Stanya Kahn on Anthony Lepore's New Wilderness
New Wilderness is a series of photographs produced at the edges of designated wilderness in the American West. As the title suggests, Lepore's images recast the wild as it is restaged in the low-budget theater that is the visitor center. Similar to the way in which Disneyland invites us to view the imaginary, with papiér mache forms in scene-painted warehouses, so the visitor center brings the flaneur and the weekend warrior to the wall-papered precipice of the natural world. Although these photographs often suggest collage or post-production alterations, they are all produced with a 4x5 camera in the visitor centers and ranger stations of parks and forests. These sites were once the outposts of exploration in the West, and continue to occupy that role in our popular imagination. However, each officially sanctioned wilderness now features a small museum that offers modern travelers an ideal perspective of the extraordinary place they have driven to, asking only that they walk the distance of the parking-lot. These spaces are the vestibules to wilderness – indoor recreations intended to instruct the newcomer on the open spaces they border. By reframing these displays, which usually incorporate other photographs, these images also reflect on our predominant way of experiencing nature - through photography.
While we understand Nature with a capital N, in relation to the ways in which it has been constructed as "other"—as it has been idealized, demonized, romanticized, spiritualized, aestheticized, commodified (and of course utilized for its resources)—so we similarly understand ourselves. We represent our identities and our desires now via the upload and the tweet. We displace the promise of contact with the pleasure of the quick click: Like/Dislike. We become the sum total of our "Favorites." We detach from the body. We have known, in fact for decades now, how to get off on a photo. ("Girls on film/two minutes later/Girls on film/you got your picture"—Duran Duran.)
Lepore's photographs of wilderness "installations" as they appear in the gateway that is the visitor center, position our bodies in relation to our gaze: we encounter ourselves looking. And in this encounter, Lepore gives us a visceral moment of fulfillment: we simultaneously experience the pleasure of the photo ("ooh, she's hot") with a longing for the wild, while indulging in the humor belying the fact that we might not really hit the trail ("do her.") Or maybe we will. Lepore seems to quietly invite the possibility of adventure. He deftly sidesteps irony or contempt for what could be seen as pathetic albeit earnest attempts to valorize the wild. Lepore is clearly in love with the wild world himself, and there is tenderness in his recasting of Visitor Center art. His photographs, which always maintain the presence of a body (the reflection of glass, the fallibility of an unglued edge, a light socket, the absence of Photoshop manipulation), seem to mirror his own longing to represent that which is both over-determined (Nature) and that which can't be named (Wilderness). But instead of presenting glib frustration, the images offer a tipsy and complicated dysphoria (where am I), not unlike being lost in the woods. Lepore's wild has its starting point in the human body. The confounding of perspective in each photo is sophisticated exactly in its lack of trickery. The view is melancholic but not sentimental.
While the work nods to the idea that we are detached from the wilderness often by the very actions we take to "know it", it is far from aloof. He neither tries to simulate the meticulous fervor of the scientific naturalist, nor does he attempt to join that dense history or polemicize it. Lepore manages to give us a picture of human urgency ("we must see it, we must know it, we must preserve it, we must contain it, we must also sell it") without collapsing it into the ridiculous, even when this urgency is dwarfed immediately by the grandiosity of Nature's portrayal. The pamphlet, the diorama, the topographical model are the iconic result of what resembles reverence. That the artist immersed himself in these environments to get long, 4x5 exposures denotes his involvement. He wants to go there too. An avid hiker himself, Lepore knows first hand the achy impossibility of "capturing" the wild in a photograph. It is only the body that can experience it. And this understanding on the part of the artist that he can and must separate the ontological urge (to be in it) from the indexical urge (to know it) gives way to this new body of work that manages to refer to both.