Our Invisible Presence

The third installment of a five-part series on new directions in landscape photography, in which photo editor Aaron Rothman explores work that is moving beyond the lines drawn between those who portray unspoiled nature and those who document its transformation by humans.


One of the major challenges for photographers who seek to portray our complex relationship with the land is that the discrete physical manifestations of our presence — the stuff we build and the marks we leave — tell, at best, an incomplete story. Many of our most important interactions with landscape, and our most profound effects on it, leave traces that are invisible, diffuse, too fast or too slow, too large or too small to be contained within the photographic frame. The purely visual medium of photography seems inadequate to the task of considering the human history and cultural traditions of a place, political boundaries, secret or hidden land use, or incremental alterations of the environment like climate change. The artists presented here, in the third installment of this series on landscape photography, have found compelling ways to investigate subjects that usually fall below or beyond our perceptual threshold.

Spanish photographers María Bleda and José María Rosa, who work collaboratively under the name Bleda y Rosa, make work that explores human histories embedded within landscape. Photographing ancient settlements, significant historical events and even soccer fields, Bleda y Rosa are concerned with the sense of accumulated time in a given landscape. For the series Europa, a continuation of their ongoing project Campos de Batalla. they have photographed the sites of famous battles throughout Europe. The panoramic diptychs show no direct evidence of bloodshed, only the name of the place and battle and the date. But the openness and airiness of the photographs somehow charges these otherwise unexceptional landscapes with the weight of history and memory. The gap separating the diptych halves subtly undermines the idea that these places and what occurred there can be understood from a single perspective.

New York-based photographer Richard Mosse’s series Infra examines the connections between a contemporary military conflict and its landscape. Over the past several years, Mosse has followed the seemingly endless conflict in the Congo not with the normal tools of a journalist in a warzone, but with an artist’s large-format view camera and a discontinued color infrared film, designed for camouflage detection and foliage surveys, that turns the lush green of the jungle into a disconcerting hot pink. The photographs give us all the information we expect from photojournalism — showing the parties involved, their grievances, the grim facts of death and suffering — but Mosse’s images go beyond this, the altered coloration evoking the profound sense of dislocation that people must feel in a place of continual war. The magenta hillsides are somehow fitting, the landscape inverted by the incomprehensibility of the human activity that it holds. The colors seems more than symbolic. If the land were red, we could say, tritely, that it is soaked in blood and move on. But the electric pink is harder to pin down. It overtakes everything, leaving us without reason or explanation.

Stephen Tourlentes, a photographer from Massachusetts, works in a more traditional vein, making black and white photographs of prisons across America. Rather than documenting the conditions of life inside, or trying to tell the stories of the people whose lives have been affected by the prison industry, Tourlentes steps way back, showing his prisons only as a distant glow in a nocturnal landscape. This understated approach has surprising power: in place of tragic or shocking details we are asked to confront the ordinariness and the ubiquity of prisons in American life. In its own way, this is perhaps more disturbing than anything a close-up view could offer. I wonder whose bedroom is lit at night by the glow from the Delaware Death House, in Smyrna. How many such places have I driven by without really noticing? What else is happening in our daily landscapes, hidden in plain sight?

Patrick Manning, a photographer based in New Mexico, also uses seemingly straightforward techniques to explore something so pervasive in landscape that it becomes nearly impossible to discern. Manning’s Delta series looks at erosion caused in large part by the extensive network of man-made channels and canals in the Mississippi River Delta. Manning’s challenge is to portray, as he says, “changes so vast that they become the environment itself.” He has established a formal template for the images: each panoramic print is horizontally bisected by the horizon line, sky above, usually an expanse of water below, and a thin strip of green land in between; occasional structures or boats dot the landscape. The prints are unrealistically light, with the sky and the water all but washed out. The formal repetition and the lightness of the prints combine to create the sense that the photographs do not really show their subject — can’t really show it. We cannot see the lands that have sunk and eroded away, but we feel their absence.

About the Series: New Landscape Photography

A five-part series on new directions in landscape photography, curated by Places’ photo editor Aaron Rothman.

Aaron Rothman, “Our Invisible Presence,” Places Journal, August 2012. Accessed 10 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/120814

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