John Ganis' book "Consuming the American Landscape" employs
beautiful, disturbing images of the impact of development and extraction
industries on the environment in every region of the U.S. to provide
a poignant and complex look at America's landscape.
Ganis, who studied with such celebrated photographers as Lisette Model
and Larry Fink in New York, and with W. Eugene Smith at the University
of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography came to Detroit in 1980
to teach at CCS where he is currently the head of the photography department.
On a road trip that took him through the South and West, Ganis was
struck by the sight of great expanses of land being flattened and prepared
for development. The photos in "Consuming" were taken over
several years on subsequent trips that took Ganis, among other places,
to logging sites in the Northwest, mines in Colorado and Utah, and to
northern California, where he photographed the logging of old growth
Ganis: I didn't start ("Consuming") with an environmentalist
agenda. I see myself as an observer, a witness. I like to look at things
as a photographer and analyze what I see.
It's something about the South and the West, where the sense of scale
and color of the soil influences the content - the red earth cries out
to be photographed. The combination of the red earth and red dust clouds
just really struck me in terms of an emotional response that I am trying
to infuse my documentary work with. What I learned from teachers I had,
like Fink and Smith, was that the emotional and the subjective qualities
can be an important part of a documentary photograph. A lot of people
think of a documentary photograph as being purely factual or purely
dry and uninflected and that's not necessarily true.
feel like mining really brings to the forefront the whole question of
how we are treating the land. Not that there's anything wrong particularly
with mining. We can't have any products or anything without mining.
But I think that it is a very interesting metaphor for the way we treat
the land. Also in a lot of my photographs there are closed mines and
sites where the mining is no longer taking place, but there's been no
attempt to clean up.
Logging is just a further statement of the disregard for the land.
Although again, you can say there is nothing wrong with logging in and
of itself. However, it's primarily things like clear cutting that I
have become concerned about. Clear cutting emphasizes an industrial
scale approach to just taking everything. Of course they say "we're
going to replant the trees." But we're talking in many cases old
growth forests - trees a thousand years old - and they stick a little
sapling in the ground. Once that old growth is cut down it's basically
In the mid 90s, Ganis took a break from landscape photography to
document the takedown of the Reichhold chemical plant in Ferndale. Ganis
photographed every step of the process and tape-recorded interviews
with neighborhood residents. The photographs and oral history became
the basis of his 1996 Cranbrook show "Danger Zone."
When I went back to doing landscapes (after "Danger Zone")
I had an orientation toward specific sites. I was looking for specific
places, where there were either certain things about that place or where
that place represented a class of larger problems, and I became more
overtly connected to those issues.
Even so, I think (my approach) is primarily aesthetic. I present the
viewer with an image - which I hope is interesting because of its formal
qualities, its color qualities, or even because it is seductively beautiful
- and then people can make their own conclusions about the content in
the image. I think a lot of this stuff is very complex in terms of the
actual economic and social forces at work on the landscape. There aren't
necessarily any easy solutions.
try to approach photographing the landscape with the idea that the world
is a beautiful place in spite of our destruction and our alteration
of it. People ask "If you're photographing something horrible,
why do you make a beautiful picture of it?" To me the most interesting
part about (the work) is that it's somewhat conflicted and paradoxical.
I think it would be very simple minded to take ugly things and make
ugly pictures of them. I'm more interested in making challenging pictures
that are beautiful in one sense but still very disturbing.
"Consuming" contains a number of poems by the late anthropologist
and poet, Stanley Diamond, whose collaboration Ganis sought out after
hearing him lecture on nature and culture at Cranbrook.
Stanley and I had a really interesting sort of collaboration and would
talk every week or so. Unfortunately he passed on quite suddenly. His
wife was very supportive of using the poetry for the book.
The poems add another level of meaning, another level of interpretation.
I used them to break up different suites of photographs. The poem that
sets off the mining section reads, "In the beginning the mine was
on the edge of the town, and in the end the town was on the edge of
It gives the viewer something to think about, a space, a pause.
"Consuming the American Landscape" has also been published
in German. The title proved difficult to translate, and so the German
edition is simply entitled "American Landscapes." - Nick Sousanis
the American Landscape is available at book outlets everywhere
and Ganis' prints can be seen now in solo shows at Revolution
Gallery in Ferndale, University
of the Arts in Philadelphia, and in the faculty/alumni gallery
at CCS. He is also
part of a group exhibition at Cranbrook
and will be lecturing there Sunday November 9 at 2pm. Follow these
links for more information.)