In the summer of 2003, Boston photographer Laura McPhee, daughter of acclaimed author John McPhee, left behind the bright lights of the big city to spend two years in Idaho's rural Sawtooth Valley.
The resulting work, sponsored by the Alturas Foundation, was a collection of 100 large-scale (up to 8 foot by 6 foot) images captured with an old-fashioned Deardorff viewfinder camera.
In September 2006, a solo show of the work titled "River of No Return" went on display at the Boston Museum of Fine Art. The spectacular images, featuring landscapes and portraits, effectively illustrate the clashing cultures of America's West through the lives and land of the Sawtooth Valley. A small selection from the show is at Gail Severn Gallery in Ketchum through July 29. Come Aug. 25, the Boise Art Museum will display 18 pieces through Jan. 13, 2008.
McPhee talked via telephone from her sister Jenni McPhee's home in Fulham, London. Laura McPhee had recently arrived there from Castille, France.
"I've been living in France for the last year," she said. "Actually, I left Boston before the show was over, and I haven't been back to the U.S. since."
Reaction to the work, she said, has been almost universally positive.
"I cannot tell you how much reaction and feedback I've had," McPhee said. "People cried. It was amazing. They just had such powerful reactions to that work. Some of the pictures were hard for people, but others just completely got it and were completely able to understand the whole picture."
During the July Gallery Walk in Ketchum, the work made its Idaho debut at Gail Severn Gallery. Comments from the crowd were similarly powerful. The most often heard word emanating from the assembled crowd in the lofty gallery was "wow," she said.
"For me the work I made there (in the Sawtooth Valley) is still the most complete and coherent body of work that I have ever made," said McPhee. "I'm still extremely happy with it. It spoke to a lot of the things that I've been building up to try to say for the past 20 years."
McPhee, 49, is a professor of photography at the Massachusetts College of Art. Her stunningly detailed work emphasizes the beauty of the world alongside commenting on people's place in and responsibility to it.
According to Gail Severn Gallery, McPhee's "haunting, large-scale color photography captures conflicting ideas of land use and landscape across remote areas of Central Idaho."
Her earlier work, "No Ordinary Land: Encounters in a Changing Environment" (in collaboration with photographer Virginia Beahan), explored how people interact with the landscape in places as diverse as Sri Lanka, Iceland, Costa Rica, and New York City.
Has her artistic mission consciously been to capture images of a world at odds with its occupants?
"I think that's part of it," McPhee said. "But I also think that in a way these places choose me. It's also the combination of the attempt to express how magnificent and sublime the world is and at the same time how hard it is to function effectively within it."
She said her work is not an attempt to document environmental struggles. "In some ways my idea is more romantic."
The romance of her work comes from its narrative style.
"I find I want to tell a story," she said. "I want the photos to tell the stories of these places and people, and people's relationships to each other. It's a visual novel for me."
Mcphee has just completed a project on the Camargue, in southern France, where as "one of the four big river deltas on the Mediterranean, it faces a lot of environmental challenges."
She also plans to publish a book of her Sawtooth Valley work. "I'm in the midst of working on finding a publisher." She plans for the book to feature 60 to 80 of her Idaho images, many of which have never been on public display.
"I'm really, really hopeful that it will happen. In a way (a book is) how photography continues and has a life. Exhibits are wonderful, but they're so ephemeral. A book is the way someone can sit with the pictures and have an experience with them that will last far longer than with the exhibition."
- Laura McPhee's "River of no Return" exhibit is at Gail Severn Gallery until July 29, and then will be at the Boise Art Museum through January 2008, www.boiseartmuseum.org.
- View McPhee's work online: www.alturasfoundation.org/artist-L_McPhee.html or www.lauramcphee.com
- Read an in-depth interview with McPhee in the Sun Valley Guide magazine: www.sunvalleyguide.com/f06/f06_noreturn.htm