A visit to the Center for Land Use Interpretation

Wind Caves (#3) -- by Joe Reifer
Wind Caves (#3) -- by Joe Reifer

Last month I had a chance to visit the main CLUI office in Los Angeles to see Pavement Paradise: "An exhibit about the liminal, substanceless, and static space of automotive transience." Yes, an art show about parking lots. I especially enjoyed the short film that looked at the history of the parking lot in the context of urban planning and development.

So what the heck is the Center for Land Use Interpretation? While a long time fan of their work, I've always found CLUI difficult to sum up in one sentence. Their mission statement takes a few paragraphs, but the whole thing really boils down to a neutral organization that studies man vs. nature. From the back cover of their highly recommended book, Overlook: Exploring the Internal Fringes of America with The Center for Land Use Interpretation:

A town at the bottom of a reservoir. A covert military installation. A downsized Olestra plant. Sites like these rarely appear on street maps. But they are windows into the American psyche, landmarks that manifest the rich ambiguities of the nation's cultural history.

Abandoned places night photography has an extremely strong kinship with CLUI's interest in exploring historical sites and the modern ruins of the military-industrial complex. In addition to the goldmine contained in their Land Use Database, CLUI's publications and programs are at the forefront in establishing a wider context for understanding the types of locations I often photograph.

CLUI's scientific neutrality allows conversations with those interested in land use from a wide variety of positions. While a mine operator and an environmentalist have divergent views of the meaning of an open pit, CLUI makes an effort to focus on presenting information without politics. This approach shares an interesting commonality with photography -- a description of something interesting is presented, but the interpretation is largely left to the viewer.

One way to help support CLUI is to shop at their bookstore. The Los Angeles location has a small but tightly focused collection of books that includes quite a few great deals on photography books. Half of the shelves looked similar to my own book collection, and I spent about 2 hours browsing through the other half. Below is a brief look at some of the titles I purchased.

1. Reclaiming the American West / Alan Berger - The altered landscape of mining in the Western U.S. is deftly analyzed using a fascinating mix of aerial photography, maps, charts, and essays. I can't remember the last time I was so floored by a book. Absolutely essential. Also check out Berger's follow up book Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America. [CLUI-call] [Amazon]

2. Strange But True: The Arizona Photographs of Allen Dutton - Using 8x10 and 11x14 cameras, Dutton has documented the Arizona landscape, and presents many of his images side-by-side with historic images shot from the same location and perspective. The results are astonishing. I can't think of a simpler, more effective way to explain the history of the American West than one of Dutton's image pairs. [CLUI-call] [Amazon]

3. Aperture #150 (Winter 1998) Moments of Grace: Spirit in the American Landscape - A ten year old issue of Aperture? I'm so happy CLUI brought this issue to my attention. The 3 page essay on desert photography by Charles Bowden is superb. The structure of the issue provides an important history lesson by breaking landscape photography down into an interesting series of divisions. More on this issue later. [CLUI-call] [Amazon]

4. Roadside History of Nevada / Richard Moreno - A very well written and entertaining guide full of interesting locations in the Silver State. If you're interested in exploring Nevada, this book is not to be missed. [CLUI-call] [Amazon]

I hope you've enjoyed this little informational detour. When visiting the City of Angels, stop by the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Culver City. In addition to the exhibits and books, they also have a nice little display of classic Merle Porter postcards, and a wall of brochures for interesting tourist sites. I picked up brochures from the Oconee Nuclear Station tour, Army Ordnance Museum, Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum, and some other cool stuff!