Among the daily deluge of news regarding environmental degradation and climate change, the latest exhibit at Westmont College’s Ridley-Tree Museum of Art feels like a breath of fresh air. The countless studies, articles, and books that roll out of academia and news rooms across the nation can be overwhelming and exhausting. The exhibit, Watershed: Contemporary Landscape Photography, confronts these issues from a different angle, expressing the many ways that humans interact with and impact their environment without the jargon. From bootprints in the mud of Montecito after the debris flow to abandoned churches in the American South to lonely villages spread out over an expanse of snow, the photographic images illuminate both the beauty and the tragedy of humans and their relationship with the landscapes around them.
The exhibit is curated into five categories, beginning with “SB Watershed.” As you walk into the museum, you are immediately greeted with images that expose Santa Barbara’s fraught relationship with “water, drought, fire, and floods.” Yet among the depictions of wreckage, there are images of beauty as well — a reminder that human-nature relationships are complicated. As you make your way deeper into the museum, you find other North American photographers who have captured landscapes of all kinds, utilizing unique perspectives and styles.
The other categories, “Narrative,” “Exposure,” “Objective,” and “Atmosphere,” make evident to the viewer how the artist behind the camera can manipulate and reorient the way we view a landscape. We see images that take a straight-forward perspective of their subject, and other pieces that have manipulated and transformed it. “Watershed: Contemporary Landscape Photography” is a fitting exhibit for Santa Barbara in this current moment, as we reflect upon recent natural disasters and look ahead to more sustainable kinds of relationships between humans and landscapes.