How Photographer Elaine Mayes Reimagined Colorado Landscapes

Elaine Mayes Autolandscape (tractor in field)
“Autolandscape, Colorado” © Elaine Mayes 1971 | Smithsonian American Art Museum

Roll the clock back to 1971—a year Denver was abuzz with cultural activity and newsworthy unveilings.

The Denver Botanic Gardens cut the ribbon for its beloved Boettcher Memorial Conservatory. Museum goers took their first peek at the Denver Art Museum’s iconic Martin Building. Larimer Square received historic district designation. Historian Paul Stewart founded the Black American West Museum. English rock band The Who shook the Denver Coliseum. And in the city’s periphery, boundary-pushing conceptual photographer Elaine Mayes passed through rural Colorado, snapping photographs from her moving car window as she documented the variable landscapes of the American road.

Elaine Mayes Autolandscape (stop sign)
“Autolandscape, Colorado” © Elaine Mayes 1971 | Smithsonian American Art Museum

Driving from California to Massachusetts via the country’s interstate highway system, Mayes chronicled the shifting scenery she viewed around every bend in the road. Her camera shutter snapped and clicked as she traversed rural Colorado with her husband and four cats in tow. Unadorned images of rolling hay fields, laboring tractors, still-life stop signs, roadside diners, small-town storefronts, and humble homesteads were the subjects she sought. Capturing these prosaic scenes for her Autolandscape photograph series, Mayes aimed to challenge the traditional notion of what an artistic landscape should look like.


Nowhere to be found in her collection of works from Autolandscape are towering fourteeners, furious rivers, or idyllic alpine lakes with snow-capped mountains reflected like a mirror upon the water’s unbroken surface. Colorado offered Mayes an abundance of such majestic scenery, but she favored the simplicity of the unremarkable roadside landscapes we so often tune out when driving endless stretches of humdrum roads.

Elaine Mayes Autolandscape (Intermountain Farmers Building)
“Autolandscape, Colorado” © Elaine Mayes 1971 | Smithsonian American Art Museum

Mayes gave little regard to the position of the sun in the sky or the presence of shadows cluttering her photographs. Occasionally, a reflection of her car’s interior, cast by the sun grazing her window, can be seen in the edge of the frame. It’s the sort of imperfection other photographers might choose to weed out when compiling their works. For Mayes, it added texture to her images.


The absence of descriptive details in the titles of her photographs added texture too. Mayes only referenced the states in which her images were captured. None of the roads, towns, or settings ever received mention. Viewers of her works may have found these details interesting, but Mayes deemed them unessential within the framework of her ambition to push the envelope on what constituted a landscape worth featuring in gelatin silver prints.

Elaine Mayes Autolandscape (roadside home)
“Autolandscape, Colorado” © Elaine Mayes 1971 | Smithsonian American Art Museum

When people appeared in the photographs from Autolandscape, they were merely there by happenstance. Few, if any, likely realized their likeness had been captured in her lens. They will have lived their whole lives unaware their presence in that moment, in 1971, was forever memorialized by a free-thinking photographer, whose works now reside in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and other esteemed institutions.

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