Landscape: 150 Years After

Landscape: 150 Years After

An essay written commissioned by Blackflash magazine to accompany an exhibition of the same name presented from March 15 to April 23, 1989 by The Photographers Gallery in Saskatoon.

LANDSCAPE: 150 YEARS AFTER – work by David Ballantyne, Alberta; Andre Barrette, Quebec; Robert Barrow, Manitoba; Patrick Close, Sask.; Lome Greenberg, B.C.; Don Hall, Sask; Lucie Lefebvre, P.Q.; Robert Van Schaik, Alberta and Gary Wilson, N.S., will be on display at The Photographers Gallery.

by Richard Holden

“It is only a little planet,
but how beautiful it is.”

Robinson Jeffers

The Photographers Gallery’s exhibit, Landscape: 150 Years After, should cause the thoughtful observer to question seriously much of what has long been considered acceptable practice in this genre. At a time when daily news reports indulge in count-downs to any number of environmental catastrophes, one cannot view any such exhibit without asking what it may tell us about the present state of our relationship to the earth. With preservation of the biosphere rapidly becoming the primary focus of human concern, it seems appropriate to examine the effect of photography upon our perception of the earth and to question what, if anything, should be its present and future role.

That photography does effect our perception is beyond question. Given its ability to reproduce and broadly disseminate convincing images of things, photography together with its descendants, film and television, has become one of the most powerful influences upon the way we learn to see and understand the world in which we live.

Subtractive by nature, the act of framing inherent in the photographic picture-making process almost automatically impels photographers to impose a human-value order upon the potentially endless stream of experiential fragments they record. Long-term exposure to photographic imagery has a two-fold effect: while distracting us from recognising, and thus having to deal with, the seamless nature of reality, it seduces us to the medium’s own fragmented view by the implication that in such a vision lies the potential for both control and power. A desire for security through the exercise of control and power is characteristic of all patriarchal societies, although in few is it more pronounced than in our own where from its beginnings, Judaeo-Christian tradition has given humanity the right to extend absolute dominion over the earth. It is now apparent that photography has played a significant role in propagating the illusion that it is possible to achieve earthly dominance without destroying the planet in the process. Partially as a consequence of this realisation, over the past twenty years or so, the character of landscape photography has changed. Far less prevalent are the monumental landscapes, the beautiful pictures of seemingly untouched wilderness made so popular by the likes of Ansel Adams and his disciples. This kind of image has been replaced by less dramatic works that tend more to emphasise the effect upon the land of the human presence, works characterised by qualities of irony, loss, nostalgia and sadness, works that taken collectively, exhibit a profound sense of unease.

The shift in understanding and confusion of values that has generated this unease can be illustrated by two well-known photographs. The first is the earliest photograph known still to exist: Niepce’s famous image of his farmyard, made in 1827. The second is in my view, one of the most significant images yet made. It was taken from an American Apollo spacecraft in 1968 and showed us, for the first lime, the full disc of the earth floating free in the blackness of space. In a contemporary context, Niepce’s picture is important less for its being the first extant photograph, than for what it implies about the attitude that led to its creation. It is an unprepossessing object: small, faint and grainy but, by applying one’s imagination, one can just distinguish the image of a window casement, a few buildings, what appears to be a dovecote and a hazy trace of the prospect beyond. For all its modest attributes though, this little picture is a clear expression of the way historically, we have treated the land. Niepce, like most photographers since, photographed his view because it was expedient. He simply wanted something with which to make a picture. Niepce was a man of his time and his culture. Everything in his background would have contributed to an unquestioning acceptance that the land – indeed, the whole earth – was there solely for the benefit of himself and his fellow humans and that as such, they could do with it as they wished.

This, of course, is the same altitude that underlies the practice of industrial capitalism, an economic philosophy that until comparatively recently seemed to many to offer the promise of ultimate victory in our struggle to master the planet. Thus, the coincident rise of photography and industrial capitalism should not surprise us for, quite apart from the self-centred, exploitative world-view essential to the effective practice of both, each needed the other if they were to succeed. For its part, industrial capitalism could offer photography the rapid technological development and large-scale manufacture of the behaviour-consistent equipment and materials essential to the medium’s widespread dissemination and use. Photography, quietly and with infinite subtlety could make the world appear docile, manageable and exploitable.

In the years following its general announcement to the public in 1839, photography rapidly set about fulfilling its part of the bargain. Its practitioners marched confidently forward through the century, devouring the earth moment by moment, image by image, framing it, ordering it, demystifying it, making it secure. Given the times and its ability to capture the distant and the exotic, photography became an ideal rationalizer of colonial enterprise for whereas it exploited to its use everything that it recorded: people, places and things, it could do so in a way that seemed harmless and occasionally, even beautiful. Somehow, making something into a picture also made it acceptable and safe.

There is a more subtle effect, however, that although less generally recognised, is potentially, far more dangerous. It can be illustrated by a story told about the American photographer, Edward Weston. Some 50 years ago, at one of the frequent parties that took place at Weston’s house near Point Sur, California, a woman was examining the nautilus shell from which Weston had produced one of his best-known images. Like everyone one else there, she was a little drunk. The shell slipped from her hand, dropped to the floor and shattered. For a moment, it seemed as if the party’s exuberance would dissolve into remorse and recrimination, but Weston, never one to miss an opportunity for theatrics, stepped forward, put his arm around the grieving woman’s shoulders and is reported to have said, “That’s alright, I have a photograph of it”. What Weston recognized was that having a photograph of something devalues the original and at some level, it can even make the original expendable.

To comprehend what may result from this understanding, one need look no further than the way photography was used by the Khmer Rouge regime that ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. Dedicated as the Khmer were to the eradication of all that was ‘modem’ or ‘foreign’, it is significant that photography was one of the few technologies they chose to retain. They used it to make portraits of people incarcerated in Tuol Sleng, the Phnom Penh high school they had converted to a prison and interrogation centre. Over four years 20,000 people entered Tuol Sleng. They were photographed and then subsequently killed. Only seven inmates survived. Were they the ones whose pictures didn’t turn out? (1)

If what the above seems to imply is true, that is that we have reached a point where photographs can be accepted as legitimate substitutes for anything, then the implications of the second photograph I mentioned at the beginning of this essay – the whole earth seen from space – are very frightening indeed. However, in this picture there is also a curious logical loop; if having a photograph of the earth makes the earth seem expendable, what of all the photographs on the earth, including the one in question, and what of all the photographers? Herein lies the real significance of this image. At one level it may appear to be cast from the same mold as Niepce’s little picture of his farmyard, but at another level it is radically different, for it is one of those all-too-rare images in which the message inherent in the content overwhelms that implicit in the medium. What rings true and clear and rises above all of the ambiguities, is that there can be no separation of self and circumstance, that the destiny of humanity and the earth are one and the same.

Given this understanding and our growing awareness of the terrible damage we are doing to this planet, the continued use of photography to make ‘pretty’ pictures of what appears to be a pristine and harmonious environment – pictures that suggest we inhabit a planet still capable of sustaining the dream of a return to a mythic Eden – requires at best a woeful ignorance and at worst a stubborn allegiance to what we must by now surely realize is a sterile and bankrupt philosophy.

For thinking and socially aware photographers, the answer may seem simple: make photographs that both reveal and criticise the damage our society and its values are causing. This, however, is problematic, for photography itself is so much a product of our culture that the validity of any societal critique that employs it must automatically be suspect. The conceptual base necessary to the invention and use of photography requires an unquestioning acceptance of both the central importance of man and the objective nature of experience, views that directly contradict the notion of inseparability of self and circumstance. A people not convinced of the truth of these precepts would have no need for photography. Indeed, it seems unlikely that they would even invent pictures – that is, framed or internally ordered, bound images, the kind of thing we have come to call art. Certainly, pre-literate people created images of those things in their environment that were significant to them. What they did not do was set them into an artificial ground or context. Rather, they drew them directly upon the rock; as it were, reintroducing the object, to the ground from which came their original experience of it. But then, unlike us, these peoples were not born into a culture whose mythology predisposed them to see the natural world as being both alien and threatening. For them, to be in the wilderness was not a punishment. It was, I suspect, little more than an extension to being alive, of the same order as the experience of water to fish. For we who have inherited a Judaeo-Christian tradition, however, our relationship to the natural world is set out in the myth of the Fall, in which we were thrown out of a garden, an ordered and thus secure place, into a wilderness which was chaotic and terrifying. No wonder we have always been discomforted by the untamed and uncultivated places of this earth, seeing in them challenges to our power, places which our need for security demands we subjugate and control.

That this need is deeply entrenched and closely associated with photography became clear to me some years ago. From a hill above an extended plain, I could look down upon a newly-constructed suburban style house and garden. Both were unremarkable. The garden was perhaps 80 to 100 feet deep, 60 across and composed mostly of newly installed sod. There were neat dirt rectangles cut for flowerbeds and one larger, earthy comer that seemed intended for vegetables. Surrounding the yard was an 8ft cedar fence beyond which stretched seemingly endless miles of flat, treeless, cultivated and wholly benign farmland. The question of course, was why the fence? What was being protected? Anything threatening had long since been driven back and penned in or killed. In the absence of any exterior threat, it seemed that the real purpose of the fence was less to stop the wildness from getting in than to prevent the civilisation from leaking out.

Photographers see in such ironies the potential for pictures that will show how clever they are. The problem with photographing the scene described above, however, is that by making of it a picture, one would compound the irony as much as reveal it, for what motivates the gardener and the photographer is the same cultural imperative: the need for security through order. Both “set off” portions from the continuum of the natural world and force their contents into some artificial, self-referential order by enclosing them within boundaries. The gardener uses a fence; the photographer, a frame. However, the tyranny of the frame and what it represents is only one of the contradictions that landscape photographers must face. There are many others, including the questionable environmental practices involved in the manufacture and use of photographic materials and the effect of photography’s status as art upon its role as credible witness. Because the notion of “landscape photography” is an “art” notion, the quality of photographs presented within this context is measured largely in terms of some relationship to an art-photographic history which, in the case of landscape, still lends to base its assignation of value upon an assessment of a photograph’s formal, pictorial qualities. Even if unconsciously, serious photographers are aware of this history, of the acceptable precedents and frequently, in spite of their best intentions, they are influenced by them. The result most often, and even when the content is ugly and disturbing, is that landscape photographs tend to be rather beautiful. For a viewer, it is difficult to keep one’s attention on the message while being seduced by the medium. This is even more true when that message is received in the contrived, ethical neutrality of an art gallery.

Which brings me back to Landscape: 150 Year After. To one degree or another, all the work of the photographers represented shows evidence of a heightened environmental awareness and helps reveal the dilemma that such an awareness poses for photography. There is little need here to discuss the work of each of the participants in detail, however, as this is clearly not an in exhibit intended to showcase individuals. Even so, there is one feature of the presentation that should be addressed for it helps focus a number of the issues raised in this paper. It is notable that of the nine photographers shown only one, Lucie Lefebvre, is a woman and further, that her handling of the landscape concept is by far the most radical. Whatever the intrinsic merits of her images, their presence introduces the question of differences between male and female attitudes towards both the photograph and the land. A discussion of the possible reasons behind these differences falls beyond the scope of this essay but the fact remains that as an area of interest, the practice of photographing land is and indeed always been, an activity dominated by men. Historically, as in almost all of the arts, it has been possible to ascribe this lack of female participation to social censor and prohibition, but not today. Women have had equal access to photography for many years and yet, as a subject, with a very few notable exceptions, landscape remains a male preserve. The impression one gets is that photographing the land is not of great interest to women and that the reason may be more a lack of motivation from within than disapproval from without.

Lucie Lefebvre’s photographs lend support to this thesis, for their staged, stylised and constructed form refers directly back to the allegorical landscapes of the European Middle Ages – a time when for both men and women, attention was devoted far more to landscapes of the spirit than of the eye. Seen beside the essentially traditional approaches employed by her male counterparts, Lucie Lefebvre’s landscape images inevitably parody and question those approaches. In this, her work stands proxy for us all because the implications of this exhibit go far beyond any trivial statement about the present state of landscape photography. Considered in a larger context, this show questions not only the ways in which we photograph the land but more basically, the roots of why we photograph it at all. It is essential that we respond, for it is only through doing so that we may come to understand how crucial to our survival is the necessity for changing the collective perception of our relationship to this beleaguered, tolerant, little planet we have, until recently, taken so much for granted.

(1) Fawcett/Brian – Cambodia A book for people who find television too slow. Talon Books, Vancouver, 1986; pp. 75-

Additional Reading:

Pearsall, Derek and Salter, Elizabeth. Landscapes and Seasons of The Medieval World. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973