Bearing Witness:
John Ganis' Consuming the American Landscape


Photographer 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 redwoods.

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.

I 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 gone forever.

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.

I 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 the mine."

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

(Consuming 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.)

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