The United States government owns roughly 28 percent of all the land in America, spread largely through five major agencies, one of them the Department of Defense. Its allotment is small, as these things go — 8.8 million acres versus 244.4 million by the Bureau of Land Management — but small is a relative term. If all military land were bundled up together, its footprint would almost double the state of Massachusetts.
So, thinking of the military in terms of the American landscape is no stretch. Its imprint is vast and inevitable, with influence far beyond those physical boundaries. America is all about war and has always been, as the grim scenes in Afghanistan in recent weeks have once more made clear. While those conflicts are almost exclusively far away, their impact is always up close: Because of the military, entire towns and industries exist that otherwise would not. As much land as the military consumes, its presence is felt even deeper in the economic, social, and emotional landscapes of the people who live with it every day.
Military terrain isn’t as clear and obvious as you might expect. “I think ‘wallpaper’ is a good term for it, because most people are largely unaware of it — they just ignore it,” said Makeda Best, curator of photography at Harvard Art Museums. She’s trying to remedy that with “Devour the Land: War and American Landscape Photography since 1970,” an exhibition of more than 160 pictures drawn almost entirely from the museums’ collection that expose what has long been hidden in plain sight.
“Devour the Land,” which opens Sept. 17, is the museums’ first major show since the pandemic shutdown of March 2020. It’s about what endures long after conflict ends: the deep but concealed scars left behind. Almost all the photographs here are not of faraway lands where American military incursion left behind vast devastation, but of America itself. The exhibition “looks at the domestic landscape, because I wanted people to think about the homeland differently,” Best said. “There is no active conflict here, but ultimately, this is about conflict. It certainly is an exhibition that thinks about the costs of war — whose land is not valued, whose livelihoods are not valued, whose lives are not valued, and who’s expendable.”
The show’s title takes its name from the writings of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, who triumphantly declared that his scorched-earth “March to the Sea” in 1864 had “devoured the land” as his forces razed Confederate military installations and civilian farmland both. Best, writing in the catalog, called it “environmental annihilation as a war strategy.”
Ruminative works about the wars embedded in the country’s origins appear throughout. Oscar Palacio’s image of a tumbledown section of split-rail fence in Gettysburg is both ominous and obvious. But “Devour the Land” is dominated by the less visible devastation of foreign conflict on the American landscape.
Best said much of the work is “really pushing the genre of landscape to ponder this very difficult challenge: How do you make a picture of something that you can’t see — where the scope, the scale, the history is so vast, and you’re standing right in it?”
Barricaded nuclear test sites in the Southwest have long been clear symbols of military carnage inflicted on the environment, and “Devour the Land” shows many: From black-and-white pictures of shuttered radiation zones by members of the Atomic Photographers Guild to Richard Misrach’s improbably-colored “Bomb Site and Standing Water (Pink),” it’s a rich subgenre all its own.
But a large portion of the show veers from simple cause/effect to a human landscape where the costs of war weigh heavily on the homefront. Stacy Kranitz’s pictures of poor families in Standard Heights, the infamous neighborhood in Baton Rouge, La., known as part of “Cancer Alley,” may not seem connected to the military, but Standard Heights shares a fence line with a massive Exxon oil refinery, which residents have long blamed for the high incidence of cancer in their community.
As Best points out, the US military is the number one consumer of fossil fuels in the world and its biggest polluter. “The environmental aspect (of military buildup) is probably the part that people know the least about,” she said. For Best, however, it’s an issue that hits home.
Her mother lives in Harvard, not far from Concord, which received a $125 million Superfund grant in 2019 to clean up a site contaminated with radioactive material by Starmet, a military contractor, between 1958 and 1985. A 1997 study by the state Department of Public Health indicated “significantly elevated” levels of some cancers in the town versus the state as a whole.
“For me, the real problem is: What do we do with everything that’s been left behind?” Best said. “If we’re going to address environmental challenges, then we have to address this mind-set. We can’t say that we want to change our environment unless we understand the source.”
DEVOUR THE LAND: WAR AND AMERICAN LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY SINCE 1970
At Harvard Art Museums, Sept. 17, 2021, to Jan. 16, 2022. 32 Quincy St., Cambridge. www.harvardartmuseums.org.