Landscape photographer Julie Shafer re-contextualized American westward expansion through an environmental lens for the last entry in the Carlson Gallery of Photography’s artist conversation speaker series of the academic year. The gallery hosted Shafer’s exhibition, “Parting of the Ways,” May 6 via Zoom, and saw over 40 students in attendance.
Shafer presented their collection for the first time about westward expansion and a specific area of the Oregon Trail in Wyoming called the Parting of the Ways, a fork in the trail in which migrants could choose a shorter, waterless route, instead of the longer route along a river. It is also the exhibition’s namesake.
“I’ve walked roughly 60 miles of the Oregon Trail and I can say I think every single day along this journey was a parting of the ways kind of moment,” Shafer said. “So I started to expand beyond that spot.”
Shafer’s photography also included markings on rock formations along the trail, specifically on Independence Rock in Wyoming, typically the names of the migrants and the date of their inscription. With the exception of Independence Rock, these rock formations are not protected by preservation laws.
“These panels are almost like a narrative,” they said.
Shafer recounted a story about their realization that a number of these markings on these rocks covered Native American petroglyphs.
“I recorded this other kind of erasure,” they said.
The migrants typically incorporated these petroglyphs into their own names or covered them completely with their names, according to Shafer. This discovery also spurred Shafer to expand their original purpose.
“I wanted to photograph this larger history,” they said.
Shafer added that the difference in designs of the petroglyphs over time was notable.
“These petroglyphs are considered part of the late Biographic Age, which is a time marked by European influence. And so that is so important because the irony in it is almost too much,” Shafer said.
Shafer used darkroom photography in their work, a practice that Shannon Benine, curator of the Carlson Gallery and associate professor of photography, hopes students will learn and appreciate.
“It’s been a year and a half of us not being able to teach analog photography on campus. So it seemed very important to bring in analog work so that the students could understand or be nostalgic about what they’re missing,” Benine said.
She also pointed out that this form of photography enriches landscapes like Shafer’s.
“Within your own passion projects, you get to choose your medium, you get to choose what would best convey your message and your meaning. That is your work. And sometimes an analog process inherently lends itself to an idea better than a digital process,” Benine said.
On Friday, Shafer led a workshop in helping students create a camera obscura, which uses a pinhole for light to project an exterior scene inside a darkened room.
Ryan Konrad can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.