Fortieth Parallel by Rory Hamovit is comprised of images Hamovit photographed as he retraced the route of Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s exploration of the American West. It is printed on newsprint and includes 28 photographs made by Hamovit, three illustrations, and nine reproductions of O’Sullivan’s original photographs made for the US Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel from 1867 until 1872—(one of the nine reproductions is credited to photographer William Henry Jackson). The first edition of Fortieth Parallel is limited to 40 copies. The images were made in 2015 and 2016 during two road trips by Hamovit across Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming—(It is worth noting that Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming had not been granted statehood at the time of the US Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel).
O’Sullivan’s photographs are part of the United States Geological Survey’s Photographic Archive and considered a part of the subfield of geology known as geophotography. According to The Geological Society of America, geophotography “involves realistic recording (commonly using visible light, UV, or IR radiation) and processing of images of geologic features and processes or their experimental equivalents, motivated by a scientific understanding or question, in order to accomplish a specific, useful goal.”
Rory Hamovit’s motivation for producing Fortieth Parallel is not clear nor do I think we should be concerned. Within his motivation however does lie some artistic intent—reason being printing method, a very limited first edition run, and staged and/or manipulated photographs that incorporate if not himself, then subjects representative of his own experience retracing the route of O’Sullivan. Whereas O’Sullivan was commissioned for the geological survey of the American West, Hamovit documents his own personal experience of the American West nearly 150 years later.
Some of the staged photographs rely heavily on information outside the frame and are beautifully mysterious while some are difficult to read in the context of retracing a historical geological survey. A man in the midst of either taking off or putting on his shirt in Donner Pass, California reads as just that. If the image is considered on its own then perhaps one might recall Garry Winogrand who said, “No one moment is most important. Any moment can be something.” A photograph of bottled water being poured onto and spilling out of a plastic plate juxtaposed with a waterfall in Zion Canyon Utah read as just that if not slightly heavy handed on the part of the photographer. Other spreads throughout Fortieth Parallel however place O’Sullivan’s photograph alongside Hamovit’s landscapes and—while they are not the exact same location—do consider the American West then and the American West now by comparison of similar mountain tops and other geographic structures. Those images are less concerned with the now as other of Hamovit’s photographs tend to be and consider the past in relation to the present—something photography is so well equipped to do.
Early in Fortieth Parallel is included a photograph of Humboldt Sink in Nevada with the word “NOW” etched across the smooth sloping, sun-bleached plain. The difference between the nonpermanent quality of newsprint on which the image is printed versus photographs made by O’Sullivan to be included in a photographic archive is not lost while looking at this photograph and I consider what in fact it means to live in the present. An image titled, “Selfie in Flaming Gorge, Washakie Badlands, Wyoming 2015” depicts Hamovit making a photograph with a small hand held camera, followed twelve pages later by “Peeing, Frisco, Utah 2016”. Hamovit’s Fortieth Parallel—for better or worse—does a good job showing us 150 years after Timothy H. O’Sullivan surveyed the expanding United States how we contemporary Americans go about exploring the American West.