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‘Scene Shifting’: The Western land in flux

"The view never stays the same for long; never for a moment, actually": Dan Powell's book of photos captures moments from an ever-changing landscape in the dry stretches of the West.

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Photograph: Dan Powell, "Cemetery, Virginia City, Nevada," 1990.
Dan Powell, “Cemetery, Virginia City, Nevada,” 1990.

The land, the land, the land, the great looming reality and conjecture of the American West: how we see it, how we mark it, how it marks us.

“Teaching in the Midwest in the early 1980s,” Dan Powell writes in the introduction to his book Scene Shifting: Photographs from Left of Iowa, “I began making small trips back West to photograph in the landscape with a view camera, mostly out of longing, and on moving to Oregon in 1987 I discovered the magic of the Eastern Oregon desert, where silver, light, and space find considerable rapport. I was less interested in the genre of conventional landscape photography than in the constant flickering of events that moved through my view as I was driving on back roads, off-road, and even on highways. In this landscape meanings clash, tensions are created, disturbances occur that are both destructive and creative, often beautiful and ironic. The view never stays the same for long; never for a moment, actually. All is moving and shifting, scenes fluidly passing through each other, at car speed or walking speed, all variables intertwining and crossing over – sky, desert sage, distant hills, jackrabbits, dirt road, objects, any number of events, including the event of myself being there.”


Cover image of Dan Powell's photo book "Scene Shifting: Photographs from Left of Iowa."

Scene Shifting: Photographs from Left of Iowa

  • By Dan Powell
  • Oregon State University Press, 2023
  • Lucie Lu Books
  • Hardcover, 136 pages, $40

Sponsor

Portland Playhouse Passing Strange Portland Oregon


Powell, a professor emeritus of art and photography at the University of Oregon, joins an impressive list of artists to be captivated by the desert Northwest and the interior West in general, from painters such as Childe Hassam, C.E.S. Wood, Albert Bierstadt, Melville T. Wire, and Henk Pander; to photographers such as Minor White, Ansel Adams, Maud Baldwin, Lily White, and Drex Brooks; to writers such as Ursula Le Guin, Craig Lesley, H.L. Davis, William Kittredge, and Ralph Friedman. And Powell himself was raised on the dry side of the Cascades, on a farm in south central Washington state, about 25 miles from the Hanford Atomic Plant, where his father worked for 17 years and died young, Powell notes, from “at least a 50% chance” of radiation poisoning. The desert, as formidable as it seems, is scarred in many ways.

Photograph: Dan Powell, "Fire at Mono Lake, Northern California," 1990.
Dan Powell, “Fire at Mono Lake, Northern California,” 1990.

How can still photography capture the transitory nature of a place that, as Powell declares, is always “moving and shifting”? In about a hundred photographs – all black & white, stressing the structural shape of things – Scene Shifting depicts a landscape that, if not moving, seems poised to move, swiftly or over eons: caught between, on the brink, often showing the effects of human hands or the cracks of arid land or the geological carving-out of gorges and riverbeds or the vast mobility of sky. Powell explains the title, Scene Shifting, as “a term used in theater for the various methods of indicating a change of location or time within a production.”

Powell’s photographs, taken during the 1980s and ’90s in central and eastern Oregon and Washington and elsewhere across the West with a scattered few from Iowa, where he taught for a few years at the University of Northern Iowa, rarely show people but often show evidence of their presence. The cover image of Scene Shifting, from 1988, is of an abandoned drive-in movie screen in scrub land near The Dalles: What remained of the theater, he says, was torn down the following year.

Photograph: Dan Powell, abandoned structure near Beatty, Nevada, 1990.
Dan Powell, abandoned structure near Beatty, Nevada, 1990.

There are photos of farmland under cultivation, and ribbon roads bisecting broad terrain, and fields of grain, and a lonely barn alongside a gravel road near Selah, Washington, and an affecting group photo of children and their bikes at the entry to the Wounded Knee Cemetery in South Dakota, and another cemetery with what seems almost a mushroom cloud hovering above the tip of a marble grave marker. And there are many photos of the marks of geological time: scenes of the swift post-eruption devastation on Mount St. Helens, or the slow and steady cleaving of a boulder on Steens Mountain in Eastern Oregon.

All of the photographs are superbly framed and revealing in their detail. Powell’s eloquent introduction, which talks not only about photography but also about the legacy of his father and his own deep relationship with the fullness of the so-called empty spaces, is a welcome bonus.

Sponsor

Portland Playhouse Passing Strange Portland Oregon

Photograph: Dan Powell, "Harney County, Eastern Oregon," 1989.
Dan Powell, “Harney County, Eastern Oregon,” 1989.

So is the explanatory afterword essay by photographic historian and curator Keith F. Davis, who among other things notes that Powell’s landscape photographs are very different from much of the rest of his work, which is layered and constructed from a variety of images. The photos in Scene Shifting, Davis writes, are of another nature entirely: “Powell records a stubborn, obdurate landscape. It is not stereotypically picturesque, but it is majestic, even sublime, with the power to inform and inspire.”

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  • Dan Powell will give a public presentation on Scene Shifting and his art practice at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18, at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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