Lucas Foglia on "Human-Altered Landscapes"

Lucas Foglia on photographing the transformation of the American west.
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George Chasing Wildfires, Eureka, Nevada, 2012

Last year, photographer Lucas Foglia published Frontcountry, his second book with Nazraeli Press. Like its predecessor, A Natural Order (2012), Frontcountry chronicles an American community with unusual depth and feeling. Blending portraits, landscapes, and interior scenes, Foglia offers “a photographic account of people living in the midst of a boom in mining and energy development that is transforming the contemporary American West.” Foglia’s work is included in “Human-Altered Landscapes,” a display of landscape pictures made during the past forty years that is drawn from the Cincinnati Art Museum’s collection. The display remains on view in Cincinnati until July 19. –Brian Sholis

This interivew first appeared in Issue 5 of the Aperture Photography App: click here to read more and download the app. 

Brian Sholis: You’ve completed two long-term projects documenting specific American communities. The first, A Natural Order, features photographs of people in the American Southeast who have chosen to live off the grid. The latest, Frontcountry, chronicles people living in the midst of a mining and energy boom in the American West. How did you decide to photograph these people and places, and how did you make initial inroads into these communities?

Lucas Foglia: Both projects started from a friend. In 2006, I visited Doug Elliott and his family in rural North Carolina. They live in a house built into a hillside, grow most of their food, and get their water from a nearby spring. I asked Doug if he knew other families who had left cities or suburbs to live like him, and he drew me a map.

In 2009, I visited Addie Goss, who worked for Wyoming Public Radio. She introduced me to people living in small communities next to the biggest tracts of open land that I had ever seen. I went to the rural American West expecting to meet cowboys. I did meet cowboys, but everyone was talking about jobs in the natural gas fields, or in the gold mines. I went back to visit those areas again and again because I wanted to learn more about the place, and the people I met there. Because I was introduced to the people I photographed by their friends, they trusted me and guided me.

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Moving Cattle to Spring Pasture, Boulder, Wyoming, 2011

BS: This daisy-chain progression differs from how we think of photographers on their quintessential American road trips. You’re meeting people and getting to know them, sometimes closely, rather than rolling into town, snapping away, and continuing down the highway. Can you explain how this familiarity shapes the portraits you take? And how does your subjects’ local knowledge affect your choice of locations for your landscape pictures?

LF: I do use roads to get places, but I don’t think of myself as a quintessential road-trip photographer. People I meet tend to know more about their home and community than I do, and so I stay and listen, and look for scenes in everyday life that seem extraordinary.

For instance, a friend of a friend, named Richard, worked as a safety inspector in the natural gas fields in Wyoming. He gave me a red Halliburton helmet and took me out to the drilling rigs on the Pinedale Anticline, where I met Roger. Roger worked as a welder, one of the most dangerous jobs in the country because of the sparks his tools gave off in areas filled with flammable gas. Roger is also a former bodybuilder and United States Army Special Forces soldier. He and the other welders lifted weights in the welding shop tool shed.

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Mia and Burgundy, Cokeville, Wyoming, 2010

Or, for instance, I was introduced to an activist named Deb, who drove with me to Thermopolis, Wyoming. Thermopolis is locally famous for its hot springs. Just outside of town we visited a ranch and watched cows drink from a creek. Then we followed the creek up into the Hamilton Dome Oil Field. In an oil field, a good amount of water is pumped out of the ground along with the oil. The water contains salts, oil droplets, chemicals, gases, and bacteria. At Hamilton Dome Oil Field the produced water is discharged, steaming, into the local river system. The pipes and the flood of water from deep underground looked surprisingly beautiful.

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Produced Water, Hamilton Dome Oil Field, Owl Creek, Wyoming, 2013

BS: If the affinity you feel isn’t necessarily with road-trip photographers, what do you make of the legacy of the “New Topographics” exhibition featuring Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, and Henry Wessel, Jr.? These artists, beginning in the early 1970s, ushered in a new view of the American landscape. Their attention to the ways in which humans used the land, and how a society can be understood from pictures of places, seems congruent with your own careful attention to present-day land use.

LF: Most of the people in the places I photograph know who Ansel Adams is. He had a moral mission to inspire conservation by photographing nature in a pristine form. The photographers in “New Topographics,” on the other hand, were more objective. Their photographs said, “Here is what people are doing; make what you will of it.”

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Coal Storage, TS Power Plant, Newmont Mining Corporation, Dunphy, Nevada, 2012

I have a moral mission. I want my photographs to bring attention to people and places that, in my opinion, deserve attention. A wild West is part of our American story, and I think it’s important to conserve the open land we have left. In small towns, agriculture can be sustainable, while mining is boom-to-bust.

I also want my photographs to be complex. I want to compel viewers to think and feel without telling them what to think or feel. I hope Frontcountry is a portrait, not an indictment, of the contemporary, rural American West, because everyone I photographed talked about caring about the landscape they live in.

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Surface Mining, Newmont Mining Corporation, Carlin, Nevada , 2012

BS: Your photographs are not only exhibited in galleries and museums, but also often reproduced in newspapers and periodicals. Do you believe these expanded audiences amplify or broaden your “moral mission”? How do such opportunities to present your work in print, as well as online, affect your thinking about what you do?

LF: I love the fact that a photograph can be used in so many different ways. A book, to me, is the sum and the completion of a project. I exhibit editioned prints of my photographs in galleries and museums, and publish the images in newspapers and magazines. I also post the images online, give copies back to the people I photograph, and give copies to local and national organizations to use for advocacy. All are different methods of storytelling. I’m grateful for them, and I think there is art in each of them.

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Lucas Foglia, Roger Weightlifting, Jonah Natural Gas Field, Boulder, Wyoming, 2010. Courtesy the artist and Fredericks & Freiser, New York.

“Human-Altered Landscapes” is on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum through July 19.