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“Abandonings West:

Black & White Panoramic

Photographs of the Dakotas, Idaho, Montana & Minnesota”

At the American Institute of Architects Headquarters Gallery to Jan. 14

If you drive far away from Washington—very far away—you will run into territory that fits the description penned by Wallace Stegner in Wolf Willow, his memoir of growing up on the Saskatchewan prairie:

On that monotonous surface with its occasional shiplike farm, its atolls of sheltering trees, its level ring of horizon, there is little to interrupt the eye. Roads run straight between parallel lines until they intersect the circle of the horizon. It is a landscape of circles, radii, perspective exercises—a country of geometry.

The country of geometry is what Washington-based photographer Maxwell MacKenzie has consistently explored, first in his 1993 exhibit, “Abandonings: Photographs of Otter Tail County, Minnesota,” and now in “Abandonings West: Black & White Panoramic Photographs of the Dakotas, Idaho, Montana & Minnesota.” Both exhibits—as well as a third that focused on simple stone buildings in Europe—have been hosted by the American Institute of Architects. It’s an appropriate venue, given the photographer’s attention to both landscape and architecture.

For the works in all three of his shows, MacKenzie used the distinctly horizontal ratio of 1-to-3, which suits the gently rolling landscapes he documents. The main difference between “Abandonings” and “Abandonings West” is that the first was shot in color and the second was done in black and white, through use of a special hybrid film that captures both infrared and visible spectra. Leafing through the book that documents his first show, I was tempted to rue MacKenzie’s decision to forgo color, since he used it so well before. For instance, the book’s cover shot, Everts Township Homestead II, Summer 1993, offers not only the pleasing symmetry typical of MacKenzie’s work, but also a near-perfect arrangement of the three elemental colors—red barn, blue sky, yellow grass—along with an unexpected patch of green.

Moreover, black-and-white film could never have captured so well the different seasonal faces of one site, as MacKenzie did in “Abandonings.” In summer, the Everts Township schoolhouse blazes bright red under a storm-darkened, indigo sky, but in winter, it barely pokes through a blank haze of snow and cloud.

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But MacKenzie’s work has suffered little in his transition from color to black and white. (Indeed, the black-and-whites from MacKenzie’s current show shame three of his pallid color photographs from Europe hanging in the adjacent AIA library.) Visitors entering the show on the AIA’s ground level encounter several 8-foot-wide prints mounted to the wall with pushpins, as if they were architectural blueprints. These enormous photographs are little short of stunning.

One, Near Beach, Golden Valley County, North Dakota, 1996, features an old barn that has sagged backward into a perfect parallelogram. I could not help but think that the barn had teetered into precisely the same shape as the speeding Grand Prix motorcar captured famously by the French photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue in 1912. (Because Lartigue panned to follow the car as it passed, the slowly descending shutter in his camera exaggerated the car’s shape.) The neighboring image, Near Pomme de Terre Lake, Grant County, Minnesota, 1997, exquisitely captures the isolation of the plains. Sitting quietly under a protean Big Sky is a literal Little House on the Prairie; if you were actually in the frame, you’d know only too well that crossing the knee-high vegetation would take you a near eternity.

MacKenzie provides several other gigantic images as the exhibit continues upstairs. In Near Waterloo, Madison County, Montana, 1999, you see a black log cabin with peeling paint under a sinister, black daytime sky—an image that must have required both fortunate timing and skilled technique to capture. Looking at this moody picture, I thought of the Unabomber’s cabin, located only a few hours’ drive away from Waterloo. On an adjoining wall, Near Battle Lake, Otter Tail County, Minnesota, 1996 offers some rare comic relief, capturing not only the expected abandoned building and overgrown field but also a moving herd of cows, apparently oblivious to MacKenzie’s machinations.

Not everything in the show has the same majesty of scale; many works are framed, 6-by-18-inch prints. Near Fish Lake, Otter Tail County, Minnesota, 1998 captures a wooden structure within a forest of eerie, white-leaved trees—an image that Minor White, a much more intimate photographer than MacKenzie, could easily have shot. Other images, such as Near Havre, Hill County, Montana, 1999, call to mind the rural Southern church photographs of Walker Evans or the simple barn architecture in the works of Charles Sheeler.

Although MacKenzie’s subject matter is ultrarealistic, he does have a knack for capturing images and textures that border on the surreal. In MacKenzie’s viewfinder, wheat fields take on a woolly, fleecy feel. In Near Tenney, Wilkin County, Minnesota, 1998, a weirdly sloping roof resembles the path of a Dow Jones chart riding out a bear market. And in Near Nome, Barnes County, North Dakota, 1998, MacKenzie stumbles upon a scene straight out of The Wizard of Oz: a rickety wooden structure enveloped by a field of gaudy sunflowers.

To me, the most interesting architectural photographers spend as much time preserving stories as they do images. Solomon D. Butcher’s late-19th-century photographs of Nebraska sod houses documented not only these unique prairie structures, but also the fascinating—and sometimes heart-rending—life stories of the settlers who built them. British photographer John Davies’ dreary images of the Thatcher-era English landscape come alive mainly through captions explaining the fascinating industrial and planning mistakes that gave rise to it.

As a visual artist, MacKenzie is as good as—if not better than—Butcher and Davies, and he deserves substantial credit for documenting the West’s decaying structures and stunning vistas before they disappear. Unfortunately, he does significantly less well at recording the history that undergirds his photographs.

The only information MacKenzie provides about his locations is encapsulated in the photographs’ titles; his only captions are from authors who have written about the plains. He provides no salient facts about the landowners and their homesteads—why they came, why they left, or even the answers to such simple questions as which buildings that he photographed were used as barns and which were used as homes. For an artist who has titled his exhibit “Abandonings,” MacKenzie demonstrates surprisingly little curiosity about how these abandonings came to pass.

MacKenzie at least could have relayed the stories about how he made each picture: how he found the sites (it’s not easy to locate anything on a prairie this lonesome), how he talked the landowners into letting him shoot his images (in many places out West, you ask permission before setting foot on someone’s land or risk volleys from his or her shotgun).

As it happens, MacKenzie did discuss some of these issues—but only at a slide-illustrated public lecture Nov. 18. His explanations added both depth and a sense of wonder to his project—and left me scratching my head about why he did not mention any of these details in the exhibition.

The most striking part of MacKenzie’s story is that he finds his locations by flying around in an ultralight aircraft. He canvasses rural areas for abandoned structures, photographing them from his skyborne harness and marking their locations on a map. Later, MacKenzie drives by the structures (in a 4X4—he’s gone through three of the trucks on the rough roads) and figures out what time of day provides the best light. Often, he will come back repeatedly until he finds the perfect moment to take his photograph. Most of the locations he finds from the sky turn out to be red herrings—they’re too close to trees or modern structures like power lines. Indeed, MacKenzie was admirably open during the lecture about how much scheming he does to make his images appear timeless—all in service of a “higher truth.”

In person, MacKenzie also made much more clear the dangers these structures face. Because he periodically revisits his favorite sites, MacKenzie witnesses many of them going to pot in a remarkably short time—sometimes only a year or two. His subsequent photographs (shown only at the lecture) demonstrate that many of the buildings in “Abandonings” and “Abandonings West” are now literally shells of their former selves. This realization adds a dimension of real-life pathos to MacKenzie’s work that a casual viewer would never have picked up on.

I would have liked to have known all of this at the show. But that said, MacKenzie’s images undeniably assert a powerful pull: They make me want to go West. CP