The Weather and a Place to Live

Photographs of the Suburban West

The Weather and a Place to Live

Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography

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Book Pages: 128 Illustrations: 80 duotone photographs 10 x 9 trim size Published: October 2005

Author: Steven B. Smith

Contributor: Maria Morris Hambourg

Art and Visual Culture > Photography

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.


Best of Utah 2006, Best Utah-Related Photograph  “Photographing Utah’s red-rock country and other natural landscapes is so old hat. Inspired by Robert Frank’s immortal photography collection The Americans, American Fork native Smith instead takes us deep into the metamorphosis of the American West from desert landscape into suburban real-estate mega-development ghost towns. People live here, of course. But does the sculpted urban landscape have a soul? You’ll either find these photographs of Southern California and Southern Utah banal and empty, or spooky and unsettling. Either way, you’ve understood Smith’s visual message.” — , Salt Lake City Weekly

“Say you’re a landscape photographer in the West. Say you’d like to call yourself an artist. Aspire toward a body of work that is both original and emotive. You’ve picked yourself a hard row to hoe. At first glance, the entrenched visual vocabulary of big beautiful snowcapped mountains and Sensia-blue lakes disallows both originality and emotion. Does the world really need another calendar shot of the Tetons? The trick is always to find some new way of looking at the same old horizon. In this context, Steven B. Smith’s recent collection of black and white images, The Weather and a Place to Live is a cool and cerebral compromise, a sharp spray of water, an artful kick in the ass.” — Allen Jones, New West

“Steven B. Smith looks at the suburban sprawl of Utah, California, and Colorado and sees waste, hubris, folly, and great formal beauty. . . . [T]hese photographs set up a tension between the sadness inherent in the rampant ‘Californization’ of the West and the machine-like but also strangely organic beauty to be found in the process. Smith’s work, and his book, are both disturbing and lovely.” — R. K. Dickson, The Bloomsbury Review

"[A] rebellious, defiant vitality rooted in the American suburban West. . . . Smith's black-and-white photographs [include] stark expanses where the monumental blankness of a Utah or Colorado sky meets the equally blank geometry of irrigation pipes of two-car garages. Between mountains and fences, between a tremendous rock face and giant stack of plywood, Smith's images record not so much a contrast as two violent absences joining as a single force. Landfill, seedling, turnabout, heating coil collude with the sky and mountains in a triumph of disproportion: scale not so much confused or lost as irrelevant. . . ." — Robert Pinsky, Slate

"[C]ompelling, often stunning. . . . Smith's photographs of this constructed landscape confront us with the beauty of images as images, yet push us to reflect on the massive devastation possible in the act of choosing a place to live. The deeper cumulative effect, as Smith shows, is that this commercial and geographic devolution leaves no sense of home, and in many cases no plant or animal life, only the weather and a place to live."
— John F. Barber, Leonardo Reviews

"Documenting suburbia's march into the Western wilds, Steven B. Smith finds art in the land even as it's being tamed." — Lynne Heffley, Los Angeles Times

"Smith . . . intersperses artistic photography to show the beauty in these popular developments, such as a series he has of debris catches, sandbags, and runoff pipes. This, it seems, is his method of coping with the new landscape. . . . [A]n excellent warning: suburbia is coming and you can't stop it." — Alex Starace, Rain Taxi

"Smith takes on the burbs and the juxtaposition of beauty and the beast. . . . Man's step on this land has not always been light, but it sometimes has been memorable." — Voelz Chandler, Rocky Mountain News

"Stucco, acres of cinderblock, and big smoggy skies make for dramatic scenes in The Weather and a Place to Live." — Anneli Rufus, East Bay Express

"Working in the tradition of Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz, Smith has poked around construction sites from southern California to Utah with his view camera to observe the construction of walls that appear to define a gated community and the netting that covers a barren hillside where planned shrubbery will soon grow.The project sounds earnest, but through sharp description Smith manages to wring wry humor and a sad beauty out of the orthogonal walls and sinuous paths that overtake the ragged landscape." — Blake Eskin, Newsday

“Smith won the prize for his intelligent choice of a subject hidden in full view that is of paramount importance. His work is by turns humorous and piteous, elegiac and ironic, and cumulatively very powerful for he has shaped an essay from aesthetically elegant, delicately nuanced pictures that are pitch perfect, in the spirit of the American West and in keeping with its long history of fine photographs.” — Maria Morris Hambourg, Prize Judge

“These images create a portrait of the systems of control which prepare the land for habitation and also guard them against nature. In making these photographs I wanted the manmade and natural elements of the landscape within each picture to communicate in a more extended and elaborate dialogue.” — Steven B. Smith


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Steven B. Smith is a Professor of Photography at the Rhode Island School of Design. He was born in American Fork, Utah, and spent his early years in the small communities around Salt Lake City. He has been awarded a Guggenheim and an Aaron Siskind Fellowship for Photography.

Maria Morris Hambourg, Founding Curator of the Department of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was the prize’s judge. Her career began at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where she worked closely with John Szarkowski in the Department of Prints and Photographs. She has curated such exhibitions as Thomas Struth; Avedon’s Portraits; Walker Evans; Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn’s Nudes, 1949–1950; and Carleton Watkins, the Art of Perception.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Introduction / Maria Morris Hambourg 2

The Photographs 11

Index 116

Acknowledgments 119

About the Prize 121
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3611-2