The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 9, Number 1, Pages 16-25
Winter, 1984

Chris Sublett's Washington: A Photo Essay

by Chris Sublett

Chris Sublett teaches in the Art Department at Eastern Washington University. He has been photographing Eastern Washington for a number of years. Recently. he published a book of these photographs: 5 Counties; Adams, Grant, Lincoln, Spokane, and Whitman (Spokane, Eastern Washington Historical Society. Cheney Cowles Memorial Museum, 1983). The Forum includes two comments on his art.

Amber, Ewan, St. John, Steptoe, Thornton, Malden, Rosalia, Tekoa, Oakesdale, Farmington, Garfield, Palouse. The names roll off Chris' tongue and garland the map in roughly the order he might encounter them in the course of a weekend expedition to photograph the unique and beautiful region he calls home. Of course, as a resident of a college town on the regions' edge, Chris might be called a carpet bagger, but such a label is false on several counts. First is the fact that he grew up on a farm not far from here, not a Palouse wheat ranch to be sure, but an irrigated farm astride one of the widest scabland channels, warmed by the same sun, chilled by the same snow, impelled by much of the same seasonal rhythm he has captured so well here. Secondly, I know of no colleague who has logged as many miles, put in as many hours, or gathered as much data about the Palouse as he has over the past several years. His immersion, though total, has not been frenetic, but thoughtful, patient, even laconic, as the land, season and scene demands. Chris' style is not one of shoot and run, but rather wait and shoot, turn, reflect, shoot again, develop, contact, print, return and shoot again if essence was missed or another season or verdict is desired.

This method of operation sets him distinctly apart from the true carpet baggers from west and east who come only when the sun shines to glimpse the 'romance' of the golden harvest, snap the amber waves of grain, the sweep of hills as viewed from U.S. 95 or the top of Steptoe Butte, and then race back to metrocity to wow their fellow flatlanders with glossy image, bearing no trace of dust or damp, knowing nothing of the costs incurred by eroded land or lonely spirits to produce their daily bread. Chris' images avoid the trap of romanticizing curves and clouds. Human images are seldom present in his photos, just as they are seldom present in most of these spaces (the average farmer spends less than one hour per year on any given acre of cultivated land here. But he has surely captured both the enduring impressions that a century of human activity has made upon this land as well as the fleeting tracks of seasonal peregrinations. His photos recognize and document the important roles played by machines, towns, roads and fences in imposing order and extracting the essential commodities which our way of life demands. Trucks and grain elevators, chemical scum and scorched stubble, spring rill and autumnal gulch, main street and vacant shed--they're all here, neither glorified nor villified, but presented as encounters. The scale, too, is right: Chris has avoided both the romantic microcosm of field mouse and needlepoint and the wide eye of scenic spectacular. The scope is acres, the view is functionaL the weather what it is, grey or bright, but often muted, diffused by the everpresent haze. Some of the grit, to be sure, is Mount St. Helens ash, but much of it has been hanging around much longer than that. Grit and sky, lumined thereby, these photos capture the light of an empire.

 

Jeremy Anderson

Professor, Geography

Eastern Washington University

 

As a photographer Chris Sublett is self-effacing, which might be a kind of artistic suicide were it not for the subject in which he places his faith - the landscape. He knows that the Palouse is so beautiful that if he shows it accurately it will satisfy us more than any invention of the imagination. And so, in a time of egotists and advance men, his pictures immediately distinguish him.

Documentary photography like Sublett's is not, of course, authorless. As Imogen Cunningham, another Washington state photographer, noted long ago, "There are fewer good photographers than painters. There is a reason, The machine does not do the whole thing." To make pictures of open space, as is Sublett's concern, requires not only technical skill but vision; every nuance of light matters, and the smallest detail brought in or out of the frame can be decisive.

Sublett's pictures help us, like all successful art, put a value on life. They offer, for any of us who have lived near wheat country, the gift of restored vision. No matter how many times we may have driven through it, indifferent or preoccupied, the photographs take us back to the first time we saw it, to the sense of peace we knew.

Robert Adams

Longmont, Colorado, 1982

Rosalia Area, Whitman Co.

Rosalia Area, Whitman Co.

Govan, Lincoln Co.

Wilbur, Lincoln Co.

Parvin Area, Whitman Co.

Cheney Area, Spokane Co.

Plaza Area, Spokane Co.

Colfax Area, Whitman Co.