The essay we are asked to read was originally published in Exposure 23:1 (Winter 1985) and I note from the link we were given (an earlier website of hers ) that Bright’s essay was attempting to answer the question, “Why are there no great women landscape photographers?”. She commented subsequently:-
With twenty years of hindsight, I can appreciate the polemical tone of the essay as an artifact of its time in the mid-1980s (raging gender wars within the Society for Photographic Education where I was active in the Women’s Caucus, an exciting energy as artists and scholars were speaking truth to power in the academy and art world and inventing new critical tools to dismantle entrenched minority privilege (D. Bright, 2005).
The essay My comments/ reflections are in blue
Bright begins by considering “Why landscape now?” a resurgence of landscape photography in the coffee table book press; viewed as , ‘an upbeat and wholesome sort of subject’ appealing to timeless values at a time when images of land were used ‘to evoke the universal constancy of a geological and mythic America seemingly beyond present vicissitudes’. (p. 1)
This reminded me very much of the content of Exercise 4:2 in relation to England except that Taylor’s chapter concerns people and place, whereas Bright’s essay only concerns the landscape itself.
Bright argues against the idea of using landscape images as an antidote to politics, or regarding them just as ‘the occasional aesthetic pleasure’.
Whilst I agree with her, I have to confess that the idea of the constancy of ‘the landscape’ is inviting to me at a time right now when the UK is going through its own vicissitudes!
Landscape as a subject of visual representation is a modern phenomenon. Landscapes were painted as ‘fields for noble action’ in the 17thand early 18th Centuries; followed by the more natural landscapes of Dutch artists (the word landscape initially referring specifically to Dutch paintings) , then followed by English landscape painting. “Whether noble, picturesque, sublime or mundane, the landscape image bears the imprint of its cultural pedigree”. Formal choices of inclusion/exclusion have been the focus of most art-historical criticism so far but, “the historical and social significance of those choices has rarely been addressed and even intentionally avoided” (p. 2). A very important point for me to keep in mind and, of course, this again relates back to Exercise 4.2. and Taylor’s desire to address such aspects.
Bright then links Norman Rockwell’s illustrations of an idealized ‘generic place’ with the connotation of a semi-rural golden age from which a ‘ruling middle class minority draws its symbolic identity and nationalistic context – its ideology”. At a time when the majority experience repression. She states it’s time to look anew at the cultural meanings of landscapes (influences, interests, perpetuated ideologies and – the thrust of her essay – why does the art of landscape remain “so singularly identified with a masculine eye?” Bright goes back to history – the late 19th Century nostalgia for a pioneer life that had become obsolete – “a veritable Cult of Wild Nature” with the attendant creation of a middle-class tourist market, with the creation of landscaped park and forest preserves for the use of and elevation of the aspirations and manners of immigrants and workers, and the claiming of wilderness areas to be preserved as legacies for the future. She comments on the religious overtones of this, using the word ‘worship’ when quoting tourist numbers in 1908 and 1928, and asks what kinds of landscapes were being gazed upon so keenly. (p.3)
Bright quotes historians who described how tourists were looking for spectacle as in published postcards and advertising etc, rather than ‘wilderness’; with the re-designing of Nature to conform to conventional pictorial standards and the consequent central role of photography in this kind of merchandizing. The advent of Western motion pictures succeeded in masculinizing the western landscape along with marketing strategies for selling , “everything from cigarettes to Presidents”. (Philip Morris’s Marlboro Man and the ex-film star President Ronald Reagan with his hat, horse, and axe). (p.4). She describes how the western landscape had become a complex construct, and Nature commodified – sites offering visual spectacle specially chosen for tourists and a romantic dream for liberal conservationists engineered from modern experience whilst containing the vestiges of the mythical frontier, providing the opportunity to create a new world out of nothing.
“Repressed or unexpressed” [is] “a landscape that cannot be apprehended strictly in terms of geographical or aesthetic categories”, called by J.B. Jackson ‘a field of perpetual conflict and compromise between what is established by authority and what the vernacular insists on preferring’. (p.4). Bright refers to the revealing of the political interests that organize landscape – subjects not clearly addressed by the practice of landscape photography – and proceeds to assess some of the shortcomings of traditional approaches of art photographers.
Here I think she covers a wide swathe of approaches from the 1940s, through the 1950s and 60s which concentrated on the emotions of the photographer at the instant of exposure not visual style, taking the view that this enabled magazines such as Aperture to publish work ‘statistically’ diverse. Bright states that intuition and expression were central issues, not visual style. Yet, to me certainly, Robert Frank, one of those photographers referred to, has a distinctive style which points covertly to societal divisions and characteristics.
Bright’s view is that Aperture ‘forces’ were “eventually challenged and overwhelmed in the late 1960s by John Swarkowski’s curatorial juggernaut”. (p. 5) – making a case for what he believed was the essential character of landscape photography – his “trandescent theory” which was that real artists of the photographic medium were those who “’intuitively’ discovered the plastic possibilities of their medium without regard for prevailing aesthetic standards or any other cultural constraints”. (p. 5). These included Timothy 0’Sullivan, the post-Civil war expeditionary photographer (see my earlier blog post here) now selected and legitimised by the Museum of Modern Art. Such photographers were taken out of context and curated into the 1981 Exhibition and catalogue for Before Photography, by Peter Galassi (p.6)
What interests me is the contrast between this and the earlier 1975 Exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, curated by William Jenkins for the International Museum of Photography, which marked the moment when the apparently banal became accepted as a legitimate photographic subject with its political message and reflecting a growing unease regarding the erosion of the natural landscape by industrial development and the expanse of cities (see my earlier blog post here)
Bright notes that the lack of context was a useful strategy for ignoring representation of gender and race differences and the paucity of representation also of female photographers. She marks the contrast with the photographers represented in the 1975 New Topographics Exhibition (Sigh of relief on reading this because I’d thought she might miss this out!). However, whilst the curator, William Jenkins. claimed these photographs resisted interpretation, because he believed the photographers had endeavoured to withhold any judgement or opinion, Bright sees them as, “….. charged with meanings that derive from the personal identities and histories of the photographers and are, in turn, viewed by an audience with their own ‘social and psychic predispositions (p7). I think here she could be touching upon ‘the death of the author’ (Roland Barthes, 1967). Bright believes that the view that New Topographics were moving beyond social critique was due to ‘impoverished expectations of what passed for social critique then, plus the context of an increasing environmental movement in the mid 1970s “would have granted these photographs a pre-given set of meanings available to most politically liberal viewers that made aesthetic detachment all but impossible to sustain” even though art museums and galleries use various methods (presentation, neutral walls, minimal labelling, a reverential hush etc.) to ‘subvert’ these meanings. Robert Adams is used as an example of the way in which the photographers themselves could accept this ‘aesthetic discourse’. In a passage from his collected essays, Beauty in Photography (1981) he describes how, after spending weeks on a commercial assignment photographing open-pit mines, he wanted to photograph a monument erected by the United Mine Workers to commemorate the Ludlow Massacre (where the Colorado state militia gunned down striking miners and their families) in a way which would indict new strip mines there but, the miners were mostly uninterested in a union and probably members of the National Guard themselves now.
“I was left at the end of the day with a sense of the uncertainty of evil, of the ambiguity of what photography could do with it, and of the fact of my own limited skills. After years with a camera I had wasted still more time trying to do what it apparently was not given me to do”.
Deborah Bright’s critical view is that Adams was dealing with his own ambivalence about the commercial assignment by, “projecting onto the miners a patronizing disappointment in their inability to share his noble outrage” when he could have found common ground with them by acknowledging their mutual decisions ‘to take the money and run’. She also points to Adams’s use of the passive voice – asking who told him he could not make such photographs. Bright also compares what she describes as a more recent problematic attempt by Adams to address local social realities near to the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Flats Nuclear Weapon Plant with a contemporary Rock Flats billboard project by John Craig Freemen for his MFA Thesis. The latter got little notice whilst Adams got an Aperture monograph and international museum shows.
Bright views this as how the art world continued to ensure silence and self-censoring, but could it also have been due to Freeman being at the start of his career and thus much less well-known? Freemen was born in 1959 gained a Visual arts Degree from the University of California in 1986, followed by a MFA degree from the University of Colorado in 1990. I found his blog here where he talks about his project. It’s interesting to view Freemen’s documentary-based landscape photography and also to see how his work has developed since using emerging technologies to produce public installations. His project began in 1989 and with some funding from Greenpeace, huge coloured billboard faces were made and mounted over the course of about a mile. His blog post includes links to further images and a video and, to me, there was a sense of excitement and involvement about the project. I do think, though, that Bright is conflating different time periods – approaches to photography being in flux – and not allowing for this.
Robert Adams (b. 1937) was a mainly self-taught photographer. Having gained an English degree at the University of Redlands, California he then gained a Ph.D in English in 1965 at the University of Southern California in 1965 and then teaching English, he bought a camera in 1963, learned technique from a professional photographer and began to teach only part-time in 1966 in order to have more time to photograph. He met John Szarkowski in 1969 and, in 1970, began working full-time as a photographer. I see that Adams’s Aperture Monograph was published in 1983 but it seems that the monochrome photographs were taken in the early 1970s. They certainly look of that era and the layout of the monograph has a ‘traditional’ layout of a photograph on every page. The message is much more muted compared with the later project from Freemen. I also get the impression that Adams’s style of work has remained constant unlike John Craig Freemen who has adopted new technologies. I think that one of the questions to ask in future perhaps is how recognizable each photographer’s style is.
Following this critical view, Deborah Bright returns to landscape and a question asking what landscape photographs can tell us “about how we construct our sense of the world and its relations”. (p. 8). Here she looks at two other bodies of work made at the same time, with similar subject matter and addressing related social anxieties. She compares the work of John Pfahl’s Power Places (1981-1984) – “beautiful” corporate style images of nuclear power plants connoting that power plants can be appreciated as objects, energy is natural and that human exploitation of energy resources is necessary – with that of Lisa Lewenz’s Three Mile Island Calendar (1984) which Bright describes as, ‘wittily appropriating the popular seasonal calendar as a vehicle for her seriously considered vision” concerning the way in which residents are put at risk by corporate decisions to develop atomic energy. Bright also looks at the different marketing strategies – Phal’s work being marketable to potential moneyed collectors whilst Lewenz mass-produced her calendar at an affordable price enabling her to reach a wider audience .
Three Mile Island Nuclear power was left with just one reactor after a 1979 accident (without loss of life or injuries but with potential, disputed health effects from radiation exposure ) and is due to be closed this year (see here) . I couldn’t find much at all on Lisa Lewenz, apart from blog posts for this exercise from fellow OCA students and online articles about a later film she produced.
Bright continues by considering the kinds of subjects that might be addressed by a contemporary landscape practice (the more urban, and domestic for example) She thinks that women could have a ‘special stake’ in documenting spaces used mainly by women, such as shops, home, beauty salons, which are designed by men ‘for maximum efficiency in the promotion of impulse buying and over-consumption’. Bright wonders how such spaces could be re-imagined ‘for the benefit of maximizing women’s potentials as social actors rather than shoppers?’ “Where are the women? she asks. (p. 9) providing a few examples of where they are not and then mentioning Linda Connor and Gretchen Garner who have taken inspiration from 1970s ecofeminist writings by Carolyn Merchant and Susan Griffiths and looked towards a more emotional response to nature and women-centred landscape photography. However, Bright links this with a traditional view of male/female differences – men ‘act’ upon nature whereas women ‘are’ nature and cannot separate themselves from it, and suggests it would be more productive to look instead for new possibilities for practice and discourse for everybody. She looks towards cultural geography, urban planning, and landscape architecture where the environment is , “viewed as a terrain of social symbols and contradictions” – projects by architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, geographer J.B. Jackson; urban studies scholars such as Kevin Lynch and Grady Clay who look at visual sign systems, and cultural geographer David Lowenthal on the significance of memorial landscapes. (p.10).
In Bright’s view such approaches can stimulate new thinking on how to, “see landscapes as humanly organised spaces that are historical and dynamic rather than primordial and timeless and sets out a structure to achieve this – become more conscious of ideological assumptions that structure our approaches; examine the restrictive terms of the art museum and gallery and ask ourselves whether we need to seek out other markets and audiences for our work. On the other hand, if art-market success is achieved by a photographer engaged in socially committed work, they must, ‘be vigilant about protecting the images from being repackaged as autonomous aesthetic objects, despite the reality that , “any issue-oriented work will inevitably become separate from its specific context by the passage of time …”.
Deborah Bright concludes the essay by linking the landscape genre’s resurgence with the Reagan Revolution which has given multinational corporations virtually free reign over the economic and physical environment and an attitude from art lovers/buyers that ignores the effects of such in admiring photographs that are aesthetically pleasing despite the industries they portray. Her message is to use landscape photography, “ to question the assumptions about nature and culture it has traditionally served” and not to view it as ideologically neutral but, instead as, “ an historical artefact that can be viewed as a record of the material facts of our social reality and what we have chosen to make of them.
This essay was written over 30 years ago so nothing is new but it still resonates. Bright does seem to take an either/or view of what landscape photography should be but does acknowledge this in the 2005 quote I gave at the beginning. At present a variety of approaches seem accepted in landscape photography so long as there’s a rationale for them and there’s a freedom about this. I’ve long wondered whether women photographers create a different kind of landscape photography from male photographers – something for the future.