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Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum serves up a podcast hosted by Venus Williams

A woman reads from a paper at a microphone.
Stefano Ceccarelli
Courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art
Venus Williams records the podcast "Widening the Lens: Photography, Ecology, and the Contemporary Landscape" in May.

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“Widening the Lens: Photography, Ecology, and the Contemporary Landscape” isn’t the first podcast from the Carnegie Museum of Art, but it surely has the most famous host: All six episodes are narrated by tennis star Venus Williams, a long-time art collector whom the museum understandably figured would focus attention on its exhibition of contemporary photography-based works exploring heady issues of history and the environment.

The exhibit, which opened in May, includes about 100 works by 19 artists looking at everything from the legacy of colonialism and humanity’s toll on the planet to the possibility for change.

The podcast, written and produced by Chicago-based SandenWolff, launched June 26. All episodes, each running between 37 and 50 minutes, are already available on the museum’s website and on major podcast platforms.

The first, “The Archive,” explores some fundamental issues about landscape photography. Everybody, Williams reminds us, takes landscape photos, but what are we saying with those pictures of sunsets, mountains, and beaches?

Experts surveyed include Princeton professor Rachael Z. DeLue, who notes that, appearances notwithstanding, photography is not objective. Viewers looking at a particular photo or series should always ask who made it, why it was made, and what choices guided its making.

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A prime example cited in the episode is the documenting of the American West in the years after the Civil War, when white people were beginning to colonize it in large numbers. The most influential images were made by photographers employed by the federal government, which had an interest in portraying the land as both attractive and empty — that is, ripe for expansion and extractive industry.

DeLue contends such impressions helped pave the way for the genocide of Native Americans there — a people whose own photographs would have expressed a very different perspective, if they had had the means to make or disseminate them.

Also in the episode, Native American artist and photographer Sky Hopinka discusses how someone can develop a real relationship with the land, for instance, by learning its history of human habitation or even meeting people who still live there.

In episode 2, “The Archive, Revisited,” Williams — noting that the land itself is a sort of archive of geologic activity — introduces us to geologist Marcia Bjornerud. Bjornerud says that though federal documentation of the West was grounded in the desire for resource extraction, those same photos can serve new purposes, such as providing baselines for studying the progress of erosion or the environmental effects of damming rivers to create reservoirs.

Artists with work in “Widening the Lens,” of course, have their say, too. A.K. Burns discusses the body of work “Before the Wake,” which the Carnegie exhibit excerpts. It consists of Burns’ augmented versions of historic photos by Tad Nichols, who documented Glen Canyon before the Colorado River was dammed to create Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona, starting in the 1950s.

Burns calls this project a way to “activate” an archive many would see as dormant. Burns also seeks to critique the American ideology associated with landscapes, which keep our bodies separate from the land — and even to interrogate still photography itself, about which Burns is “deeply ambivalent” because it can mislead us with static images that, however beautiful, leave out much more than they include.

And Pulitzer Prize-winning Mojave American poet Natalie Diaz broadens the discussion further with readings from her long poem “Exhibits from the American Water Museum.”

“Widening the Lens” is the Carnegie Museum of Art’s third venture into podcasting. After determining that the exhibit was a good fit for a podcast, they worked with international PR firm Sutton to develop a list of possible celebrity hosts, says Dan Leers, the museum’s curator of photography. As she did in tennis, Williams “pretty quickly rose to the top of the pile,” says Leers.

One factor was the 44-year-old Williams’ growing interest in contemporary art.

“One day I just decided that I wanted to acquire and live with work. So I asked a friend of mine, “How do I start?’” she told Cultured magazine in an interview published in December. “That’s maybe like my late 20s at that point. There’s nothing like living with a piece; it brings so much joy.”

In the past week, Williams has touted the podcast in her 1.7 million-follower X feed and in a long-form interview in the pages of Vogue.

You’ve got plenty of time to catch up: While the exhibit runs through Jan. 12, the podcasts will remain available indefinitely. “Widening the Lens” also includes a series of free, themed Saturday workshops with environmental leaders, researchers, artists and journalists. The July 13 workshop is sold out, but seats remain for the Aug. 3 event, “Sky Visioning.”

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: