“I needed to find a reason to be in those landscapes, because they have been photographed so many times before that just taking a photograph of them was not enough,” Allison Davies explained as she looked at the mysterious figure who appears throughout her book of landscape photographs, titled Outerland.
The book has no text, just images of majestic landscapes of the American West that frequently include an ambiguous character clad in a white jumpsuit with an unidentifiable insignia on its back. Who is the anonymous figure, and what is their purpose in these vast open spaces?
The idea of landscape photography as a tool for nation building hit home for a college-age Davies when she discovered a box of small leather-bound books filled with the photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan, a member of one of the early geologic teams sent by the government to survey the Western frontier.
The books that she uncovered—more than a hundred copies of the same title—had been produced for members of Congress as documentation. Davies recognized many of the images in the book and told me she admired them as “beautiful landscapes of the American West.” But in this contemporary context, Davies began to interpret the images as more than just views of sublime landscapes—they were, in her words, “imperialist propaganda.”
Davies’s project is a formal investigation into the aesthetics of landscape and an innovative examination of the iconic role landscape plays in visual culture. The images are gorgeous and mysterious. When I asked Davies about the motivations for her character’s presence and actions, she would frequently refer to her in the third person, though it is, in reality, Davies herself in the photo. Davies sees her as “a scientist in the landscape—under the auspices of performing scientific experiments. She feels compelled to go to these places and do all her experiments because that is her job—that’s what she does.”
Although Davies reveals that she perceives the character as female, the fact that the figure’s gender for the most part is obscured makes the images all the more fascinating. Davies has fashioned an inventive strategy for reappropriating landscapes that for so long had been strictly the territory of male fantasies.
Davies remains enamored of the early male European American explorers of the continent and their eagerness to believe and promote the idea that they were the first to discover a place. The notion, she says, was “naïve and dumb” but nevertheless “grand—what an amazing feeling that must have been!”
When I spoke to Davies for my book, we agreed that no female has ever really experienced the powerful sensation of discovery to which the early American explorers had been privy. Women adventurers, few as they were, generally are not associated with the imperialistic tradition of claim staking. Perhaps that’s why it was important to Davies that her character seemed to have a reason to be in the landscapes she appears in.
Inspired by images of landscapes presented as propaganda, Davies created a world where there is no colonization—the explorer does not come as conqueror. “You never see me put a flag down,” says Davies.