FotoFest 2006

In 1996, a mountain bike crash in the central Rockies gave me a titanium femur and a sudden intimate relationship with the southern Wyoming landscape. Within a year of ditching my crutches, I moved from Boston and using John McPhee’s 'Rising from the Plains' as my atlas, settled on the edge of the high windy Great Divide Basin in Wyoming’s Red Desert country.

The Red Desert occupies an area the size of Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Teton Parks combined. The landscape seems stark, the horizon crisp and always a day away. The desert is populated by scores of herds of rare desert elk, wild horse, and antelope. It is home to exotic species of finch, eagle, hawk, and owl. Humans live there, too, in tiny numbers in small settlements around the basin’s rim.

Recently discovered directly beneath the Red Desert is one of the world’s great natural gas reserves. In the last three years, the empty, and remote half-million acres has flipped, transformed in one historic flash from wilderness steppe to industrial landscape. British Petroleum, Halliburton, and others have arrived. Surveyors, blasting and grading crews, rig operators and geologists now sweep the basin from edge to edge. Caravans of heavy equipment barrel across pristine playa and mesa, leaving a dense crosshatching of new roads in their wake. What had always been a blank spot on the map is now frantic with activity. When the dust clears in a decade or two—after the place has been scraped clean and pumped dry—the boom will end. The gas rigs will move on to the next sweet spot. The poisoned water table will begin to recharge. But anyone keeping time, using a clock where a second is a lifetime, will not see the desert heal.

The Revelation
In 2005, after scores of trips crisscrossing the landscape — camping, photographing, documenting the geography of this wondrous raw place—it hit me like a skillet: They are not plundering the place. We are. I am. I look down to see that my tracks in the dust merge with theirs. They may be mining the coal and poisoning the groundwater, but they do it in our name. I am accomplice and beneficiary. Now what? Do I turn myself in — and to whom?

Martin Stupich
Excerpt from his essay in the FOTOFEST2006 catalogue


The Red Desert Project: Seeing Past Empty
Energy Extraction and the End of a Wild Place

Wyoming’s Red Desert is a fifteen thousand square mile arid basin in the central Rocky Mountains. Consisting mainly of state and federal lands, it is the largest unfenced expanse in the continental United States; and historically it has been an unpopulated, almost unknown, wilderness. Recently discovered, directly beneath it, is one of the world’s largest untapped natural gas reserves. The desert’s open-pit coal and uranium operations are being revived in response to world pressures. Surveying, blasting, drilling, and mining accelerate now at a pace that is transforming the region into an industrial landscape.


Stupich received an early education in painting and sculpture in Milwaukee in the 1960s. In the early 1970s he studied photography with Emmet Gowin in Ohio, and in 1978 earned a M.A. degree in photography from Georgia State University as a student of John McWilliams.

He stepped from graduate school into a career photographing industrial landscape, with early grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, jobs with the Department of the Interior—then as a photographer documenting sites from Panama to Providence for the Army Corps of Engineers. Throughout Stupich's career, the line between commerce and art has been wiggly and blurred. Pictures of Cape Canaveral launch pads hang in galleries in Tokyo, while his industrial panoramas reside happily in official state archives, folded into dense historical reports.
His current work in Wyoming's Red Desert reaffirms his hunch that all landscape is cultural—and that good photographs made there can contribute to the literature of this place and time.

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