From “Approaching Garland” (2020). (Stephen Ross Goldstein)

This photographer’s images explore the mysteries of northern Arizona

I grew up in what you might call a concrete jungle. My parents were missionaries to a small Portuguese enclave off the coast of China called Macao. At the time, there were about 500,000 people living an area about 1½ square miles. The United States has always seemed like a foreign place to me, especially rural areas with wide open spaces.

Nevertheless, these places fascinate me. I’ve spent most of my U.S. life living in metropolitan areas, and the wide open areas in the West aren’t familiar at all. So, right off the bat, photographer Stephen Ross Goldstein’s work grabbed my interest.

Goldstein reached out to me a few months ago with two bodies of work exploring areas in Arizona. The first group of pictures is from a project called “Approaching Garland,” and the second is an ongoing project Goldstein is pursuing in the “high country” of Arizona.

All of the work is black and white and is flecked with a sense of mystery. This is reinforced by Goldstein’s thinking of the link between the two. He told me that “Approaching Garland” “may or may not be a prelude to my current ongoing project, yet to be determined.”

Even more interesting is that the second project, currently untitled, is described by Goldstein as such: “This work explores the people and landscapes of a fictional place in the ‘high country’ of Arizona. The project is meant to portray an imagined place far away from the suburbs that I’ve known in my life. A dream of a fictional place to show the vast and lonely wilderness of Northern and Eastern Arizona.”

Both projects, linked or not, share a lyrical sensibility I can only imagine come from a place as wide open as rural Arizona. But there’s another connection. Goldstein’s photos are a little oblique, filled with metaphorical semaphores. In “Approaching Garland,” there’s a hand stretched toward the sky holding an animal’s jawbone — mysterious, reminiscent of fairy tale and ancient imagery.

The second project contains visual clues about another inchoate story. There are wide open plains with foreboding skies, a structure decaying amid the wild vegetation of rural space. And, like “Approaching Garland,” it is punctuated by portraits of the people who live in all of this mystery — mysterious themselves — one holds an ax, another wears a kilt.

I’ve written before about how I think photography can function in a literary manner. For me, both of Goldstein’s bodies are cut from a similar cloth that reminds me of a short story, or even vignettes of some nascent film. They’re rich with the possibilities of multiple interpretations. What are they about? That’s for you and me to find out from the clues they each lay in front of us.

The following description of Goldstein’s inspiration to start working in the rural Southwest is apropos of the work here:

“Growing up, my family and I would take weekend trips to Northern Arizona from Phoenix. I started looking out the window as a kid at the landscapes of Northern Arizona and I believe this is where my interest in the rural American Southwest began …”

l love the wide open possibilities both these bodies of work present. It’s a pleasure to wander in and out of the photos and explore the stories they evoke in my mind. When I was a kid and on road trips with my family, I would sometimes stick my hand out the window and move it up and down through the rushing air. Looking at Goldstein’s work reminds me of that. I can almost feel that long lost sensation.

You can see more of Goldstein’s work on his website, here.