Our culture and its dominant religions reinforce in us a deep fear and distrust of the natural world. As the well-known Zen Buddhist teacher Dr. D. T. Suzuki once remarked about Christianity, “God against man. Man against God. Man against nature. Nature against man. Nature against God. God against nature—very funny religion!”
Seeing the extent of this catastrophic environmental destruction, day after day for decades, was a very disturbing experience for me. As a result, I wanted to create work to restore and to heal, leading to my recent work, The Cloud of Unknowing. Between 1998 and 2011, I traveled throughout the United States and made seven extended trips to South Asia to photograph Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jain, Sikh, Parsi, Jewish, Christian, Native American, shamanistic, and New Age sites in search of what Wallace Stegner called a “geography of hope.”
One might say that my photographic work (from Waste Land to The Cloud of Unknowing) displays the full breadth of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s vision of the choice that humanity now faces between suicide and adoration (as quoted in my introduction for the book: “Humankind is being brought to a moment where it will have to decide between suicide and adoration. Someday after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we shall harness the energies of love, and then for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”). Waste Land examined the tragic results of our carelessness, greed and deceit, and The Cloud of Unknowing shows us an alternative. This volume is a celebration of sanctuary in its most essential form, featuring famous temples, cathedrals, and synagogues as well as anonymous temporary shrines and ancient sites still in use. These churches, temples, altars, and shrines are places of hope and consolation, places of devotion, places of peace and tranquility, places of adoration.