Amy Stein: Uncontrollable Messengers

Amy Stein does not identify as a landscape photographer. For her, the genre of landscape photography is narrowly defined as images made in empty space that is majestic and sublime. Over the course of our conversation, we expanded the category in light of her series, Domesticated, a project made in an unremarkable rural environment—one where the built and the natural overlap.

Domesticated features images of wild animals—bears, coyotes, bobcats—presented in or around the edges of the human environment. Her photographs are not typical wildlife portraits; rather, they are moments that have been carefully arranged by Stein in the rural Pennsylvania landscape. Though staged photography is a familiar trope in the contemporary art world, its subject is typically people. Stein’s clever use of taxidermy allows her to shift the emphasis to animals. The tension in the work resides in the ambiguous territory between what is real and what is fake.

When I met Amy, she was in the process of selling her apartment and moving to California. She told me that until recently, this work was hanging on the walls of the apartment, but her contractor suggested she remove the images because he thought they might provoke a negative response in prospective buyers. After Stein replaced the images from Domesticated with what she considered traditional landscapes—black- and-white photographs that she had taken in Australia—the apartment sold quickly. Her anecdote about her “strange work,” as the contractor called it, and her notion of what constitutes landscape photography, led me to ask how landscape photography is defined in the popular imagination. Does landscape photography still shape the definition of the natural world in popular culture? And in the case of Stein’s project, what signifies wilderness or nature in a contemporary visual rhetoric of landscape?

“I almost never take an image of the land that does not have cultural and social and human properties—something built in it,” Stein told me. We live in what is referred to as the Anthropocene era: the current geologic period in which humans seemingly have more of an effect on planetary changes than plate tectonics. Thus, it’s becoming more widely recognized that there is no landscape on earth that does not contain human properties of some sort, even if those properties are not actually visible in photographs. For thousands of years, humans have effected change upon the land. Yet nostalgia for “the wild,” or spaces of pure nature, lingers stubbornly. Stein, a self-confessed city girl, had to continuously reevaluate her own romantic notions while pursuing the project.

Stein began Domesticated while she was still in graduate school in 2005. Originally, she intended for the project to be her thesis work, but several of her professors discouraged her from pursuing it. “I was told more than once, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if these photographs had no animals in them?’” In the end, she felt pressured to complete a different project for her thesis, but continued working on the Domesticated series. As was the case with several other artists in the book, Stein’s choice of subject matter was not encouraged in academia. At that time, photographs of animals were rare in the contemporary art market, but in the past several years, work that centers on animals has become fashionable and widely collected. Especially for people who don’t have everyday interactions with wild animals, Stein’s photographs are intriguing. The animals in her photos come alive in the viewer’s imagination, and mere objects become what she calls “vibrant matter.” Stein admitted  that before our discussion , she hadn’t looked at her work through a lens of landscape. However, over the course of the project, the photos revealed something more important to her: the relationship between the animals and land.


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