"This is the most beautiful place on earth," writes Edward Abbey in the opening of his iconic book Desert Solitaire (1968), which chronicles the six months he spent working as a seasonal ranger at Arches National Park in southeast Utah.
"There are many such places," he continues. "Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary… For myself I'll take Moab, Utah. I don't mean the town itself, of course, but the country which surrounds it – the canyonlands. The slickrock desert. The red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky – all that which lies beyond the end of the roads."
Half a century after Abbey wrote these words, Anthony Georgieff has returned to the American Southwest, a place that not only captured Abbey's imagination but has also served as a cultural touchstone for – and the construction of – American identity for centuries: the site of westward expansion, a place of frontiers and new beginnings, the state of California dreaming. It is a landscape of profound beauty, characterized by its staggering scale and expansiveness. Few places in the world evoke a greater sense of the sublime, both in terms of geologic time and celestial space. "The desert is a vast world," Abbey says, "an oceanic world, as deep in its way and complex and various as the sea."
Antelope Canyon, Arizona
Few sites are also as iconic in the American mythos – Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree and Arches. They live in our minds in John Ford's westerns, in Ansel Adam's photographs. So there is a nostalgic familiarity in Georgieff's shots of Horseshoe Bend and Mesa Arch, of seeing the long, straight highways in Utah or the Bridalveil Falls in Yosemite. With his black-and-white photography, in particular, it seems as if the viewer has stumbled across a long-lost trove of stills from some Great American Film of the American Cultural Imagination.
Yet what makes Georgieff's work so unique is his ability to both deliver those iconic touchstones and to somehow make them new, to put myth and reality in conversation. He does it with light, by bringing us light where we might not expect to see it – cast atop a barren hillside of scrub land in the moment before a rainstorm descends, resting on a sliver of mesquite dunes, filtering between hoodoos in the desert. In doing so, Georgieff manages to defamiliarize the landscape, making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. It is the tension between these elements, between what we think we know and what's revealed, that makes this artist's work so profound.
RocketX Over Brawley, California
Georgieff's photographs of the American Southwest also use light to make us reconsider time. After all, monuments are iconic in their lastingness, their timelessness. Yet here the light is always fleeting, caught between moments, passing across the landscape like the shadow of an eclipse, illuminating the underbelly of a stone archway or catching the glow of departing headlights. Here, too, the photographer manages to both work with and against those images we think we know, asking us to reconsider them as both infinite and ephemeral, persistent and transitory. This is the power of myth, after all: always present and already gone.
Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He is also the editor-in-chief of Fiction Writers Review and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine.
Mesa Arch, Utah
Mystery Circles, Bonnie Claire, Nevada
Monument Valley, Utah
Deadhorse Point, Utah