Monday, April 13, 2009

Place & Landscape

It seems to be rare to find essays written by photographers about both their work and the genre that they are working in-- this week we read Frank Gohlke's "Photography and Place" and Robert Adams' "Truth in Landscape" from the book Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values. Surprisingly, Gohlke focuses on the writings of Thoreau and the photography of Herbert Gleason in his essay, citing them both as artistic figures that approached the question of what is "place" and what it means to us.

In his essay Gohlke investigates the origins of our idea of place and links it to memory: "The evidence of the actions of human beings in a specific locale constitutes a physical version of memory." He points out that we are the only species that create places and that they "don't occur naturally; they are artifacts." The use of the word artifacts infers history and an ascribed meaning and importance given to a particular object-- in this case the object being a space. Gohlke sees place as being both something physical and tangible (ie a natural element like a mountain) and mental (the significance we place on the mountain) and describes it as "a unique and significant intersection in space of human history and natural history." Thus we can think of place as claiming a part of the natural landscape as our own due to a role it plays in our culture and history.

Gohlke turns to the literature of Thoreau and the photography of Gleason as examples of his discourse on place. He sees Thoreau as being grounded in a particular area--Concord-- and praises his knowledge of place through lived experience.

Gleason seems to have slipped through the cracks of photo history, as I had never heard of him before this essay. I did a little research and found that in the early 1900s his landscape photos appeared in the Sierra Club Bulletin, mainly serving as illustrations to text written by nature advocates like John Muir. Below are a few examples allow with the original text.

"It is the counterpart of the Yosemite Fall, but has a much greater volume of water, is about 1,700 feet in height, and appears to be nearly vertical though considerably inclined, and is dashed into huge outbounding bosses of foam on the projecting knobs of its jagged gorge." - John Muir

Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. VII. No. 4, June, 1910. Plate LXXXVIII.

"Hetch-Hetchy Valley is a grand landscape garden, one of Nature's rarest and most precious mountain mansions. As in Yosemite, the sublime rocks of its walls glow with life, whether leaning back in respose or standing erect in thoughtful attitudes giving welcome to storms and calms alike." - John Muir

Source: Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. VII. No. 4, June, 1910. Plate LXXXV.

Without the text, Gleason's photographs appear to be rather innocuous images of pristine landscapes. Muir's text adds a context, provides facts about the area that lend the photographs a sense of 'truth' and also ups the aesthetic value of the photograph by using words like "sublime" and "precious" to describe the landscape. Of course Muir's agenda was to promote the beauty of these places and he saw the photographs as another way of convincing the public to invest in the conservation of places like Yosemite.

Gleason also produced a set of photographs to accompany Thoreau's writings; they were taken in Concord of the woods and other natural settings that inspired works like Walden.

Double Row of Arbor Vitae Near Battleground.

After looking at Gleason's images, I at first found it curious that Gohlke would reference his work as they seem to be the anti-thesis to his photographs and way of seeing the world. I've always understood the New Topographics movement as a reaction to the more pictorialist and idealized images of photographers like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston; as they included elements of the 'manmade' like fences and housing developments and utilize a flat light that creates a bleaker view of the landscape rather than a dramatic, lush image that celebrates a timeless, untouched wilderness. Gleason's work seem more similar to Ansel Adams than Gohlke's; it seems, however, that Gohlke is drawn to Gleason's photographs of nature because of their relationship to place and how the Walden images survey one geographically confined locale.

Cows, Plainfield, Massachusetts- from 42.30 North: A Line on the Land, 2002.

Slate Quarry, under Pin Hill Road, Harvard, Massachusetts,- from 42.30 North: A Line on the Land, 2002.

The two photographs above, from a recent project of Gohlke's, both reference historical landscape traditions. The "Cows" photograph at first appears pastoral and is similar to 18th and 19th century paintings done of rural England. What disrupts this scene, however, is the sliver of paved road on the right side that places the photograph in a particular time period and doesn't allow the landscape to be separate from our everyday experience. Without its title, "Slate Quarry" would appear to be an image of untouched nature in the vein of Eliot Porter. Once we realize the context it allows for another understanding of the image that explores one of our relationships to the land; in this case our disruption of nature.

What is Gohlke's relationship to the other New Topographer photographers, especially Robert Adams? Before reading Adams' essay I was never fully aware of his ideas on place. I only thought of his work in a very limited way, mainly seeing his photographs as a critique of the sprawl of Denver and the relationship people had with nature in the 1960s and '70s in America. The following passage was particularly enlightening:

"...geography by itself is difficult to value accurately--what we hope for from the artist is help in discovering the significance of place." He goes on to say "We rely, I think, on landscape photograph to make intelligible to us what we already know."

Adams also described what he saw as the three elements that should make up every good landscape photograph: geography, autobiography and metaphor. I took this to mean that the photograph should be descriptive in some way, be subjective/reflect the artist's point of view, and also point outside itself to a historical reference or draw upon our memory.

Burning Oil Sludge North of Denver, Colorado

The above photograph is one of the first I'd seen of Adams and it has stuck with me since. To me it's powerful because the form of the cloud becomes formally beautiful, which competes with our knowledge of its toxity and the fact that it's a product of our exploitation of the land. The scale of the oil well and the tree is also the same, which runs counter to what we would expect--it goes against the idea of the grandness of nature.

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