Saturday, July 19, 2014

New Western Landscapes

Rebecca Solnit published two essays on contemporary American landscape photography in Creative Camera magazine, in 1993 and 1998, and they were reprinted together in her collection As Eve Said to the Serpent.  Both begin with some historical context: 'American landscape photography is grounded in both the scenery and ideology of the immigrant's West.'  The photographers who worked for the U.S. Geological Survey were only the first to concentrate on landforms rather than nature.  Carleton Watkins portrayed Yosemite as a virgin wilderness outside time, but his work was partly financed by photographs of the nearby gold mines.  Ansel Adams is also defined by these images of pure, unpeopled landscapes - an aesthetic that 'has dwindled into calendar pictures and coffee-table books'.  Meanwhile, landscape may have featured sometimes in the work of the great twentieth century documentary photographers like Robert Frank and William Eggleston, but their subject was always essentially social commentary.  It was only in the seventies that landscape once again became an important theme in American photography, following the seminal New Topographics exhibition curated by William Jenkins in 1975.  I have listed below the photographers Solnit discusses from the subsequent twenty years with brief comments pertaining to their work in that period.  Perhaps someone could ask her to write an essay* covering the next two decades... 
  • Robert Adams - the major survivor from the New Topographics group whose 'pessimism about culture's impact on nature has evolved into a broader melancholy.'  
  • Mark Klett - part of the Rephotographic Project that returned to document the sites originally photographed for the U.S. Geological Survey; his images are not 'elegies for a raped landscape', instead they show how the West can be Sublime even with modern additions like a TV antenna.
  • Robert Dawson - a documentary photographer whose work describes 'the ecological and social complexity of the California landscape'.  There is a Design Observer article by Mark Klett on the Water in the West project that Dawson founded with Ellen Manchester.
  • Peter Goin - a Water in the West photographer whose 'Nuclear Landscapes is an anthology of deadpan images of nuclear-war production sites.'  Solnit has some reservations about this - the 'captivity' of such work within the art world may undermine its educational value.
  • Richard Misrach - a photographer greatly admired by Solnit and whose work features in another of her essays, 'Scapeland', his 'lush documents of political catastrophe point out that politics has invaded the landscape.'
  • Linda Connor - focusing on 'manifestations of the spiritual on the land', she is, like Misrach, a photogapher with whom Solnit has collaborated (an encounter with Connor's work in 1986 'opened the door' to a new understanding of landscape and representation).
  • Meridel Rubenstein - her Critical Mass project on Los Alamos, the birthplace of the atom bomb, is deeply Solnitesque (is there such a word yet?) and features in another excellent Solnit essay, 'Lisa Meitner's Walking Shoes.' 
  • Masumi Hayashi - her images of the Japanese internment camps comprising mosaics of narrow-angle snapshots 'seem to address the reconstructedness of memory, the fractures of truth'.
  • Zig Rising Buffalo Jackson - his photographs of signs on the borders of Indian reservations expose the arbitrariness of any boundaries, 'testimony that the story is invisible and the sign has only begun to tell you where you are.'
  • Anthony Hernandez - like Misrach, he produces 'gorgeous images of the bleakest parts of American culture' but the focus for Hernandez is on the poor and disenfranchised, as in his series Landscapes for the Homeless   
  • Cynthia Rettig - her photographs of family vacations at an artificial lake near the Hoover Dam, where shooting and gun play was all part of the fun, recall the original conquest of the West: 'people repeating a history they cannot remember at a vast lake that is itself the result of manipulating the landscape.'

* NB: Rebecca Solnit is so prolific that she may have written a new survey on landscape photography somewhere, but if so I can't see it on the list of essays on her website...  Another place to keep up with her writing is the fuck yeah Rebecca Solnit tumblr. 

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