Friday, September 16, 2016

The New West

Robert Macfarlane recently chose Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez as 'the book that changed my life'.  He says 'it struck me with the force of revelation the first time I read it, aged 21 and walking the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island alone over several days.'  Ten years ago he wrote an appreciation of Lopez for The Guardian which perceptively defines him as 'a postmodern devout. His prose - priestly, intense, grace-noted - carries the hushed urgency of the sermon.'  
'Throughout his writings, Lopez returns to the idea that natural landscapes are capable of bestowing a grace upon those who pass through them. Certain landscape forms, in his vision, possess a spiritual correspondence. The stern curve of a mountain slope, a nest of wet stones on a beach, the bent trunk of a wind-blown tree: these abstract shapes can call out in us a goodness we might not have known we possessed. "In a winter-hammered landscape," he writes, "the light creates a feeling of compassion ... it is possible to imagine a stifling ignorance falling away from us."' 
One thing this article doesn't mention, something you wouldn't necessarily realise if Lopez hadn't written about it in his 1998 essay 'Learning to See', is that for fifteen years from the mid-sixties, along with his writing and scientific pursuits, Lopez actually worked as a landscape photographer.  Why did he stop?  A combination of factors: the accidental loss of a portfolio of his best work, the problem of achieving the kind of detail and colour balance he was after, the realisation that he was too focused on focusing his camera to fully experience what he was observing.  He also became uncomfortable with the way nature photography was heading: dazzling images of animals that were no more realistic than the images in Playboy.  However, some wildlife photographers did manage to approach their work with integrity; he lists Frans Lanting, Michio Hoshino, Gary Braasch, Tui De Roy, Jim Brandenburg, Flip Nicklin, Sam Abell, Nick Nichols, Galen Rowell.

Cover of The New West by Robert Adams (1974)

'Learning to See' begins with a surprise invitation from the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth to write an essay on the photography of Robert Adams.  Lopez learns that Adams had suggested his name, despite the fact they'd never met, because he admired his writing.  They have subsequently become friends - an artistic relationship which is discussed in a new book  Other Country: Barry Lopez and the Community of Artists ('for both Lopez and Adams, a worthy artistic expression serves the cultural memory of a community, reminding us how to behave properly toward other people and the land.')  The short essay Lopez wrote for the Fort Worth exhibition suggests that Adams has tried in his images of the American West to get us to consider where we are, and whether we want to be here.  It is evident that we are in a difficult place.  But Adams 'urges us to overcome anger and bitterness, he urges us to be present in the present.  Not to be aloof, unseeing and uncaring.'  This writing certainly has what Robert Macfarlane called the 'hushed urgency of the sermon'.  And Lopez could be referring to his own writings when he says that 'to speak of Adams's work is to speak of faith, of hope, of compassion, of that which is sacred.'

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