Over the past six years I have worked on a series of photographic images, which document a peculiar habit of arid (desert) urban and rural communities’ residents -- to maintain large and overgrown native plant species on their property. I initially sought nothing more than an expression of the beauty and elegance of these desert plants; I came to see these ‘super’ native plants as a symbol of both a waste of water (a very precious desert resource) and a natural splendor that would not be possible in their native habitat. Protected from weather, animals and other destructive elements, which these plants have evolved to withstand, they flourish in the yards and other areas as decorative landscaping, growing well beyond their natural sizes and shapes, especially when receiving extra water from landscape irrigation.
The genesis for taking this project beyond a purely aesthetic appreciation began while I finished
my graduate degree at the University of North Texas. I produced a broadside (poster) for a
letterpress project using a particular infrared photographic image as the main artwork entitled, “Signs
of Life”. The title was a reference to the tonal response of infrared film to most plant life and its abundant infrared radiation. I was also aware of possible secondary meanings with reference to conspicuous signs of human life and the consumption of precious water. At the time I viewed this characteristic as a somewhat peculiar symbol of defiance — an attempt to show our survival capability in the face of desert climate, drought and other adverse conditions.
During the spring 1999, while at the national conference of the Society for Photographic
Education held in Tucson, I listened to a group of photographers speaking about the Water
in the West project. After hearing the scope, depth and serious tone of the project, I came
to the conclusion I needed to approach this previous body of work with a renewed fervor and
a slightly altered perspective.
While at the conference, I photographed Tucson neighborhoods and their native plant life landscaping and have begun to work on a sequence for the images from the entire body of work incorporating the newest images into the series. Previous images have been created from trips to Santa Fe, Taos, Albuquerque, El Paso, Phoenix and the Big Bend region of Texas.
This project is intended as an aesthetic and political statement about the conditions of existence and survival upon this earth. I view humans as caretakers of this planet, yet often find our very presence is incompatible with the continued survival of many other life forms, including our own. This is primarily due to our use and allocation of natural resources. I’m focusing on our use of water in this project, specifically in desert regions.
That we choose to live in areas of little or no rainfall is irrational enough, but a continuation of destructive behavior through wasteful usage of (insufficient) water resources is an almost suicidal practice. Yet our civilization continues to believe and practice a prolonged battle against the inevitability of finite resources, often believing science and technology will provide the answers to survival problems. Unfortunately, these are problems created by excessive demand on available natural resources and will continue to be problems until we better understand our relationship with nature.
Symbolic of this waste is the watering of landscape plants, especially native plants already adapted
to their dry environments. In the numerous urban desert cities I’ve visited, I have observed
a tendency to fill yards ands public areas with large and often perfect native plants, evoking
a desert ‘chic’ as a decorative motif (smaller cities aren’t exceptions, but there is less obvious
wealth exhibited in grand landscaping designs). These plants have grown well beyond
their typical natural size, primarily due to the extra water they receive through purposeful
irrigation and also due to their protective urban environment. These plants have grown not only
beyond their normal size, but also into a more perfect and exaggerated form. In short, they
are ‘super’ versions of their species and are beautiful to behold. It is this beauty that is so
revealing in its tragedy – a reallocation of life sustaining water to perform an unnatural act of beauty
for decorative purposes.