On a clear autumn afternoon last year, on a flight between two cities in the American West, I had a spectacular view of Yosemite Valley. Even from an altitude of 30,000 feet, the famous landscape — Half Dome! — was instantly recognizable. And more: it seemed to me to have a particular and unsettling power. This was not a new sensation. Years earlier, on a rock-climbing trip, I remember feeling profoundly moved but also oddly dislocated, as my real-time, personal experience of the park merged with memories of iconic photographs by such celebrated artists as Ansel Adams, Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, Edward Weston, and countless anonymous postcard and calendar views. Photographer Mark Klett has argued that this sheer density of imagery makes Yosemite at least as much a cultural as a natural site. (Indeed, the National Park Service’s “Scenic Vista Management Plan” involves cutting trees and clearing vegetation to recreate the historic vistas captured in those early photographs.) What is true of Yosemite is also true of landscape in general: the tension between the image of a place and the place itself— a tension shaped by photographic practice of the last 150 years — is at the heart of a conflicted relationship with the land we use and inhabit.
The seminal work of Ansel Adams has had enormous influence on attitudes about nature and landscape. From the start of his career in the 1930s until his death in 1984, Adams took thousands of photographs in the American West in which he constructs a vision of landscape as a wilderness untouched, unmarred, by human habitation. Although animated by a passionate love for the natural world — Adams considered himself a conservationist as well as photographer — his work is riddled with contradictions. He took pains to exclude traces of human presence from his images, and even a cursory study of his technique reveals the photographs to be highly stylized and artfully manipulated. Unfortunately, one consequence of Adams’s carefully framed and distanced views is to reinforce a dualism deep in the American grain: the idea that the natural and the human are separate worlds. Nature is a wilderness to visit, not an environment to inhabit.
Work of subsequent generations has challenged Adams’s legacy. The flight on which I reveled in that view of Yosemite was taking me from Reno, Nevada, to my home in Phoenix, Arizona; I’d been in Reno to attend a conference sponsored by the Art + Environment Program at the Nevada Museum of Art, and to see the companion exhibition, The Altered Landscape: Photographs of a Changing Environment. The NMA show followed trends established by the now legendary 1975 exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, curated by William Jenkins at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, which examined both the desolation and the unexpected beauty of built environments like industrial parks and strip malls, rejecting the idea, or ideal, of nature as untouched. Comprising works from the 1970s through today, The Altered Landscape placed New Topographics artists such as Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz and Joe Deal alongside younger practitioners, like Edward Burtynsky, Chris Jordan, Richard Misrach and Subhanker Banerjee, who have taken as their subject the effects of human activity on the land. While the work in the exhibition varied widely in its politics and aesthetics, some of the more recent work, focusing on our alterations and abuses of the environment, seemed to me to imply an irreconciliable divide between the human and natural worlds — an apparent return to the dualism of the Ansel Adams tradition.
It is a long journey from the majestic tectonics of Ansel Adams’s “Moon and Half Dome” to the domestic scene of Robert Adams’s “Newly Completed Tract House, Colorado Springs, 1968” to the polluted landscapes of Edward Burtynsky’s “SOCAR Oil Fields #6, Baku, Azerbaijan, 2006.” So where do we go from here?
Over the course of five thematically linked features which will appear this month on Places, I’ll explore the work of various contemporary practitioners who are enlarging the field, seeking to move beyond the lines so clearly drawn between those who sought to portray the unspoiled beauty of nature and those who’ve documented its alteration by humans. The most vigorous new directions today, it seems to me, embrace a less polarized, more fluid understanding of the intertwined relationship between the natural and the artificial.
In this first feature, I want to examine the view from above — landscape as an idea — through the work of three photographers.
Dan Holdsworth is a UK-based photographer whose images isolate essential parts of particular landscapes and point toward something beyond their literal subject — suggesting a gap between the physical world and our mental experience of it. In his most recent series, Transmission, Holdsworth has created images of iconic Western American landscapes — Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Mount St. Helens, etc. — using topographical data from the U.S. Geological Survey. In collaboration with geologist Stuart Dunning, Holdsworth translated data from laser and radar scans of the earth’s surface into a virtual 3D model; from this he has chosen views to output as (almost but not quite) photographic prints. Holdsworth has also displayed, alongside the images, a sculptural mass of more than 6,000 sheets of A3 paper, each packed with lists of numbers that represent the data. The result is a portrait of landscape as pure idea.
Guillermo Gudiño, an artist based in Mexico City, works in a similarly cerebral mode, creating images that work witty variations on our expectations of context. In “Forever Yours,” for instance, Gudiño has printed the image of a picturesque mountain vista on the inside of a camping tent — you get the sought-after view without needing to leave the shelter of your tent (or the comfort of a gallery). Are we truly seeking an experience of wilderness, he seems to be asking, or have we already carried that experience with us, along with our gear? In other images, Gudiño literally rips out chunks of landscape photographs — showing just enough to give us a sense of a certain kind of place, but not enough to feel oriented in any specific location — and then mounts these ripped-out chunks to mirrors. The effect is, to say the least, disorienting.
Like Holdsworth and Gudiño, Marisa Baumgartner, a young photographer who lives in New York City, also explores our ongoing difficulty in relating, or reconciling, the urban to the natural. In Visible Cities, Baumgartner selectively removes from her images of cities those “landscape” features that could be interpreted as “negative space” or ground components (trees, open spaces) and leaves only those “urban” features that could be considered the “positive” or figural components of the functional and inhabited built environment (lights, signs, windows that reveal rooms). Inevitably we viewers try to fill in the voids — an effort that only makes what has been left out loom that much larger. By eliminating the landscape from the city, Baumgartner’s images reveal how much the city is part of the land.