Picturing climate change in America’s western wilderness

Laura McPhee's "Cottonwood Under Chalk Bluff by the Truckee River, Washoe County, Nevada."
Laura McPhee's "Cottonwood Under Chalk Bluff by the Truckee River, Washoe County, Nevada."Laura McPhee

Photographer Laura McPhee is a Jersey girl. When she went out west for a residency in Idaho in 2003, she wondered if she would connect. But McPhee has curiosities both anthropological and geological; she could find marvel anywhere with a history. Her subject, often, is the trace of humanity left by time’s passage.

McPhee’s grandmother was a western schoolteacher who traveled from mining town to mining town. The photographer, a professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, set out in recent years to follow her grandmother’s route, toting her large-format box camera, curious about humanity’s impact on the land.

The expansive photographs in McPhee’s exhibition at Carroll and Sons nearly overpower the small gallery. The palette is muted compared to that of her last series of Calcutta photographs, and the images are deep and open, not bursting with palimpsests of urban texture.


The human role in the changing western wilderness is less obvious than in Calcutta, but here’s an example: Climate change has prompted beetle infestations in pine forests, making dead and ailing lodgepole pines tinder for forest fires.

Laura McPhee's "Near Dollarhide Summit (Snow), Blaine County, Idaho.”
Laura McPhee's "Near Dollarhide Summit (Snow), Blaine County, Idaho.”Laura McPhee

The woods that McPhee shot look stripped of pine needles — in “Near Dollarhide Summit (Snow), Blaine County, Idaho,” tree trunks stand straight as black needles against the snow. Fallen trees crisscross among them. Only a tiny slope of a horizon line tells you this is a landscape. The effect of the wild downrush of bristling lines is immediately painterly, calling us to the surface. But the picture is spatially deep, the implications long.

McPhee works long, thematically and technically. She accomplishes with a long exposure in “Lightning Over Joe Jump Basin, Custer County, Idaho,” what a filmmaker would do with a lighting designer. Night has fallen, but pale light haunts rocks, bushes, and cracked earth. A shadowy hump of a mountain ridge rises against the inky sky. A lightning bolt drops behind it; another leapfrogs over a high ridge on the right.


The mountains abide. McPhee captures the speed of light against their constancy and breadth. In contrast, we are brief and minuscule. Smaller than a beetle in a lodgepole pine, and just as deadly.


At Carroll and Sons, 450 Harrison Ave., through Feb. 1. 617-482-2477, www.carrollandsons.net

Laura McPhee's "Lightning Over Joe Jump Basin, Custer County, Idaho."
Laura McPhee's "Lightning Over Joe Jump Basin, Custer County, Idaho."Laura McPhee

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.