It’s a Mess Without You: Osceola Refetoff on abandoned dreams in the American West

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The OpenWalls Arles 2020 series winner discusses his poignant survey of man’s presence in the deserts of the American West

OpenWalls Arles is a global photography award that exhibits both emerging and established photographers alongside Les Rencontres D’Arles. Enter OpenWalls Arles 2021, now seeking submissions under the theme Then & Now.

In his book Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs, Ansel Adams recounts the production history of his 1944 image “Winter Sunrise,” depicting darkened hills beneath the vast, craggy peaks of Mount Whitney, Sierra Nevada. Lone Pine High School graduates had climbed the rocky slopes of the Alabama Hills to whitewash an imposing “L P” against the stone, which the famed American landscape photographer later ruthlessly removed in his negative: “I have been criticised by some for doing this,” he writes, “but I am not enough of a purist to perpetuate the scar and thereby destroy — for me, at least — the extraordinary beauty and perfection of the scene.”

Where Adams epitomised idealised landscape photography, which elevated the natural and the elemental in deliberate omission of human interference, some decades later the “New Topographic” era would materialise in partial response. Through the 1970s, the likes of Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz and Catherine Wagner employed landscape photography to visualise man-made America in all its rigorous banality: monochrome warehouses, industrial sites, parking lots.

It is between these two extremes that the work of Osceola Refetoff, series winner of the OpenWalls Arles 2020 ‘Daily Life’ category, is realised. Shown at Galerie Huit Arles in September 2020, Refetoff’s winning body of work, It’s a Mess Without You, presented a succession of derelict human structures juxtaposed against the majestic terrain of California’s Eastern Sierra. The series exists as part of a wider set of projects surveying man’s presence in the deserts of the American West.

“I’m interested in creating photos that are beautiful,” the photographer tells British Journal of Photography, speaking from his home in Los Angeles. “I’m less interested in creating a world that’s perfect.”

© Osceola Refetoff.

Crucially, to Refetoff, the Eastern Sierra is beautiful despite its earmarks of human development: roads, transmission lines, garbage dumps. “There are no more ‘virgin landscapes’ anywhere on Earth,” he remarks, “and the idea is problematic on so many levels — but particularly in terms of discouraging environmental thoughtfulness.” Characterising his practice as “defiantly old-school” (It’s a Mess Without You is made up solely of single exposures, not composites), the photographer is particularly wary of the dangers of Photoshop in presenting illusory depictions of the natural world. “We expose people to these idealistic images,” he says, “then when we look out and see what’s actually there, they think, ‘that’s not even worth preserving. It’s already ruined.’ We have to get on board with preserving areas that have already been impacted.”

© Osceola Refetoff.

“The harsh desert sun is a powerful spotlight to shine on hubris versus mortality”

At once dreamlike and hyper-realistic, fragile and formidable, It’s a Mess Without You sees crisp blue skies engulf abandoned alfalfa farms. Jagged mountain tops peek through long-decayed window frames as bright orange sunlight pours over remnants of lives left behind. Partially inspired by Edward Hopper, the project finds new meaning in the age of isolation, when the window has been rendered our foremost way of experiencing the world — a shared symbol of a global crisis. Here, the window is employed not only as an architectural subject, but a narrative device to frame the stories of millennia-old lands, and the tenuous marks we inflict upon them in our wake.

“I’m contrasting the very mortal lives of the people that built and inhabited these structures against a truly timeless backdrop of the Eastern Sierra mountains,” Refetoff explains. “The harsh desert sun is a powerful spotlight to shine on hubris versus mortality — or the grand ambitions of all of us little ant people.”

Shot over ten years, the project dissects the tragedy of abandoned dreams against the vast cultural legacy of California’s deserts — a mythical land, charged with human hope and promised opportunity. Needless to say, for many immigrants and settlers, the West has symbolised a chance to “make it”: picture the opening scene of Clint Eastwood’s classic musical western Paint Your Wagon (1969), showing a succession of caravans bustling across the bountiful landscape in search of fortune and a new life.

© Osceola Refetoff.

The idea was originally propagated through images and text produced and commissioned by the American government to entice citizens and immigrants to settle there; in those pictures, the West exuded promise, natural resources and open land for the taking — a boundless Eden where dreams could be made. While a pantheon of American painters, photographers and filmmakers have fuelled this mythology for over a century, the reality that exists today is a loose patchwork of struggling communities, military-industrial compounds and failed mining projects. In the near future, immense wind and solar projects will likely dominate many areas, transforming the landscape in ways that are complex and irreversible.

“Someone stood here and did dishes and looked at this view for hundreds of hours. Then at some point, they packed up all their stuff and walked out of their home forever”

Indeed, as Refetoff points out, the myth of the West has always been just that. A myth. Aside from the active displacement and slaughter of large First Nations populations in order to make room for such “dreams”, forging them into realities in such a barren environment was never an easy undertaking. “To this day, a lot of people make a go of it and then abandon their homes,” Refetoff explains — aptly summarising what It’s a Mess Without You is really about: the people who are absent from the frames. “When shooting, so often I’d stand by these windows and think, ‘someone stood here and did dishes and looked at this view for hundreds of hours. Then at some point, they packed up all their stuff and walked out of their home forever.’”

© Osceola Refetoff.

“Words like ‘environmentalism’ are fighting words in a lot of these small desert communities. But we all have to inhabit this planet — so we have to reflect more deeply about how we exploit these resources”

Ultimately, Refetoff considers his wider artistic purpose as engaging Californian people with environmentalism in a different way. Not just in urban centres like Los Angeles, where thinking is already substantially liberal, but crucially within the rural, distinctly conservative desert communities themselves. While the two adjacent populations tread a complex relationship (Refetoff cites the California water wars, a series of political conflicts throughout the 19th century over water rights between LA and farmers and ranchers in the Owens Valley), he uses visual storytelling as a way of appealing to those on both sides of the ideological fault line.

© Osceola Refetoff.

“We live in a sharply partisan country, and words like ‘environmentalism’ are fighting words in a lot of these small desert communities. But we all have to inhabit this planet — so we have to reflect more deeply about how we exploit these resources. We have to act as a society.”

Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.