Suné Woods’s photographs challenge American preconceptions about whose bodies “belong” in nature and counter the “common sense” notion of rural geography as simply empty space. Woods began her spatial inquiry after a particular self-portrait elicited a strong reaction from her peers in her MFA program.
While spending a week at her grandparents’ beloved farm in Ohio, Woods photographed herself bring playful in the landscape. In one image, she flopped down on the ground, capturing her figure in a foreshortened position, her dress pushed up in slight disarray from the fall. Dominating the image are her brown legs and bare feet covered with dirt.
Woods hung the image in her studio, and the reaction of her colleagues caught her by surprise. In a predominantly white community of people steeped in contemporary visual culture, the picture of a woman of color lying on the ground was unanimously interpreted as implying violence. This uniform response caused her to reflect more deeply about her own relationship to landscape, and to rural space in particular.
This charged photograph became the catalyst for a sustained visual inquiry into the anxious relationship between landscape, gender, and identity. Bountiful Darkness, Woods’s photographic series, juxtaposes images of women of color in landscape with contemporary unpopulated landscape images.
The self-portrait Woods made was never far from her mind as she began to photograph the horizontal female body alone in rural space, exploring the visual history of “horizontality” in landscape. “I really wanted to make an image that countered assumptions of a black body lying in dirt,” she told me.
Woods envisions the landscapes as “fantasy spaces for my heroines.” Amid the sweeping views of the American West that have been romanticized for generations, Woods’s camera conjures horizontal bodies, resting bodies, racialized bodies.
“Can we look at a black body in landscape and not assume trauma or violence? What are our assumptions? I was interested in the assumptions as well as the certainty that terrifying things took place,” Woods explains. “I am also in dialogue with how women are represented in painting and landscape, lying down, available, etc.”
Viewing the haunting images she took in the California landscape—a geography that served as a subject for generations of renowned photographers—Woods began to think more deeply about the concept of “whiteness” in visual language.
She told me that she began to wonder, “How does the dominant white culture come into play in visual language and visual communication, particularly when it comes to images that may be embedded in our collective psyche?” Visual representation is only a first step toward changing embedded perceptions about race.
Can history be inscribed in a landscape and into a body? Once violence is uncovered and made visible in the landscape, how can we address it? Suné Woods’s photographs suggest there are many stories that remain untold.