- This Land: An American Portrait by Jack Spencer
Jack Spencer's This Land: An American Portrait is a collection of photographs spanning from the West Coast to the East, the Great Plains to the Gulf. The book is Spencer's relevant and critical depiction of the changing landscape of the lower forty-eight. Spencer captures a range of activities from wild animals grazing in their undisturbed habitats to lonely storefronts—seemingly abandoned—and children wading in ankle deep beachfronts. Spencer dazzles us with his visual poetry while at the same time guiding us to look beyond his images. He explores the delicate balance struck with what our culture demands and what truly is important to lead a fulfilling life.
One cannot be blamed for opening this book solely to marvel at the photographs and the wonder they elicit. Nonetheless, I urge all who gaze upon these images to read Spencer's prologue. In Spencer's written word the truth of his dissolution of the American population comes into full view. "This society," Spencer writes, "has a deepening, narcissistic, and consumer-driven neurosis that urges it members to buy something—anything—in order to fill some unidentified hole in their lives, and to get someplace—anywhere—as quickly as possible." It is here that Spencer is imploring us to slow down, to watch out for the undercurrent by which so many of us are swept away. This book is not a collection of glossy travel photos of America's most treasured attractions. It is a deeper look at our attitudes and the mental health of our society. It is a juxtaposition of the natural world, the manufactured world, and all the worlds that lie in between. Through [End Page 326] Spencer's words and his lens, he explores the implications of an apathetic and greedy culture—a culture that takes without asking and reaps with no consequences.
The images taken in the Great Plains are as varied as the region itself. There are rolling hills of short, tall, and mixed prairie grasses, small wooden frame homes, long dirt roads enclosed by rows of corn, and flora and fauna specific to this beautiful part of the country. Much of my own youth and early adulthood was spent chasing some of these same images. With my first ever camera, an old Canon AE-1, I would ride my bike outside the city limits to try and capture an old barn or even just a single fencepost. I, like Spencer, was searching for a portal into the past. Now, more often than not, our society takes the natural world for granted, or even worse, ignores it completely. Spencer reminds us what lies outside our cities and towns while also pleading for better stewardship, conservation, and maybe even a trip to Amish Country!
Ecosystems Studies Unit
University of Nebraska–Lincoln