In the photograph used on the museum handout for Laura McPhee's recent exhibition, smoky rays of sunlight stream into dense forest as fire licks at the roots of trees in the center of the frame. In the foreground, more sunlight illuminates underbrush while branches to the upper right and left almost touch the lens, creating a path for the eye that seems to lead a hundred feet deep. The highly theatrical composition resembles nothing so much as a picture by Gregory Crewdson, and when one realizes that Understory Flareups, Fourth of July Creek, Valley Road Wildfire, Custer County, Idaho, 2005, is not staged, one has to wonder why it was treated so formally, so luxuriously, with such a sense of portent.
The wall text provides an answer--in format, technique, and subject matter, McPhee is referring to the nineteenth-century painters and photographers of the American landscape. McPhee's choice of large-format, unretouched prints nods to the (very) old school, and her presentation of them at such large scale references the work of Albert Bierstadt and friends. But neither tactic succeeds beyond simply helping make serviceable depictions of the obvious--that the West is full of contrasts--seem a few degrees more delicious. Despite her claims to a less romantic eye--she portrays, for example, a cyanide-evaporation pool at a mine, a settler's cabin from the 1920s just down the slope from a recent housing development designed to look like log cabins, and endangered salmon at a fish hatchery--her West is just as thoroughly aestheticized as that of her nineteenth-century referents.
Surprisingly, there is little …