Strange But True: The Arizona Photographs of Allen Dutton
In the late 1970s, Allen Dutton bought an 8 x 10-inch view camera and began to systematically photograph the state of Arizona, from desert to mountain, from suburb to city. The extraordinary body of work he has created in the intervening years ranks among the most unusual and interesting documents of America’s heartland. Comprising thousands of images taken over 20 years, Dutton’s project offers a poignant chronicle of the growing American West and reflects changing attitudes toward the natural world.
“I want to leave as complete a document as I can of every community in Arizona,” Dutton has said. “People don’t realize that the only historical document they will have of the present is what they preserve today.”
Long interested in the pioneering survey photography of William Henry Jackson, Dutton began to research historical photographs of Arizona from the late 19th and early 20th centuries to see how the land looked when first populated. Fascinated, he traveled to the same locations from which the photographers had captured these images, and made new pictures as close as possible in angle, perspective, and orientation to the earlier views. Dutton then began to pair these old scenes with his own “re-photographed” images.
The resulting visual juxtapositions between past and present yield surprising revelations about the effects of development and domestication on the wilds of the American West. Recently, Dutton has begun to re-photograph his own first views of Arizona from the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Since the late 1970s, Dutton has also made single straightforward views of people, their homes and vehicles, and the desert landscapes that surround them. Traveling the back roads, he sets up his large-format camera in the bed of his pickup truck, working slowly to compose the scene in front of his lens. He often poses people before their homes. These images dryly document man’s fragile existence within the harsh climes of the arid Sonoran Desert. Beyond their informational value as images of the shifting boundaries between city, suburban development and the untamed desert, they also illuminate, with great sensitivity, the tenuous relationship between man and nature.
Like many great photographers, Dutton’s pictures have the quality of being both specific and universal. While they are important as records of the changing face of one state, they convey something more profound about how urban areas evolve across the United States. Because photography allows artists to record events and locations in a single slice of time, the comparison of two detailed images made over a period of decades offers an extraordinary means of witnessing how development of the land can affect the lives of its inhabitants. The extraordinary thing about these images is that they could convey such truth and beauty while being so exact.