Steven B. Smith, Your Mountain Is Waiting

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Radius Books (here). Chopped cardboard hardcover, 14×11 inches, 172 pages, with 67 color reproductions. Includes an essay by Lydia Millet and an artist interview conducted by Katie Lee-Koven. Design by David Chickey and Montana Currie. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The contradictions embedded in the sprawl of suburban housing developments across the American West have long been rich fodder for American photographers. On one hand, these manufactured places represent the embodiment of the dream of American home ownership, where families can find a place to call their own that is safe, affordable, modern, and well-equipped, and likely not far from decent jobs and good schools for their kids. On the other, these cookie-cutter neighborhoods have often brought with them the crass homogenization of American culture/architecture, an unhealthy dependence on cars, the wholesale mismanagement of and disregard for the environment (particularly water in our desert regions), and a dispiriting ugliness when the construction phases have languished unfinished.

Photographs made in the 1970s and 1980s by Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, Joe Deal, and others (who were later gathered up under the artistic umbrella of the New Topographics) took a hard look at these kinds of intrusions/developments. Baltz found an unexpectedly elegant minimalism in the architectural forms of faceless industrial parks and explored the rough textures and pared down landscape essences of building projects in both Nevada and Park City, Utah. Adams incisively examined the suburbs along the Front Range near the outskirts of Denver, Colorado, in a series of important photobooks (The New West, What We Bought: The New World, and Denver). And a few years later, Deal peered into peoples’ backyards in Southern California, further documenting the visual vocabulary of tract house living.

Steven B. Smith’s Your Mountain is Waiting updates and recalibrates this aesthetic investigation. Returning to his home state of Utah, Smith has documented the new suburban developments that have sprung up there in recent decades, particularly in the foothills and along the mountain edges. His images wrestle with many of the same issues as his forbears, but with new twists, including the ways that nature is now celebrated and incorporated into daily life in these new projects (even artificially), the visible separation of workers and residents, and the invisible influence of Mormonism on the work ethic of the homeowners, the keeping of tidy yards, and the patriotism felt in making a home feel like part of the rugged land.

Smith’s photographs are evidence of patient observation of these developments and their nearby landscapes. What he finds are houses that are being remade to look more like nature, incorporating the undulating hills, rocks, and boulders of the surroundings into the flow of otherwise bland suburban neighborhoods. The jagged mountain peaks that provide a backdrop to many of these neighborhoods have been repeated everywhere, almost like a consumer brand: in the shape of stucco walls (made from carved concrete blocks), on fences and metal gates, on massive noise barriers and retaining walls, and particularly on the signs that announce the entry to the neighborhoods. Even the roof lines of the houses, when seen from a distance, seem to repeat the mountain motif.

Inside the homes, Smith finds these same visual themes. Bookshelves are shaped to have smooth curves and niches, glass walls bring the vistas inside or create “frames” that crop them into perfect views, and rough rock forms (both real and artificial) are placed puzzlingly inside carpeted rooms, within covered walkways, and at entrances. In several images, Smith gets inside during the construction phase, showing us two-by-fours and insulation that surround windows fully blocked by rocks and retaining walls. Out in the backyards, the scenes are even more improbable. Kids play on steep rocky hillsides dotted with boulders, swim in above ground pools on muddy unfinished lots, and enjoy trampolines near massive retaining walls, while parents try to mow the tiny strips of grass between the boulders or plant flowers in sculpted beds covered with wood chip much. In several of these images, Smith revels in found patterns, where terraced hillsides in the distance are echoed by wooden fence slats, deck railings, and stone walls, and walls, dividers, and red pebbles chop backyards into geometric pieces.

While the people in Smith’s photographs are generally secondary as subjects, he does use them here and there to quietly highlight unlikely behaviors and overlooked disparities. The homeowners seem to generally be middle class white families, who take pride in tending their gardens and dutifully pulling their garbage cans out each week; one woman seems to have taken this domesticity urge a bit too far, as she is seen power-washing a cluster of oversized red sandstone boulders. The workers, on the other hand, seem to be entirely Hispanic (or in one case, prison inmates in striped jumpsuits), and are continually busy creating the sculpted landscapes the homeowners require. They lay square blocks of fresh sod, mow lawns, use earth movers to build rock walls, spray wood chips onto hillsides, and construct fake rivers amid the dry dirt. And while Smith’s images never exactly call out these two separate worlds, the contrasts are hard to miss when seen page after page.

If my descriptions of some of Smith’s photographs seem to border on the archly comic, that’s no surprise, as many of his images use deadpan visual wit to expose the pervasive absurdity in these landscapes. Smith exposes artificiality all over town – in the fake rocks made of rebar, in the fake grass that comes in huge rolls, in the fake river, and in the rocky hills that somehow have convenient steps built into the side. His images then turn even further toward the ridiculous, as golfers blithely launch balls into vast desertscapes and homeowners water pathetic grass (and in one case, empty dirt) with grim determination. The folly of all this activity, especially in the context of the natural rhythms of the environment, gives many of Smith’s photographs a smartly astringent sting.

In terms of design and construction, Your Mountain is Waiting is a generously-sized photobook, with large color reproductions that fill the spreads. Since all of Smith’s photographs are horizontally-oriented, the page turns are broken up by sliding the images to the left or right, or printing them centered or full width. The whiteness around the images thus creates some movement, without distracting our attention from the images. And happily, the binding lays flat, so the photographs don’t have to fight the gutter.

Seen as an entire body of work, the images in Your Mountain is Waiting have a consistent stage-set quality, the houses and landscapes crafted to approximate a certain idealized vision of mountain living. While nature is often unpredictable and unruly, this cleaned up, suburbanized version is altogether controlled, and when Smith exposes the approximations necessary to deliver this sanitized world, standard definitions of beautiful and ugly get mixed up, and man-made perfection starts to look altogether surreal.

Collector’s POV: Steven B. Smith does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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