Marshall Scheider is a photographer from Oregon. For some time he was based in Brooklyn, New York and has recently made the difficult but valiant decision to move back to his home state. It’s a move in my opinion not enough artists make. It often creates tension and uncertainty but can lend oneself to a perspective otherwise unknown to the artist in relation to a place so familiar as home. In Scheider’s work he attempts to address identity, both his own individual and ours collectively, through the American landscape. His project, What Was Left was shot on a cross-country road trip as he travelled from New York, back home to Oregon. Tension is always a good starting point for photography, or really any art. In Why People Photograph, Robert Adams writes, “assume art begins in unhappiness.” I don’t know that Adams would argue that this is universally true all the time with every artist, but I do believe Adams is saying that art comes from a certain honest conviction when we see something wrong with the observed world. In What Was Left, Scheider starts with that idea and carries on in the tradition of the landscape and documentary photographer while recognizing both his own place in contemporary photography as well as themes of abandonment and uncertainty throughout the American landscape. Scheider doesn’t necessarily like to be pigeonholed as a documentary photographer although, he clearly is one. Perhaps that is because like many of us, there is a bit of hesitation to be pinned down, especially when we feel constrained by those labels. To be American is to be defiant of labels. Our ancestors were models for our separatist ways as we set out to defy the Church of England and in the process, if we were to be labeled, it clearly had to be the right one. That is perhaps too why when we are young we feel so motivated to move away from home, defining ourself against the standard. It becomes that point of tension from which the American artist creates.
To consider oneself American conjures just as much negative sentiment as positive. As a result, much like the views from the American landscape that What Was Left depicts, by our optimism and indifference our sentiment feels at the same time hopeful and empty. But like coming home, we face who we are head on.
“This work was created over the course of a month-long road trip, leaving from New York heading back to my home state of Oregon. The feelings of freedom and excitement provided by a month of exploring the state highways and towns of the rural South and Southwest were tinged, at times, with apprehension about my return home and what was left behind on the East Coast. This unrest is reflected in the work, and is symbolic of the unrest existent in the U.S. today – political, economic, environmental, and social.
Compositionally, the photographs are informed largely by the work of past masters and current practitioners within the realm of American documentary photography. Although the images, visually, owe much to this traditional photographic approach, they are equally impressionistic, reflecting my own impressions, romanticism, and the cultural history and mythology that surround the subject matter.
Thematically, this series explores the elegant relationship between degradation and regrowth and the cyclical nature of this phenomena within our cultural landscape, as well as in the natural world. Through this exploration I attempt to reconcile my own connections to American identity. In an age where the American landscape – our ever disappearing wilderness, prairie, and unspoiled waters – seems to be increasingly devastated in the name of industry, big business and American prosperity, what does it mean to be a proud citizen? Where do our loyalties to America lie? What are the values we as Americans once held dear and where were they lost? The spirit of optimism once present in the Baby Boom era – an era who’s fading remnants are often depicted in this series – has given way largely to marked apathy today.
Isolation or desolation is a common motif throughout the work and reflects an emptiness that I find palpable in much of the landscape, particularly in rural areas. This characteristic acts as a counterpoint to the reality of American excess and opulence, pointing to the growing divide between urban and rural communities, economic strata, and social and political groups.
Ultimately, this work bears witness to these divisions while presenting a testament to a quiet beauty that can be found even in a tumultuous landscape. The fragility of the land is always counterweighted by it’s remarkable power to heal itself, and us.”