Cartography and the Cultural Terrain | Deborah Springstead Ford

I began photographing these high desert grasslands of the Western United States in order to better understand how we define a “sense of place” and the roles of photographic images within cultural geography. In addition to making photographs of what has long been a contested landscape (a multiple use landscape in demand by a variety of stake holders), I gathered a great deal of visual and historical data including letters, documents and other artifacts from public and private archives along the way.

I read voraciously the diaries of pioneer men and women, historical and anecdotal data on the genesis of place names, as well as contemporary theoretical writings exploring the complex functions of land use within growing western communities and within the politics of a developing nation.

The information found in archives, both official documents and personal artifacts, hold profound stories of the individuals, families and groups involved with personal or political agendas that emigrated west in the early to late 1880’s. I discovered that much of this information revolved around the importance of human interaction with environmental factors related to farming, ranching, surface mining and other land use practices. This information, both visual and written, began to clarify many of the ideas I had surrounding the momentum of westward expansion; including the roles of women within local culture, and their part in the growing economy of pioneer settlements. I became more and more interested in the motivations, sacrifices and belief systems behind imperialism in general that later became the foundations of the American Dream and now plague us in our consumer-based society.

I became particularly interested in representations of place, cartography, its history, its language and the personalized (yet sometimes skewed) artifacts that result: maps. Historic maps usually reveal to us pictures of history as Eurocentric, but oftentimes, these same maps reflect more than the local terrain; the place names convey subtle and not so subtle insights into the values of these early communities, reflecting the cultural ethics of the dominant political power, or the historic knowledge of the local indigenous population, and even convey the “quirky” motivations of the time.

Through these darkroom constructions, I want to make the following visible: a rapidly changing landscape (amidst growing natural resource extraction and impending desertification) and a “sense of presence” of those individuals who have shaped or been shaped by their interaction with the terrain.

In addition to the socio-cultural questions about the westward movement, I began to pay more attention to how this expansion affected land use practices, species habitat, ecological sustainability and other conflicting cultural and environmental values inherent within notions of the American West. These issues gave rise to an exploration of the balance between the benevolent and malignant aspects of our intersection in nature and culture, while ultimately exploring the crossroads of science and art. Using photography I want to create a bridge of collaborative historic and contemporary visual narrative for a constructed and “constructive” look at the western region, sustainability issues and contemporary western space.  I’m hoping these photographic montages will act as “collective visions” that gain their veracity from the photographic details and authentic information used.

Our western habitats are under siege and surviving enormous deployment of energy resources, rising temperatures, pollution, drought and livestock grazing should cause us pause as we contemplate our roles in the solutions as well as in the problems.

I am not a scientist. I am a photographer in awe of the natural world, it’s processes and phenomena found within my sphere of experience. It is in this interaction with the environment, history and beyond, dovetailing with other ways of knowing (in my case, photography), that we are able to make sense of the world in which we live.

All images © 2013 Deborah Springstead Ford. All rights reserved.

For full portfolio of images please visit the artist’s website at:

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Practices, Spring 2013

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