Laura McPhee: River of No Return Opens May 17 at Kansas City’s Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art

In her large-scale photographs—each measuring six by eight feet—Laura McPhee says “you feel the past and the present in one place.” The exhibition Laura McPhee: River of No Return looks at the landscape and culture of the American West with a special focus on the Sawtooth Valley in central Idaho, a desolate part of the United States. The exhibition is on view May 17–September 22, 2013, at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri. Admission is free.

©Laura McPhee, Judy Tracking Radio-Collared Wolves from Her Yard, Summer Range, H-Hook Ranch, Custer County, Idaho, 2004, Collection of the Alturas Foundation and courtesy of Carroll and Sons, Boston

©Laura McPhee, Judy Tracking Radio-Collared Wolves from Her Yard, Summer Range, H-Hook Ranch, Custer County, Idaho, 2004, Collection of the Alturas Foundation and courtesy of Carroll and Sons, Boston

Photographer Laura McPhee began this body of work in 2003 as the first resident artist supported by the Alturas Foundation. By 2008 she had traveled to the Sawtooth Valley nine times, photographing the ranches, creeks, mountain ranges, and people. The exhibition is comprised of 27 photographs of the Sawtooth Valley, pictured at various times throughout the year. These monumental photographs balance the majesty of mountains and terrain of the American West with the everyday life of the Valley’s inhabitants and visitors. In one photograph, a car leaves a dust trail across the expansive landscape. In another, a woman in a flowing gown tracks radio-collared wolves.

McPhee’s works also raise issues about the impact of humans on the land and the tensions among ranchers, hunters, environmentalists, and recreationists. She captures images of the region’s beauty that, in some ways, is a victim to its “endless” resources. Mining, land development, and other uses have left imprints—some permanent—on the landscape of the Sawtooth Valley. Her lush images—made with a large-format camera and printed using traditional photographic methods—envelope and engage viewers in their sheer scale and poetic intimacy. McPhee’s choice of camera, photographic paper, and method of printing reflect a bygone technology, now replaced with digital cameras and printers.

The artist’s photographs also contribute to the long tradition and the romance of depicting America’s frontier. From Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Remington to photographers Timothy O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, and Ansel Adams, artists have been drawn to the grandeur of the landscape and the promise of space and independence it holds. Perhaps as a nod to those artists and explorers who came before her, McPhee gives her works lengthy titles noting the time of year, location, and other pertinent information that viewers might miss.

McPhee’s great-grandmother was an early settler in the American West. In the early part of the 20th century, her great-grandmother left her husband in Ohio and traveled throughout western mining towns in Montana, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. She worked as an itinerant schoolteacher and supported her two daughters, including McPhee’s grandmother. McPhee imagines that much of the landscape and the rural—nearly off the grid—experiences remain the same today.

A graduate of Princeton and Rhode Island School of Design, McPhee is a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. She was awarded a Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 1993 and a Fulbright Scholars’ Fellowship in 1998. Her works can be found in museums and collections throughout the United States, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; among others.

A book, titled River of No Return: Photographs by Laura McPhee, accompanies the exhibition.

The Sawtooth Valley is located in central Idaho, surrounded by the Sawtooth, White Cloud, and Salmon River Mountain Ranges. In 1972, some 756,000 acres became the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, established by the federal government. The valley is home to the headwaters of the Salmon River, also known as the River of No Return.

Hours and Admission
The Kemper Museum (4420 Warwick Blvd.) is open 10:00 a.m.–4:00 p.m., Tuesday–Thursday; 10:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., Friday–Saturday; and 11:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m., Sunday. The Museum is closed on Mondays. Admission is free.

Thank you
Support for this exhibition was provided by Alturas Foundation, a family foundation dedicated to the visual arts and American culture. Laura McPhee created River of No Return in the Sawtooth Valley of Idaho during 2003–2006 as the initial Alturas Foundation artist-in-residence.

Support for Kemper Museum is generously provided by the ArtsKC Fund—Arts Council of Metropolitan Kansas City; Francis Family Foundation; Arvin Gottlieb Charitable Foundation, UMB Bank, n.a., Trustee; Karen and Jack Holland; David Woods Kemper Memorial Foundation; William T. Kemper Foundation, Commerce Bank, Trustee; Missouri Arts Council, a state agency; Harry Portman Charitable Trust, UMB Bank, n.a., Trustee; and Jo Ann and William Sullivan.

For more general information about the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, visit