In Victoria Sambunaris’s 2015 photograph Untitled (Intracoastal Waterway with red barge), the color of the water is the pale tan of over-creamed coffee. The camera angle emphasizes the flatness of the landscape; it is as if you could see the curve of the Earth in the distance. The water stretches across the whole foreground and recedes into the distance, forming a wide triangle under a slender band of pale silvery-gray sky. The 39×55-inch image is almost all water; the banks of mottled green saltwater marsh barely encroach into the edges of the photo. It looks impossibly remote except for the broad red barge that seems to sit atop the smooth surface of the water. The Gulf Coast’s peculiar marriage of primeval coastal landscape and petrochemical industry is captured in Sambunaris’s exhibition “Shifting Baselines: Texas Gulf Coast | Victoria Sambunaris in Collaboration With Kristopher Benson,” on view at the Galveston Artist Residency Gallery.
Sambunaris creates her work through road trips in which she immerses herself in the landscape and culture of different parts of America. The GAR website explains that the artist sets out on her journeys “equipped with a 5×7 wooden field camera, camping gear, and a few months supply of canned sardines and crackers.” She researches and explores the nature and culture of the world she will photograph.
The Galveston Artist Residency invited Sambunaris down from New York for a project and gave her a stipend and housing. During her time in the area, she collaborated with Kristopher Benson, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Benson advised the artist about the ways in which the coastal environment of the region has been affected by man and industry and helped her get access to locations.
Two sets of untitled photographs are shown flat on shelves on the back wall of the gallery. They were taken at Virginia Point, located just at the tip of the mainland, right before you cross the bridge to Galveston. The photos capture hopper cars moving along tracks past the estuarial corridor, along the line of the horizon. In the foreground is the grassy marsh, interrupted by bands of silvery water. They are very elegant images; in the second set, a few barely noticeable pink-tinged roseate spoonbills stand in the water. The interplay between the railcars, which a viewer imagines laden with petrochemical product, and the tiny figures of the flamboyant birds is subtle. Sambunaris isn’t a polemicist. Her works are nuanced, relying on a visual tranquility that draws you in but keeps you slightly on edge. You know you can’t lose yourself in this landscape, even while you want to. The photographer gently reminds us that in the world today, most images of tranquil nature are an illusion created by careful editing.
Because of the large size of the 5×7-inch negative created with her field camera, the clarity and color of the photos are stunning. There is something so still and perfect about these images that they have the hyper-real feeling of maquettes for a film, tiny, exquisite models created to drop in digitally as a background.
The photo quality certainly makes the unwieldy camera worth the trouble. But working with a big 19th-century-looking wood-cased camera in the 21st century can result in more than just curious stares and comments. Sambunaris was photographing along the Ship Channel on a day when Vice President Joe Biden happened to be in the area. Port of Houston security pulled up to inform her a sniper had been watching her through his scope for the past few hours.
And, no matter what camera you are using, photographing near chemical plants and transit infrastructure in post 9-11 America often ends with someone coming up to ask you what exactly you’re doing. Private and public security officers confronted Sambunaris on more than two dozen occasions. She considered getting a police radio so she’d know when they were coming.
Saumbunaris’s images are almost exclusively unpeopled. We know that someone is piloting the barge in a photograph or driving the engine pulling the cars. We know that someone filled and stacked the shipping containers in a large untitled photograph, but they look like Legos left behind by a long-dead race of giants, an industrial Stonehenge. Who put them here and why?
But the artist’s photographs still have a portrait quality. Presented in an untitled grid of images on the front wall, 15 cargo ships are photographed like a series of people posing for the camera. Each has a name; each one is from a different place, displays a different color and hauls a different cargo. One is a vivid Yves Klein blue, another cerulean, another a rusted cadmium red.
In images like the barge on the Intracoastal Waterway or the shipping containers stacked in Houston, we can really appreciate the formal elegance of Sambunaris’s work. They’re beautifully composed and incredibly minimalist. Squint your eyes, and the shapes and flat areas of color simplify into the abstract forms of a masterful painting.
The rare appearances of people are restricted to a grid of 945 4×5-inch prints, a kind of sketchbook from Sambunaris’s time in Galveston and along the coast. There are a few scattered images of people standing in a boat, swimming or wading, or, in one instance, of a Channel 13 reporter reporting from a submerged road. But the photos are dominated by evidence of us, rather than us. Storm-battered buildings, humble and wooden or stone and formerly grand, pose for her camera. The seedy Ocean Cabaret building in one image is almost obscured by scrubby grasses and palms. Another captures the cabaret’s sign, “NUDE GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS 18 & UP WELCOME,” a fixture as you drive into Galveston. (I have been told it and the hillock it rests on are the only holdouts in the protected estuarial corridor.)
There is a distinctive, roughly hissing sound permeating the gallery as you walk through. It is the sound of flammable gas burnoff at a petrochemical refinery. Living along the Gulf Coast, we all know that sound and the sight of the accompanying flames. The back gallery of the GAR is painted black, and here is where the sound is originating. One wall is covered with a photomural of a tiny wooden bungalow surrounded by trees. A window-unit air conditioner pokes out of the structure’s asbestos siding. The only sign of life is the silhouette of a pickup truck parked next to the house. Behind it looms the burn-off tower of a refinery, its flare illuminating the backyard with a haunting and eternal light.
Sambunaris has given us a portrait of our region, its flat coastal plain, its nature, its history and its industry. It is a thoughtful, empathetic and sensitive response to what she encountered. It is a portrait filled with quiet beauty, melancholy and regret.