Q&A: Sarah Christianson — When the Landscape is Quiet Again



What is it that interests you about photography? Being able to lose myself in the landscape and express my innermost emotions through the camera—especially those feelings that are lurking somewhere in the background that I haven’t been able to verbalize. The act of photographing is highly meditative for me. I also like having a record of time and place and people. Our family photo albums are very precious to me, and I think about this and the longevity of images when I’m photographing. Who will see these after I’m gone? What will they think? What is the worst thing about city life? Traffic, noise, congestion. They make me miss the wide-open spaces and quiet at the farm in North Dakota. What part of the planet would you like to explore? Norway & Scandinavia. I took a short, whirlwind trip there in 2008 and would love to go back and explore more in-depth. I would love to visit at the heights of summer and winter, above the Artic Circle to experience the midnight sun and total lack thereof. Pick a field of science to be an expert in. I’ve always wanted to be an archaeologist. Traveling to new places, digging things out of the ground that haven’t been seen in ages, and interpreting the history of people and places through these items greatly appeals to me. What is the next book you want to read? Currently, I’m halfway through James Michener’s “Alaska.” I love historical fiction, sweeping epics, and anything that is rooted in place and time (surprise, surprise!)—those are my go-to kind of stories. I keep a stack of books on my nightstand, so I always have something to read next. Some of the books in the pile include “The Secret Lives of Glaciers” by M Jackson, “The Bird King” by G. Willow Wilson, and “The Best Coast: A Road Trip Atlas: Illustrated Adventures along the West Coast’s Historic Highways,” by my amazing friend Chandler O’Leary.

Most used camera? For making my work, it’s a toss-up between my Toyo 4×5 Field Camera and my Pentax 6×7. But for everyday snapshots, it’s my camera phone because it’s always with me. What object do you want? A darkroom! Now that my husband and I have bought our first house in Oakland, I am eager to renovate the lower level and put one down there. To make my black and white work now, I am renting Bob Dawson’s darkroom in his home in San Francisco. I’ve always dreamed of having my own home darkroom and can’t wait to make that happen. But if a whole room doesn’t count as an “object,” then the next single item I would want is a metal detector. I’m a huge fan of the television series “The Detectorists,” and think it would be great fun to look for “treasures.” I already obsessively collect rocks and shells and other interesting bits on my walks and adventures, so metal detecting seems like a natural progression. Plus, I now have a garage to store the equipment! What object do you need? My grandparents’ antique dining table. It’s a gorgeous circular, dark wood table with carved legs that expands with leaves to seat 12 people. I’ve been storing it at my parents’ farm in North Dakota for the past two years because it was too big for our flat in San Francisco. Our house in Oakland, though, has a proper dining room, and I can’t wait to bring the table out here and use it. Describe a cheap thrill. Hanging out with my nephew and four nieces, who are 6.5 years of age and younger. They say and do the weirdest, silliest, and most imaginative things, and I absolutely love it. Exhausting, but totally worth it. What is your plan for the next 24 hours? To read a bit before going to bed tonight. Tomorrow, help my friend Andreanne Michon finish de-installing her exhibit at SF Camerawork.

Sarah Christianson (b. 1982) grew up on a four-generation family farm in the heart of eastern North Dakota’s Red River Valley (an hour north of Fargo). Immersed in that vast expanse of the Great Plains, she developed a strong affinity for its landscape. This connection to place has had a profound effect on her work: despite moving to San Francisco in 2009, she continues to document the subtleties and nuances of the Midwestern landscape and experience through long-term projects.

Christianson earned an MFA in photography from the University of Minnesota. Her work has been exhibited internationally and can be found in the collections of Duke University, the National Musuem of Photography in Copenhagen, and several institutions in the Midwest. She has received grants from the San Francisco Arts Commission and the Center for Cultural Innovation. Christianson’s first book, Homeplace (Daylight Books, Fall 2013), documents the history and uncertain future of her family’s farm by interweaving her images with old snapshots and historical documents culled from her personal archive. Her current project, When the Landscape is Quiet Again, examines the oil boom occurring in western North Dakota. Throughout her work, she uses her personal experiences and connection to the land to evoke a strong sense of place, history, and time.

To see more of Sarah Christianson’s work visit — Website.

  1. 1.  Well site carved out of bluffs near the Badlands, August 2013
  2. 2. Sweet Crude Travel Center, July 2014
  3. 3. The Badlands south of Medora, July 2014
  4. 4. The Jorgensons’ backyard, May 2013
  5. 5. Pickup abandoned in the Little Missouri National Grasslands, July
  6. 6. Flaring near the Blue Buttes, January 2015
  7. 7. ECO-Pad well site on my family’s mineral acres, Watford City, ND
  8. 8. Uncle Rick Norgard with Bakken sweet crude oil, July 2016
  9. 9. Intermediate reclamation on new wells, McKenzie County, August 2013
  10. 10. Black Gold Casino, July 2016
  11. 11. Pipeline through Brenda & Richard Jorgenson’s land, May 2013
  12. 12. Tioga Natural Gas Plant, September 2013
  13. 13. Tioga: Oil Capital of North Dakota, September 2017
  14. 14. Saltwater-damaged farmland, Antler, ND, September 2013
  15. 15. Flax from saltwater-damaged field, Antler, ND, September 2013
  16. 16. Pipeline through Brenda & Richard Jorgenson’s land, July 2014
  17. 17. 1 million gallons of saltwater spilled, Ft. Berthold Reservation, July 2014
  18. 18. Drilling rig near Little Missouri National Grasslands, May 2013