A Tiny Toy Telescope

Two American photographers play with deep cultural fantasies about wilderness and expedition.


It’s high summer, and I’m driving through the California Sierras with my family. We’ve made this trip many times, and the scene is familiar: towering pine forests, undulating granite masses, expansive alpine meadows. As I speed over smooth asphalt roads in air-conditioned comfort, listening to the bad pop music my daughter has picked out, I find myself fantasizing about what it would be like to apprehend these mountains as uncharted territory. What did the first explorers think, cresting the pass to find a glistening blue lake or verdant river valley? I can never resist that daydream, no matter how removed from my current situation.

I’m not alone in this fantasy, of course. The imaginary encounter with wilderness is central to the American conception of landscape, and particularly to the traditions of landscape painting and photography. In the work presented here, photographers John Mann and Drew Nikonowicz play with these deep cultural fantasies about exploration and expedition.

Mann photographs “landscapes” that he creates in his studio, evoking imaginary worlds with the simplest of means. His series Pack Ice uses common materials and low-tech illusions to conjure the wonder of an arctic expedition. Sometimes his methods are literal: a tiny toy telescope and model plane wing are easily scaled up by the mind. Other times he plays the magician: crumpled paper on the floor becomes a snowy island in the middle of a dark sea; black paper pricked with holes is a clear, starry sky. Many of the best images are more ambiguous. A photo of cut shapes of paper lined up on oil-stained concrete doesn’t resolve into a recognizable scene, but it nevertheless invites us into the realm of fantasy.

In the series Drift, Mann prints photographic negatives which transform small, dark rocks into towering, luminescent icebergs. As with Pack Ice, the means of illusion are intentionally obvious. The images force us to hold in our minds both what we actually see — a piece of paper, an unremarkable stone — and what we want to see — the beautiful peril of the arctic wilderness.


Discerning the line between fantasy and reality is trickier in Drew Nikonowicz’s work. In This World and Others Like It, he combines photographs of real landscapes with computer-generated images of fictitious scenes. In some cases, the fabrications are easy to identify, as when Nikonowicz lets us see the seam between a virtual glacier’s surface textures. In other cases, we can’t be sure. The digital images create a powerful sense of doubt that makes it disturbingly hard to trust even the landscapes that seem real.

Like Mann, Nikonowicz also uses common materials to evoke natural environments, showing that our minds can generate an imagined landscape as well as any computer software. Still lifes of rocks are teasing reminders of the material reality of the land. And yet that materiality is kept at a distance. Diagrams and illustrations assert the primacy of technological aids in our perception of landscape. One standout image bears the coordinates 38°56’34.84″ N 92°19’21.28″ W — the Life Sciences building on the University of Missouri Campus — and shows the photographic negative of a forested mountainside taped to a window that looks out over a fraternity house. The tonalities are reversed, though, so our sense of reality is flipped. The pictured negative reads as normal, its vision of a pristine elsewhere superseding the view of “the real” that is right outside the window.

Aaron Rothman, John Mann, and Drew Nikonowicz, “A Tiny Toy Telescope,” Places Journal, September 2015. Accessed 01 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/150921

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