War Stories: Landscapes of Conflict in California, presented by Off-Axis. At Samy’s Camera Gallery. Shows through September 30.
Reviewed by Darian Bleecher
As global conflict leaves a daily imprint on our collective consciousness and we become desensitized to the consequences of war, there is an increasing need to understand war’s impact on the psyche. War Stories: Landscapes of Conflict in California, an exhibition of documentary photographs by William B. Dewey and Brett Leigh Dicks, does not depict the sites of physical battles or mass executions. Instead, both photographers portray areas in California that are far removed from actual combat — the Central Coast and the Owens Valley basin. Each photographer subtly illustrates the repercussions of war on the landscape and the human experience. While Dewey examines the chilling preparations for conflict, Dicks ponders its dramatic effects.
Brett Leigh Dicks was introduced to the history of Japanese internment in California through the firsthand accounts of a relative. Dicks has subsequently frequented Manzanar, the site of a deeply shameful chapter in American history. Ever since the Army enclosed one square mile of arid land with barbed wire and detained more than 10,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II, it has been difficult to accurately describe Manzanar. Dicks captures the ghosts of this location’s unfortunate past in delicately rendered black-and-white images that belie the tragic history of their setting.
Best known for his intricate botanical photos and spectacular aerial landscape imagery, William B. Dewey has recently turned his attention to architecture. Through this, he became acquainted with the unnerving remains of Lompoc’s abandoned intercontinental ballistic missile site. A gaping bunker doorway flanked by phallic hieroglyphics is just one of the images shown here that symbolize the machismo of warfare and present a wry observation of the deserted compound, which was once capable of launching global conflict, and today is carelessly strewn with debris, corroded equipment, and bird droppings.
Images throughout the exhibition convey the haunting stillness of each location; one seems to hear the crunch of dried grass underfoot and feel the despair that remains in these locales. Although it may be impossible to atone for past sins of war, it is critical to learn from wartime errors and to avoid repeating history, particularly in light of the current global state of affairs. In documenting these grim remnants of conflicts past, both Dewey and Dicks offer a poignant reminder that the footprint of discord is indelible, impossible to abrogate with desert snows or coastal winds.