at Guy Havell “America’s back roads” is a landscape art photo series that features bright, sparse, and uninhabited desert landscapes across several states in the Western United States. It is a work of haunting beauty.
Havell describes the project as a visual anti-aesthetic that portrays an uncompromising, unromantic, and inglorious view of the man-made American desert landscape, and that it is an intentional rebellion against modern landscape photography. driven by social media success.
In the spirit of the New Topographics movement, this project was a tribute to the ordinary with the underlying narratives of isolation, desolation and abandonment.
Below is Havell’s first-person account of how he captured the series and is brought to you courtesy of PetaPixel’s partnership with ELEMENTS Magazine. ELEMENTS is the new monthly magazine dedicated to the most beautiful landscape photography, insightful editorials and fluid, clean design. Use the code PETAPIXEL10 to benefit from a 10% discount on the annual subscription.
The “Back Roads of Americana” project covered several states including Nevada, California, Arizona, Utah, Texas and New Mexico. As a built environment photography project, he explored the less visited expanses of the Mojave, Sonora, Chihuahuan and Great Basin Desert regions of the American Southwest. I have covered 10,000 miles in three trips from my home country, Australia, and although I had photographed much of North America’s landscapes before, it was the start of a love story. invigorated with the American landscape, although the anthropocene landscape modified by man.
I based my decision in October 2017 to undertake a long-term personal project on the lesser-known Western Desert of the United States. Maybe it wasn’t a new or original concept, and it didn’t have to be, because from a personal point of view it was important for me to evolve from the beautiful popular landscapes that I ‘had been doing it for many years and looking for something ugly, unpopular and in many cases, unfriendly. This project was more of a documentation of the landscape rather than a glorification, and was a search for a more meaningful subject without the pretty aesthetic. I recognized not only what some have described as the anti-landscape of the real world, but also the simple yet original architecture of its bones.
Of course, we all know America has beautiful natural landscapes, but I wanted to change direction and dive head first into the abandoned and neglected worlds that stretch away from highways into wasteland. I was looking for an unusual subject with a substantial narrative, and wanted to document a visual anti-aesthetic that portrays an unglorified view of the man-altered desert landscape. In the spirit of the New Topographic movement of the 1970s, I wanted to rebel against the mainstream and respect the ordinary world in my own way. I also wanted to do my little bit to raise awareness of some serious environmental issues that governments are reluctant to act on.
There is so much to photograph in the American Western Desert, good and bad, much of which is history preserved in time that transports you to another era to imagine how resilient and resilient these people were to survive in extreme and remote environments. I spent a lot of time alone in historic towns walking, observing shapes, and admiring downtown architecture that was uncomplicated but minutely detailed. Life was simple back then, often reflected in the modest accommodations that are so reminiscent of small American towns. The small towns that I used to walk through without a glance to “chase the light” had now become the main focus, closer to a passion. The cities were more interesting than they looked and were a pleasure to photograph, echoing the boom and bust stories of a bygone era.
The photographic thought process behind this project was to strip away minimalist desert scenes by isolating the subject to integrate or interact with the desert, and above all, convey a sense of belonging. Many structures were photographed from the front and centered in the frame to simplify the composition and emphasize the architectural form. They are basic and traditional structures and I wanted to preserve and complete their form. The human impact on the landscape is an important story, but so too is the human absence. I believe that landscape photography is not about people but rather their effect on the landscape. I wanted to provoke reflection and convey a feeling of isolation and abandonment.
In another take on traditional ‘good light’ landscape photography, I photographed the scenes in harsh, washed-out midday light to emphasize the way I see the desert, not to glorify the way I see the desert. others perceive it. Interestingly, many of the images had the backdrop of the smoke-filled skies of California wildfires, rotting toxic wasteland, and difficult and often weak socio-economic areas. In short, I felt that I had to respect the subject and the community that surrounds it. Good, bad or indifferent, it is one of my responsibilities as a landscape photographer to photograph all environments, leaving behind my preconceived ideas.
Numerous images from this project document the Salton Sea in California. The Salton Sea area was once an idyllic lakeside playground for Californians, but is now a growing environmental disaster caused by human neglect, mismanagement and government inaction. Among the nearly abandoned but still functional residential developments is the decaying infrastructure of shattered dreams that slowly but steadily become a decrepit, toxic wasteland.
The Salton Sea formed when unprecedented flooding forced the Colorado River through an irrigation canal and into the Salton Basin for 18 months in 1905. This lake, which is sometimes fed by rivers but has no outlets, relies on evaporation and is therefore a polluted mixture of agricultural runoff and algae pigmentation that leaves the lake 30% saltier than the ocean and unable to support most forms of life. At 227 feet below sea level, the lake slowly dries up as the water evaporates under the harsh Sonoran Desert sun and will eventually create toxic dust that will no doubt end up in the suburbs of Los Angeles.
The article is courtesy of ELEMENTS Magazine. ELEMENTS is the new monthly magazine dedicated to the finest landscape photography, insightful editorials, and fluid, clean design. Inside you’ll find exclusive, in-depth articles and footage from the world’s top landscape photographers such as Freeman Patterson, Bruce Barnbaum, Rachael Talibart, Charles Cramer, Hans Strand, Erin Babnik and Tony Hewitt, to name a few. only a few. Use the code PETAPIXEL10 to benefit from a 10% discount on the annual subscription.
About the Author: Born in Australia in 1968, Guy Havell is an art photographer specializing in capturing landscapes. When not traveling, he resides in Brisbane, Australia, where he operates his photography business “Guy Havell Photoscapes”. He is a fellow of the Australian Institute of Professional Photography (AIPP).
Image credits: All photos are by Guy Havell and used with permission.