Victoria Sambunaris’s photographs depict epic stories of geology, commerce, and emigration, all mixed with notions of manifest destiny. Sambunaris also documents American infrastructure, with trains and highways figuring prominently in her work. She explains,
I resist approaching a landscape strictly as an expanse of scenery but view it as an anomaly with an abundance of information to be discovered. Although I am captivated by the idea of how we inhabit our landscapes as we forge ahead in our development, my intent is to transcend political, ethical, or environmental ideology and to allow viewers their own notions and meanings.
Born in 1964, Sambunaris graduated from the Yale University MFA program in 1999. Nearly every year since then, she has set out from her home in New York to cross the United States by car, alone, with her camera. In a piece for “LightBox,” Time’s photo blog, she explained her frame of mind when she’s on the road:
Once I am rolling down the road, there’s a feeling of anticipation as I wonder about what lies ahead. The seemingly enormous inner turmoil over leaving New York is purged—a sort of ritualistic cleansing as I transition to the road. The monotony of the interstate, soon enough, becomes familiar and comforting once again. Driving it requires patience—looking and waiting—similar to the act of taking a picture. I watch the world pass across my windshield with time to think, look and listen. The Mississippi River has become a kind of first milestone for me; when I cross it, my state of mind shifts and the world slows down. In the car, I listen to the radio, the truckers on the CB or maybe some Led Zeppelin—a regular on my playlist. It keeps things lively.
Her photographs capture the expansive American landscape and the human-made and natural adaptations that intersect it, including trains in Texas and Wyoming, trucks in New Jersey and Wisconsin, the oil pipeline in Alaska, salt flats and mines in Utah, and the wall along the US-Mexican border. Combined, they present a sparse and vast landscape—dotted by human intervention—that is distinctly American.
Her work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, as well Lannan Foundation. Work shown in Lannan’s 2016 (Infra) Structure exhibition celebrates the train, a symbol of western expansion for almost two centuries and a subject Sambunaris has lovingly photographed and videotaped for more than 15 years.
A survey exhibition of Sambunaris’s work called Taxonomy of a Landscape was presented at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, in 2010 and at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, in 2013. The exhibition traveled in 2014-2015 to the Kuhn Gallery at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County; the Nevada Museum of Art, Reno; and the Rubin Center at the University of Texas-El Paso.
In 2014 Radius Books published the monograph Victoria Sambunaris: Taxonomy of a Landscape. This hardback volume features select Sambunaris images from 2000 to 2013. Another volume consists of ephemera, such as maps, journals, road logs, and small photographic drawings from her research and travels.
Sambunaris’s work dealing with the Houston Ship Channel and the oil and gas industry will be featured in Lannan’s 2017 exhibition Something Fierce.