Natural Artifice, Artificial Nature

The fourth 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.

Can we draw a meaningful distinction between the natural and the artificial in an era of climate intervention and microbial engineering? The categorical line between the stuff of nature and the stuff of people has always been blurry; as the poet Gary Snyder observes, “There has been no wilderness without some kind of human presence for several hundred thousand years.” 1 And yet we seem to have entered a genuinely new period in our relationship with the planet and in our power to affect the processes of natural systems. Some contend that we have even entered a new geologic era, the Anthropocene. How do we come to terms with this new reality? Do we let go of the idea of nature entirely? Do we incorporate our interventions into a new definition of what is natural — the “next nature” posited by futurist Bruce Sterling and others?

Today no survey of landscape photography can ignore the changing definition of nature in the early 21st century. The work presented here expands the idea of what is natural — and what can be considered beautiful about natural landscapes — to include the effects of technological transformations and other human interventions, impositions and traces.

Bryan Graf — like Matthew Brandt and Chris McCaw, whose work I considered earlier this month — uses the photographic process to manifest qualities of the landscape that are difficult or impossible to convey through straight photography. For his project Wildlife Analysis, Graf, who lives in Maine and New Jersey, photographed sites in New Jersey that have been abandoned because they are environmentally polluted or otherwise inconvenient to develop. These landscapes, he says, are “determined by random dereliction, the discarded debris of our culture grafting itself into the landscape and nature refusing to stop doing its own work.” 2 In photographing these sites, Graf has exposed the film to incidental light leaks, creating obstructive blotches and strange, shifting colors overlaid on the images. We are denied the traditional beauty we expect from the landscape, but this marring of the images creates an unexpectedly organic beauty of its own.

Letha Wilson, a photographer raised in Colorado and living in New York, clearly has an affinity for wilderness landscapes of the West, and her work begins in a traditional, almost reverential mode. But she physically manipulates her photographs — cutting and folding them, marking them with spray paint, pouring concrete over them, integrating them into the architecture of a gallery — to create an experience between the imaged space of the photograph and the actual space occupied by the viewer. A surface of real concrete echoes photographs of rock formations. The undulating curve of a print woven through a gallery wall mimics the slot canyon it pictures. Just as we are not sure where the photograph ends and the object or architecture begins, we find it hard to distinguish what in these works represents the natural world and what is constructed. We also wonder how much that distinction matters.

Kirsten Kay Thoen is a maker of objects incorporating photographs of the natural world which, at first glance, appear to follow recent trends in hip furniture and interior design. (That she is from Brooklyn only heightens the comparison.) But unlike some designers and crafters, whose use of nature imagery is merely decorative, driven by ironic wit or easy sentiment, Thoen’s works are designed around photographs of nature, often enclosed completely within a prism or frame. The relationship between image and object is enigmatic. Do these works conjure nature’s primal power, containing it symbolically, as talismans? Or do they suggest that nature itself has become the symbol, emptied of its power in a world circumscribed by our presence?

Several artists featured earlier in this series focused on light as an elemental power of nature. Christina Seely, a photographer based in San Francisco, also takes light as her subject, but hers is the light of the built environment. For her project Lux, Seely has traveled the world, following NASA maps of the most brightly lit metropolitan areas and photographing each city at night, glowing with light pollution. The illumination of our cities is perhaps the most visible sign of our presence on the planet, a visual correlate of the invisible emissions generated in the process of energizing our cities. Bright enough that they could almost be daytime scenes, the landscapes in Seely’s photographs are familiar, but strange and unsettling. This is the world as we’ve made it — changed, likely unsustainable, but also beautiful.

About the Series: New Landscape Photography

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

  1. Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990) 7. See also William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (New York: Norton, 1995) 69-90.
  2. Email to the author.
Aaron Rothman, “Natural Artifice, Artificial Nature,” Places Journal, August 2012. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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