Imagining National Belonging in American Landscapes

desert landscape, with clouds and rainbow

Growing up I spent summers with my maternal grandmother, Grandma Takatani, either at her home in rural Hawai’i, or on a road trip on the mainland. As she was legally blind, I did not consider the irony of her “seeing” America. My parents would pile us into the car and take us to explore the treasures of the nation, our public lands. In a classic touristic gesture, we would set forth in an old camper. 

We visited “feats of human engineering”—dams, bridges and buildings—on our way to admire “feats of nature” such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Niagara Falls. Miles of open space lay between our excursions. I watched the landscape pass by outside the window, wanting to stop and explore. But as we were always headed for a destination, there was never enough time. This created in me a longing to return.

Previous work from Rattlesnake Lake (2005–2013), platinotype from 4×5 film negative, 20”x16”.

My lived experience as a person of multiracial identity leads to my ongoing engagement with place and belonging. From elementary school to graduate studies, I often could not find myself in the history I was taught, the artwork I saw, or the archives I studied. The desire to repair the feeling of being outside official histories and search for a sense of belonging has ultimately defined my creative practice and shaped my scholarly research. 

Reflecting on the “treasures of the nation,” what does it mean to physically traverse land as an immigrant, as a visitor in a place now considered home? My project These Grand Places arguably began during my graduate studies as an investigation into the construct of identifying land as “ours.” Photography, as an invention and tool, played a significant role in Manifest Destiny, in hegemonic narratives of how the nation was made, identified, and “conquered.” From early photographs made for the United States Geological Survey to privately funded expeditions in search of resources, photography is linked to the settlement, colonization, exploitation and ethnic genocide of the American landscape. In thinking of grand places, what is the criteria for magnificence and for whom do we protect and preserve? Is this notion a colonial construct?

This project builds on lifelong concepts in my work on place, belonging, and the care with which we move through the world as artists.

Working in the landscape is instinctual, familial, cultural, and memorial. For those of us who are not Indigenous people, we are visitors, and our perception of belonging shifts based upon our connection to the land. I explore the geography of changing landscapes, searching for places where I can feel a sense of communication, finding quiet yet significant moments in the transitional place between land and water, destruction and reclamation, thought and action. I look at my artmaking as an act of love—serving the role of ritual and memorial in moments of loss and longing—and repetitious labor as a metaphysical act. Much of my work is made in situ, engaging the elements of the environment, moving across physical space as a meditation, and using observation as a tool for understanding existential questions.

The Cyanotype Process

I unite current digital capture technology with nineteenth-century processes. Photography can demand a need to control things technically, and the instinctive way of working with the cyanotype process in the field channels the immediacy of making into a directly emotional response to what is in front of me. I think of it as a conversation between place and image.  

The Nightjar, Bears Ears National Monument, Utah, unique cyanotype made in situ, 21”x 20”. Photo by author, May 2021.

An example is The Nightjar, created by placing the owl’s body onto a sheet of paper coated with cyanotype chemistry under the ultraviolet rays of the sun. Areas exposed to the sun darken into shades of blue. The weight and form of the body’s contact on the paper documents the proportion of a one-to-one relationship—the body as it is. The resulting image is seen as a negative, or absence. A ghostly white form captures the essence of a spirit, rather than the detailed clarity a camera would provide. Handling the body with care and intention, I considered the memorial imprint a collaboration with sun, wind, and water—a practice in itself.

At times a single image, such as one made on a digital camera, feels finished as soon as I make it, but at other times, it asks for more. This is where alternative print processes, layering of images, bookmaking, writing, sculpture and other forms come into play as a physical connection.

Public Land and National Belonging

These Grand Places was prompted by seeing a list of federally protected public land to be reviewed for de-regulation under the former Administration, published in 2017. My heart ached when I saw many beloved places I had spent time upon. The history of conservation and the establishment of the National Park System and Bureau of Land Management is a topic for another essay, but for context, thinking about these larger systems and political bodies informs my creative response.

In 2018 I took a position as a professor in the Art Department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW-Madison). Shortly after I arrived, I was invited to a one-on-one First Nations Cultural Landscape Tour with UW-Madison Indigenous Education coordinator Omar Poler. During our walk, he posed the question, “What if we were to look at this place in a different way, through new eyes, how would that change how we acted?” I had already begun this project informally, looking at how both myself and others use the land we live on, but this question introduced a new philosophical idea, “How can we see differently?”

Panorama, Giant Sequoia National Monument, California, toned cyanotype contact prints from 4×5 black and white film negatives. Photo by author, September 2019.

I had been working out of the back of my car or a backpack and tent, and felt the limitations of not having dedicated space and facilities for extended visits. In the spring of 2019, I received a Grand Challenge Seed Grant from the School of Education with three major aims: build a mobile research studio (MRS) favoring sustainable energy sources, develop a methodology to gather material, and urgent travel to sites under review. I began to work with Dr. Giri Venkataraman, Professor of Engineering Education at UW-Madison, on a collaborative design for the MRS. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, campus and facility shutdowns, and supply shortages, I paused on the building of the MRS, and instead made shorter trips into public spaces, which were now more populated with a different kind of user, many seeking respite in the outdoors. By late 2020 I modified a 20’ travel trailer into a live/work space powered by solar panels installed on the roof. 

On a snowy day in January 2021, I left Madison, Wisconsin for six months of field research. I headed first to the US-México border. I had lived near the border in Arizona and New Mexico and photographed the area many times over the years. This desert space is a uniquely politicized environment, with an uncertain future of border walls and oil wells. In southern Utah, both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments had been reduced significantly in size in 2016. I had my first backpacking experience in Bears Ears twenty years earlier. However, this time I was returning with focused intention and the live/work functionality of the MRS.  These self-designed, site-specific residencies have proven essential to understanding place, people, and the politics of protection. 

Van amidst sandy desert.
The MRS (mobile research studio) in the field near the US-México border, Coronado National Forest, Arizona. Photo by author, January 2021.
Four images of a van and a peek into its inside view.
A peek inside the MRS. Photo by author, January 2021.
Border patrol van image next to an image of rocky mountains.
Portrait of a Border Patrol agent (with self) at the end of the road, Coronado National Forest, Arizona, archival pigment prints (from digital capture). Image by author, 2021.
Cactus zoomed in through lens.
Baby Hawks + Saguaro, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Arizona, archival pigment print. Image by author, April 2021.

Using the methodology of immersive experience—taking time to listen and experience rather than assume knowledge—I gather stories from those I encounter in the field. Transcending simple conclusions, the following questions guide this project: “Are we loving our public lands to death? What do we return? Who is welcome?” What is meant by “public” land and how do we define “national identity”? Since I embarked on this project, these questions feel increasingly poignant as the nation continues to reckon with social, environmental, and racial justice, and the effects of climate crisis and extreme weather, including floods, drought, record-setting temperatures and ongoing wildfires. These crises are occurring amidst an increasingly politically polarized landscape with elevated hostility, lawsuits, and in some cases, violence. 

Border wall alongside fallen tree.
Fallen Saguaro + Border Wall, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona, ziatype from 4×5 film negative, 15” x 12”. Image by author, December 2019.
Border wall stretching alongside canyon.
US-México border wall construction, near Guadalupe Canyon, Coronado National Forest, Arizona, archival pigment print. Image by author, January 2021.
Border wall alongside road.
San Pedro River National Conservation Area, Arizona, archival pigment print. Image by author, February 2021,
Blue flag waving amidst cacti in desert.
Humanitarian Water Station, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Arizona, archival pigment print. Image by author, April 2021.
Cacti amidst a desert landscape.
US-México border wall construction, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona. Photo by author, 2019, toned cyanotype contact print from 4×5 film negative, printed 2020.

Preserving Memorial Sites

Three Birds, After the Fire, Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, New Mexico, 6” x 22”. Image by author, April 2021.

These Grand Places visits sites on public land, imaging sites of trauma, crisis or change instigated by the immeasurable, but palpable, effects of human activity and climate crisis. I consider these as memorial sites illustrating a larger kind of loss.

In October 2021, the current Administration restored the original boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments. Currently, land management plans are being developed with the Inter-Tribal Coalition that brought the preservation request to the Department of the Interior. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition was founded by leaders from the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe who are “unified in the effort to protect this landscape we call Hoon’Naqvut, Shash Jáa, Kwiyagatu Nukavachi, Ansh An Lashokdiwe, in our Native languages, all of which mean “Bears Ears.”

Considering the history of the colonizing lens of photography, and in response to the request to protect and honor the place of Bears Ears, I’ve been ruminating on how to show this place without dominating it, or revealing locations of special sites that have been prone to vandalism and abuse by others who do not agree with its protection. In my current iteration, I am sharing stories and vignettes.

white clouds against a blue background
Clouds Gathering above the Bears Ears, Bears Ears National Monument, Utah, cyanotype on sumi paper, 10″x13″, Photo by author, May 2021.

The image on the left (along with The Nightjar mentioned earlier in this post) came after a day on a rigorous hike to an ancient sacred dwelling. The visit was profound, a deep marking of existence across human, geological, and celestial time.

It is dark on my drive back to camp, and I strike an owl flying across the road. I am utterly distraught. The islander in me feels the omen of such a killing, and I weep at the death of a beautiful creature by my careless actions. I bring the nightjar home to camp and in the morning sun honor its life through making a memorial imprint, a cyanotype. The wind picks up and the clouds form over the Bears Ears. I point my lens to the sky, then quickly pack up camp to leave before the storm arrives. 

The Process and Tradition of Ukiyo-e

Throughout my practice, I have drawn on cultural tradition and aesthetics from my Japanese heritage. Considering images of the landscape, I turned to the Japanese practice of ukiyo-e, a printmaking tradition which depicted the activity of humans in the natural world. These “pictures of the floating world” were popular during the Edo period and accessible to ordinary people. At my Grandma Takatani’s house in Hawai’i last summer, I came across old postcards from our roadtrips. The technicolor has faded and the edges curl in the humidity. I think of these concurrently treasured reproductions of Japanese landscapes in the ukiyo-e tradition, and photographic postcards of the American landscape. 

Landscape shot of reservoir and hills behind it.
Powell Reservoir on author’s birthday. Photo by author, January 13, 2022, archival pigment print from color film negative test print, 14”x11”.
Collage of debris from shoreline.
Excerpt from “A birthday walk along the shoreline,” Powell Reservoir, Glen Canyon National Recreation Site. Images by author, January 13, 2022, artist’s book of archival pigment prints, 4”x200”, printed in residence at University of Arizona, January 2024.
Recreation and National Identity, Powell Reservoir, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Photo by author, 2022, archival pigment print, 40”x30”.

Exploring place through a typological approach, the artist book provides a visual form for mapping a walk. I photographed lost objects revealed along the receding shoreline of the shrinking reservoir at Lake Powell, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The book contains twenty images of detritus, exhibited as a continuous line in the form of an accordion book (150 inches long).

This project builds on lifelong concepts in my work on place, belonging, and the care with which we move through the world as artists. Through deep engagement and time spent on site, These Grand Places uncovers the complexities of the current geopolitical and environmental moment, while also illuminating the beauty of public lands. 

Featured image: Rainbow + Border Wall, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona, archival pigment print. Photo by author, April 2021.

Tomiko Jones’ photography and multidisciplinary installations explore social, cultural, and geopolitical transitions, considering the twin crises of too much and too little in the age of climate change. Running themes of ecological concerns, questions of belonging, and activated cultural traditions are present throughout her projects. Jones was a Resident Artist at Museé Niépce, France, and a Fellow at The Camargo Foundation, France. Jones received her MFA and Certificate in Museum Studies from the University of Arizona, Tucson, and has held academic teaching appointments in several locations across the United States. She is an Assistant Professor in the Art Department, School of Education at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Website. Contact.

These Grand Places, a multi-layered project integrating photography, sculpture, video, artist books and narrative, premieres in January 2025 in Jones’ mid-career solo exhibition “The Infinite Intimate” at the Center for Visual Art in Denver, Colorado during the Month of Photography, from January 3 to March 22, 2025.