‘The Pause And The Awe’: A Conversation With St. Louis Landscape Photographer Scott Angus
When was the last time a landscape stopped you in your tracks?
For St. Louis-based photographer Scott Angus, that questions demands less of an answer than a ritual. As the author of “Snake Medicine,” a collection of photographs that document the natural world throughout the American Midwest and Southwest, he’s made an almost-religious practice of using his camera as a tool to cultivate awe.
The specific spaces that Angus is drawn to are unique in one colossal way—they have all been the sites of sacred worship, burial or spiritual connection for centuries of indigenous and modern Americans. And though no humans appear in the pages of the book, Angus’ images challenge you to feel their presence nonetheless—and just maybe, to slow down a bit yourself, and leave your own invisible trace on the holy places in your hometown.
We spoke with Angus about stillness, getting lost and how an encounter with a Black Moccasin snake helped launch him on a path to becoming an artist.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to your career as a photographer.
I originally grew up working on a farm and ranch in Colorado. I always loved photographing wildlife and the landscape and going on hikes and exploring the outdoors with my camera—and avoiding doing the harder work. I wanted to be a photojournalist, and the University of Missouri at Columbia has an amazing photojournalism program, so that’s where I ended up.
What attracted you to photographing sacred earth sites?
I actually started the project on a cross-country road trip. I was moving to attend graduate school in California—I was living in D.C. at the time, so that’s where the trip started—and I decided to stop at as many sacred sites as I could along the way. Growing up in Colorado, I was always attracted to Native American sites and places that hold a sort of energy. I believe that people leave their energy behind. I wanted to experience the pause and the awe.
We live in a world, now, where we just click with our phones at every opportunity. People forget to slow down. When I became a professor—I teach photography at Maryville University—I started teaching a class for iPad and camera-phone photography. But even in that setting, I want to teach my students and others how to think about photographing landscapes in a more contemplative, or experiential, way.
A lot of people associate landscape photography with artists like Ansel Adams, who are drawn to parts of the natural world that are completely untouched by man. What drew you to sites that were—and continue to—absolutely ‘touched’ by human hands, often because they’re worshiped by indigenous peoples?
Traditionally, landscape photography takes the human out of the elements. The traces of human experience are gone, so the landscape is, in a way, isolated. What I try to do is to rebuild that connection between the energy of human experience and the energy of the landscape; [I find a lot of that in] places where Native Americans held rituals, where humans are buried. My next project is on Civil War sites in the Midwest—that has a similar attraction for me.
Why not go to the opposite extreme and document, say, urban landscapes? So much of the city of St. Louis is built on top of burial mounds just like the Cahokia mounds, which you photographed in “Snake Medicine.” Why do you find yourself more drawn to a site where the human influence has been visibly reclaimed by natural forces?
I think it actually shows great hope for nature, that nature can come back and retake a space. The mounds, of course, are fascinating, because [they were part of] the largest city in North America at the time. They’re not actually very pretty—they’re just mounds—so it was a challenge to photograph them. It was pretty bleak. [Laughs]. I can be very negative and doomsdayish, with [the current state of] politics and environmentalism and all that. But I think at the end of the day, there’s a sense of hope that the world will correct itself, whether humans are here or not. It’s a dark optimism, I guess. [Laughs]
You reference your personal sense of spirituality a lot in the book. What are a few images in the book that evoke that spirituality particularly powerfully, for you?
Probably my favorite image in the book is from the Escalante Plateau. My father and I used to go camping and hiking in that area. My father’s a pastor, so he’s very religious, while I think of myself as more spiritual. It’s always moving and exciting to be there together because you can just imagine the early people there. It has this amazing sense of spirituality that other places don’t have.
The Cahokia photograph is really special to me, too. I went out there a number of times to photograph and experience it when I first moved back to St. Louis. I was walking along the path, and I saw this giant Black Moccasin snake. It really stopped me in my tracks, and I couldn’t get around it, so I just had to stay there and pause. It just kind of looked at me, and I looked at it. The Native Americans believe that there are spirits in snakes and that they’re very powerful magical creatures. I didn’t have a lot of fear. It was this strange sense of respect. I’ve had many experiences around the world, actually, where snakes have stopped me and slowed me down.
So many of the images in this book were taken in the Mountain West, which we so heavily associate with that sense of awe and of a healing, ancient presence that you’re describing. Do you often find that same sense in your home in the Midwest?
I actually find the middle of America—I call it the river country—to have a lot of sacred energy. But it is not so obvious. You have to wander more. It’s not like a place like Arizona; you can’t just pull up to a roadside where there’s a Kodak marker that says, “stop here for an award-winning photograph!”
In the West, people are invited to explore these big parks. But in the Midwest, we have the same resources, just on a different scale. You have to be more attentive to slowing down and finding the interesting places. And you might have to drive onto a country road to get there.
All images courtesy of Scott Angus.