Jeff Whetstone is professor and chair of photography at Princeton University in New Jersey. He received a BS in zoology from Duke University in Durham and an MFA in photography from Yale University in New Haven. Recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2007, Whetstone also received the Gibbes Museum of Art’s 1858 Prize for Contemporary Southern Art in 2008. His photographs and films have been exhibited internationally and can be found in collections such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; and the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut.
Whetstone’s photographs in Southbound are drawn from his New Wilderness series, in which he explores contemporary understandings of wilderness and charts ways in which longstanding stories of connection to the natural world around us are encoded in today’s culture. He is interested in the ways in which our identities mediate our relationship with the wild and in our stereotypes relating to rural populations.
For Whetstone the mythical frontier is synonymous with the line between humanity and inexorable nature, and as such, it never disappeared. Instead, it is all around us; indeed, it is in us, underlining as nonsense the idea that we could ever truly tame it. The myth of control over the wilderness animates Whetstone’s photography. Through images made both on his doorstep and across the region in settings from caves to hunting blinds, he explores tenuous moments of human dominance over places in the natural world.
Whetstone finds elements of both human culture and nature in the transitional zone between the two, which for him is the new wilderness. Thus, in an image titled Eno River (2004), we see a single, forlorn plastic lawn chair dwarfed by a meandering river. In Drawdown Pillar (2010), flowing water has etched parallel lines across a massive concrete bridge support. Those lines reverberate across the image to climb the banks in the background where floating docks rest on the shore, at the whim of immensely powerful forces that, eventually, will right them. In another river scene titled Jumping Tree (2004), ladder rungs lead up the trunk of a tree to a branch that overhangs a deep spot in mid channel, yet the large span of missing rungs belie the fun and games of generations of locals, reminding us we live in an irrepressible natural world.
The same holds for Whetstone’s photograph of pickup trucks, SUVs, and, surely, every four wheeler in the state of Kentucky, in his image titled ATVs over Evarts (2004), featuring dozens of four wheelers, many parked in a long row along the road to allow other vehicles to pass. Why so many of these recreational machines are all mustered at this place we cannot tell. It must be that they will drive into and through the forest that cloaks the surrounding hills, seemingly to be swallowed whole by the natural world. Given all of the gasoline and noise pollution that will sully the valley, it is tempting to imagine some sort of equilibrium restored in an “after” picture, had Whetstone made it. On the contrary, the sheer scale of nature visible in this photograph underlines that, in this setting, anyway, the machines never represented more than a slight perturbation, certainly insufficient to necessitate any sort of correction to restore the deeper pulsating rhythms of nature. Whetstone’s photographs are a bridge to the inevitable complexity of relationships between humans and nature, which are likely to become ever more pressing as climatological and environmental processes of change weigh heavily in the region over coming decades.