Public Discourse: Photographs by Robert Dawson

Images act as a catalyst for discussing important issues of today.

Robert Dawson has long been interested in how photography can be used to understand our relationship with the environment and in photography’s ability to shape public awareness and understanding of complex issues surrounding water, land use and our shared commons. Public Discourse: Photographs by Robert Dawson features work spanning 30 years of his career. The photographs on view act as a catalyst for discussions of the important topics of our time.

Exhibition curator and Stanford Professor of Photography Joel Leivick writes in his curatorial statement for Public Discourse, “From the beginning, Robert Dawson has sought to integrate his instinctive attraction to the beauty and truth he perceived in photographic images, with a personal drive to use this aesthetic to convey broader societal messages.”

Public Discourse is on view March 12 to April 21, 2013, at the Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery.
 Dawson will give a talk on April 4 at 4:35 p.m. in ART4, followed by a reception at 5:30 p.m. in the gallery.

The 51 photographs in the exhibition are associated with five distinct projects:

  • The Great Central Valley Project – Between 1982 and 1986, Dawson and Stephen Johnson produced the Great Central Valley Project, a photographic survey and examination of California’s intensely farmed agricultural heartland.
  • The Water in the West Project – Dawson’s photography in the Water in the West Project, which dates from 1984 to the present, evolved from his travels throughout the West and his look at our culture’s relationship to water. Some photographs document abuse while others examine a complex, evolving relationship to water that Dawson hopes to influence with his work.
  • The Global Water Project – After spending 20 years photographing water throughout the American West, Dawson began to explore water in a broader international context in 1999. He began to understand that much of what he learned was relevant for the rest of the world as well. After a 2001 trip to India it became clear that the issue of water was global in scale, which led to the founding of the Global Water project.
  • The Farewell, Promised Land Project – In 1992, Dawson and writer Gray Brechin won the Dorothea Lange/Paul Taylor Prize from the Center For Documentary Studies at Duke University to do the Farewell, Promised Land Project. They spent five years examining the history of, and alternatives to, the destruction of California’s environment. They concluded their project in 1999 by focusing on individuals and organizations attempting to deal with California’s environmental issues on a grass-roots level.
  • The American Public Library Project –There are over 17,000 public libraries in the United States. Dawson began a photographic survey of libraries in 1994 and has since photographed hundreds of libraries in 47 states. Princeton Architectural Press will publish a book from this project in 2014.

Dawson’s photographs have been recognized by a fellowship from the
 National Endowment for the Arts and by a Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize, and are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the National Museum of American Art (Smithsonian Institution); and the Library of Congress. He has been an instructor of photography at Stanford since 1996 and he is founder and co-director of the Water in the West Project.

Well-known for his dedication to teaching at Stanford and San Jose State, among other places, he has been an important figure in Bay Area photographic dialogue for many years. His books include Robert Dawson Photographs (Min Gallery, 1988); The Great Central Valley: California’s Heartland (University of California Press, 1993); Farewell, Promised Land: Waking From the California Dream (UC Press, 1999); and A Doubtful River (University of Nevada Press, 2000).


Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 1-5 p.m. Admission is free. The gallery is located on the Stanford campus, off Palm Drive at 419 Lasuen Mall. Parking is free after 4 p.m. and all day on weekends.