“As I grow older I long for peace and quiet,” says Italian-born photographer Priscilla Rattazzi. “That’s why I can see myself moving to Utah, a place with big sky and few people.” Rattazzi’s mention of Utah is not accidental. On September 17 a photo exhibit of her work opened at Staley-Wise Art Gallery in New York. SoHo.
The title of the show is “Hoodooland”. It is a reference to hoodoos, spire-shaped rocks that stand out from the bottom of a dry and arid terrain, typical of Southern Utah. In the course of seven trips to that Western state, Ms. Rattazzi pointed the lens of her camera on Grand Staircase-Escalante, an area of Utah that in recent years became known all over the country for all the wrong reasons.
Declared a National Monument in 1996 under Bill Clinton’s presidency, the area, which is almost 2 million acres wide, enjoyed a protected status for over twenty years. But as soon as Donald Trump took office, he made it a priority to undo steps taken by his Democratic predecessors, including the removal of the protected status of Grand Staircase-Escalante. On December 4, 2017, Trump signed a proclamation that halved the size of the National Monument, reducing it to a pinch more than a million acres. Behind his action there was the desire to open up millions of acres of land to mining and energy drilling. Within days of Trump’s proclamation, a lawsuit ensued. The legal battle is still in litigation and the outcome is anyone’s guess.
“When Trump put those lands in jeopardy I was horrified. How could anyone want to ruin a landscape of such staggering beauty?” said Ms. Rattazzi, sitting among the thirty-six black and white pictures that are part of her exhibit. They will be shown for seven weeks until November 7. “The land is stunning and you feel you are walking on sacred grounds.”
Over the years Ms. Rattazzi, who was born in Rome and has lived in the United States since the mid 70’s, traveled extensively throughout the Southwestern part of the US. “I was in Arizona, Colorado and Nevada, but it was Utah that spoke to me the most,” she said, making reference to the sense of emptiness that comes from the vastness of the land.
It was that feeling of emptiness that in 2011 hit the photographer on a very personal level. “My three kids were grown up and leaving home, and I was starting to experience emptiness in life, an emptiness I saw reflected in the land of Utah.”
She went back two years later and took more photos, yet again just using her iPhone because the idea of a photography exhibit had not materialized yet. Once back in New York, she put them up on a bulletin board — as she had often done throughout her career as a professional photographer — and started noticing something surprising. “Those rock formations — the hoodoos — looked like portraits to me, like an army of creatures.”
In 2016 Ms. Rattazzi traveled to Utah for the third time, exploring the area with Yermo Welsh, a local guide. But it was not until the following year that her interest in Grand Staircase-Escalante took up a new urgency. “When I learned about Trump’s proclamation, I went crazy. I said to myself I have to do this. I have to go back and capture the beauty of that landscape before it is too late.”
Only Yermo knew that it was politics that motivated Rattazzi to go back to the National Monument and capture its mystical elements. “I kept it to myself because in Utah the matter is quite controversial. A lot of local people don’t like the fact that the federal government owns so much of their land. At the same time, there is a strong consciousness that Grand Staircase is a huge tourist attraction that over twenty years brought in over 12 billion dollars. Furthermore, the energy sector seems to have no interest in taking up oil extraction in the area because it is too expensive.”
Whether Utahns stand for or against the Trump administration plan to allow mining and energy drilling does not change Rattazzi’s fondness for the people of that state. “They are the nicest people. They were welcoming of me, both as a New Yorker and a European, because they appear to be very tolerant and they embrace immigrants.” In that regard, many voters in Utah don’t seem to be pro-Trump, as it appeared in 2016 when in the general elections Trump won with only 45.5 percent of the vote. “Case in point is the senator from their state, Mitt Romney,” explains Rattazzi. “He is the only prominent Republican in the Senate to have broken ranks with Trump”.
Seven visits to Utah made Rattazzi realize that nobody can truly understand the current political mood without visiting the middle of the country and the West. “One thing is clear: people there find the coastal elites insufferable and the further you move away from Washington the more Washington is hated.”