Growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, Steven B. Smith couldn’t wait to escape the small, nearly all-Mormon town of Springville, Utah. In those Cold War years, many Mormons believed the apocalypse was imminent, in the form of a nuclear holocaust. “We were truly living in the last days before the Earth would be destroyed and the righteous would be lifted up to heaven,” Smith recalled a few years ago. “The local population was over 85 percent Mormon, and they put enormous pressure on each other to be perfect in general, but specifically because the last days were close at hand … At a fairly young age I realized I did not want to fit in with this culture.”
Smith made it out—today he teaches photography at the Rhode Island School of Design—but he has spent his career documenting the culture and landscape of his youth. In his latest series, Your Mountain is Waiting, he trains his lens on Utah’s metastasizing suburbs, where winding streets of bulky McMansions butt up against the foothills of the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains. No longer exclusively Mormon, these housing developments attract retirees and nouveaux riches from across the country, including plenty of California families fleeing high real estate prices.
Ever since Brigham Young led the Mormons to Utah in the mid-19th century, seeking freedom from persecution, the Church of Latter Day Saints has taken pride in fulfilling the Biblical prophecy that “the wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose” (Isaiah 35:1). As Smith’s photographs demonstrate, today’s suburban pioneers continue that tradition, intentionally or not, by building sprawling golf courses and luxuriant grass lawns in one of the driest states in the country. Partly as a result, the average Utahn consumes a staggering 248 gallons of water a day, nearly triple the American average. “People want to have the grand vista, and they also want to have a perfect backyard,” Smith says.
Smith’s photographs document the backbreaking work required to transform the desert into a Norman Rockwell-worthy slice of Americana. Laborers lay grass sod, construct stone walls, and assemble the fanciful faux-stone sculptures favored by many of these suburbanites. In one especially resonant image, three Hispanic laborers clean an artificial pond while, in the background, a bronze sculpture of a Native American climbs a fake cliff. In another image, a group of prisoners in green-striped uniforms pick up trash behind a parking lot.
“I try to photograph things that are usually invisible to people of a certain class,” Smith explains. To break up the sameness of the suburban streets, he began shooting them on trash pick-up day, “the only day when the houses are differentiated from each other.” Overconsumption, environmental despoliation, economic inequality, tensions over immigration and race—all these hallmarks of the United States circa 2019 come together in Smith’s photographs, which show a privileged yet insecure group of mostly white people trying desperately to hang onto the Cold War-era American dream in the teeth of environmental and demographic reality.
Of course, that’s not the way they see it. When Smith asks people why they moved to Utah suburbs like Ivins, Sandy, or Lehi, he often gets the same answer. “Most people,” he says, “say they are just happy to have a view.”
More Great WIRED Stories
- Gaming’s #MeToo moment and the tyranny of male fragility
- Uncertainty isn’t always a problem. It can be the solution
- Wouldn’t it be great if people could vote on the blockchain?
- Of course citizens should be allowed to kick robots
- Become a musician using apps and a light-up piano
- ? How do machines learn? Plus, read the latest news on artificial intelligence
- ? Upgrade your work game with our Gear team’s favorite laptops, keyboards, typing alternatives, and noise-canceling headphones