Views of Nature
Tom E. Hinson Curator of Photography Emeritus
Untitled (#228) 2007. © Christine Laptuta (Canadian, b. 1951). Platinum palladium print; 9 x 40.9 cm. Gift of Friends of Photography 2010.228
Gathering 43 images, many new to the museum, Contemporary Landscape Photography highlights the complexities of representing, looking at, and understanding the contemporary landscape. Since the 1960s photographers primarily have taken one of two conceptual approaches to landscape as subject matter. The iconic photographs of Ansel Adams epitomize the first. Working in the western United States, Adams specialized in pristine views of nature—rivers, mountains, valleys, orchards, deserts, the sea—presenting them simply and clearly, enriched by his poetic vision and commitment to environmental conservation. The other approach seeks to both depict formal beauty and record the impact of human activities on the landscape, such as prehistoric presence, agriculture, natural resources removal, suburban land development, and war. Through his pioneering photographs of the western landscape of North America, Robert Adams has been a leading proponent since the early 1970s of images that document a landscape that was actually lived in.
One of the most important and well-known photographers of the 20th century, Ansel Adams is indelibly associated with stunning images of the unsoiled American West, and he greatly influenced how photography is considered, experienced, practiced, and studied. His photographic approach had its roots in 19th-century painting and photography that portrayed the landscape as monumental with unlimited resources, powerful yet manageable. The inherent political symbolism spoke to nationalism, democracy, and economic abundance, while referencing personal self-reliance and spiritual renewal.
The grand vista Thunderstorm over the Great Plains was made around 1961 when Adams traveled to Cimarron in northern New Mexico, where he visited the Philmont Scout Ranch, some 137,500 acres of wilderness in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. From an elevated vantage point, he captured the striking forms and ethereal light of a vast, flat landscape. Irregular, fluffy clouds hover over the land like guardian figures. To this day, Adams’s photographic legacy inspires fine art, commercial, and amateur practitioners. Such pristine wilderness diminished, however, and by the late 1970s photographers emulating his style had to turn their backs on ever-expanding urbanization while pointing cameras toward open land. For example, photographer William Clift, who spent much of his creative life in New Mexico and frequently worked in national parks, has created personal, reflective, and quiet images, like Desert Form #1, New Mexico, of lyrical grace and formal invention.
Desert Form #1, New Mexico 1984. © William Clift (American, b. 1944). Gelatin silver print; 19.5 x 24.5 cm. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas A. Mann 1990.110
More recently digital technology has enabled photographer Christine Laptuta to create fictional, “idealized” landscapes. In Untitled (#228), Laptuta relied on memory and imagination to create a cinematic panorama: instead of taking consecutive images as in conventional panoramas, she may turn 180 degrees for the next exposure and then walk 100 feet or more before taking another. Laptuta is attracted to fleeting light as well as deconstructed horizon lines. Using an inexpensive plastic camera with a manual winder, she was able to compose multiple images without interruption, eliminating the space between frames. The developed film was then scanned to make a digital negative and this large-scale print.
The evocative images of Robert Adams, along with the work of nine other emerging photographers, were displayed in 1975 in New Topographics, a major exhibition organized by William Jenkins of the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, that featured “man-altered landscape.” Instead of idealizing the limitless wilderness, Adams simply observed what was there. South of Rocky Flats, Jefferson County, Colorado is an outstanding example of his documentary style, which acknowledged the environment’s formal beauty and enveloping western light while recording the impact of humanity. The grandeur of the Rocky Mountains is visible along with the physical infrastructure necessary to facilitate the annexation of this open land for development.
Over the last three decades, younger photographers have adapted the ideas initially presented in New Topographics. Since the late 1980s, Jeff Brouws has documented the sociological, cultural, and historical within the contemporary everyday landscape. Railroad Landscape #33 is from a recent series examining, during different seasons, long-abandoned railroad right-of-ways in Dutchess County, New York, near his home. Relying on topographic maps from 1909, official texts, and up-to-the-minute Google Earth Satellite imagery, he has investigated remnants of railroad tracks laid more than 120 years ago that primarily served independent dairymen. In 1938 the physical presence of the railroad was erased; however, the melting snow in this picturesque winter scene suggests the track on the now-abandoned right-of-way. Two converging lines propel the viewer’s attention through an open field into a dense wooded landscape, stopped by a glowing orange sunset. The image documents the healing process of nature in replacing the vegetation originally removed to make the right-of-way.
David Leventi also chronicles human intervention in what was once an isolated, scenic landscape. In the expansive photograph The Transfagarasan Highway, Romania, he dramatically and graphically recorded a twisting and turning highway that sharply descends through a spectacular mountain valley between the two highest peaks in Romania, connecting the regions of Transylvania and Wallachia. Numerous hiking trails are visible in the composition’s foreground, attesting to the popularity of this area as a leisure destination. Built between 1970 and 1974 by the Romanian government as a precaution against a Soviet invasion like the one mounted against Czechoslovakia in 1968, it assured the military a speedy trip through the mountains. Many regard the highway (featured in a 2009 episode of the popular BBC television show Top Gear) as “the best road in the world.”
This compelling exhibition displays the passion of contemporary photographers for the natural environment. Some have concentrated on its formal, scenic beauty freed from surrounding civilization; others have scrutinized the built environment, which often becomes a means to observe nature.
Cleveland Art, May/June 2011