Changing the Channel

At Galveston Artists Residency, film photographer Victoria Sambunaris takes a good long look at the storied coastline.

By William Geoffrey Wood December 10, 2015

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A shot from Victoria Sambunaris' Shifting Baselines: Texas Gulf Coast exhibition at Galveston Artist Residency.

Apprehensive vessels dot the horizon of the Texas Gulf Coast in anticipation for the long journey ahead. The sight can be rather rudimentary for the native Houstonian convoying to and from the beach, but for travel photographer Victoria Sambunaris, it is an artistically loaded view. Sambunaris partners with marine habitat specialist Kristopher Benson to present an original viewpoint of the region’s industry and landscape in the exhibit Shifting Baselines: Texas Gulf Coast, which opened November 28th at the Galveston Artist Residency near the island’s East Beach.

Sambunaris has been traveling throughout America for the last 15 years with little more than a 5-by-7 field camera and the desire to excavate the meaning of the American Dream. “I am a project–based photographer and I work in a particular area of the country between three and seven months per year examining the landscape, history and culture of a place,” she explains.

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Victoria Sambunaris, Shifting Baselines: Texas Gulf Coast, installation shot, Galveston Artist Residency, 2015.

Sambunaris, commissioned by the Galveston Artist Residence, began her project in October of 2014 with Kristopher Benson of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This partnership allowed the project to have a more comprehensive scientific perspective. Kristopher has insight into how industry affects environment and is afforded this expertise based on his work in the Habitat Restoration Division of NOAA.

In addition to the images taken by Sambunaris, there are ephemera that help give viewers a better conclusion of the region. There are 47 marine specimens borrowed from the NOAA and aerial photographs of the region taken in the 1930’s. The balance of scientific and artistic contexts gives this piece a well–rounded and unique composition.

Her work employs methods of symmetry and minimalism that bind well with the enormous ocean liners that anchor in the Galveston port. "The endless lines of ships entering the Houston Ship Channel are a natural extension of my work,” she says. Some of her other photographic collections include images of trucks and trains throughout the country. These pictures create a narrative for her American Dream motif as Sambunaris dissects the infrastructure of our economic system. “I thrive on being in the moment and thinking about the world on a grand scale.”

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Victoria Sambunaris, Shifting Baselines: Texas Gulf Coast, installation shot, Galveston Artist Residency, 2015.

Sambunaris’ labor of love over film comes at a time when digital and iPhone–driven photography tends to stray from meticulous efforts of the older medium. “Working with a 5-by-7 field camera and sheet film warrants acute observation and patience before actually taking a photograph,” she says.

This form of photography also means that she is not able to view her work until she travels back to her home to develop it in a dark room. Sambunaris embraces this method of production as an artistic benefit to the process, especially at a time when editing software may muddle certain aesthetics and creative characteristics. She notes that "the world can be a chaotic place, but somehow I find order through the work and the time involved to make it."

Thru Feb 6. Free. Galveston Artist Residency, 2521 Ships Mechanic Row, in Galveston. 409-974-4446. 

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