The Weather and a Place to Live: Photographs of the Suburban West
by Steven B. Smith
Duke University Press, 2005
Cloth: 978-0-8223-3611-2 | eISBN: 978-0-8223-8747-3
Library of Congress Classification TR820.5.S5393 2005
Dewey Decimal Classification 779.9307740978

In compelling, often stunning black-and-white photographs, The Weather and a Place to Live portrays the manmade landscape of the western United States. Here we come face to face with the surreal intersection of the American appetite for suburban development and the resistant, rolling, arid country of the desert West. Steven B. Smith’s extraordinary photographs take us into the contemporary reality of sprawling suburbs reconfiguring what was once vast, unpopulated territory. With arresting concision and an unblinking eye, Smith shows how a new frontier is being won, and suggests too how it may be lost in its very emergence. Since the early 1990s Smith has been making large-format photographs in California, Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. Based on this body of work, he was chosen as winner of the biennial Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography.

The power of these photographs lies in part in Smith’s unusual knowledge of the places he portrays. Raised in Utah, Smith has worked on construction crews, and he was a contractor in California after living on the East Coast for a few years. When he moved to Los Angeles in 1991, he writes, “I was so astounded by what I saw happening to the landscape as it was being developed that I started photographing it immediately. The landscapes I saw were scraped bare, re-sculpted, sealed, and then covered so as not to erode away before the building process could be completed.”

Smith’s photographs offer a disturbing vision of the future of our planet, where the desire for home ownership is pitted against the costs of development in epic proportions. These altered landscapes force us to consider the consequences of human design battling natural forces across great expanses, a fragile balancing act and a contorted equation in which nature becomes both inspiration and invisible adversary. Smith’s elegant photographs of this constructed universe confront us with the beauty of images as images, yet push us to reflect on the devastation possible in the simple act of choosing a place to live.

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