Visual echoes

Lee Friedlander (1934 – ), Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota, 1969, gelatin silver print. Middlebury College Museum of Art. Purchase with funds provided by the Memorial Art Fund, 1998.028. © Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

How many ways has photography changed our view of nature and how has our overwhelming dependence on photography impacted our ability to experience nature and our efforts to preserve it? Robin Kelsey offers a trenchant critique: we relish the view of nature more than nature itself; photographs have “obscured the process by which land becomes landscape” (404). He ends his short article with the admonition: “while photography that offers fantasies of mere witnessing have done valuable work in the twentieth century, it seems structurally unprepared to meet the demands of the twenty-first” (404). He builds his argument based on the function of framing and concealment of “ecologies” of photographic production. He cites the works of Clareton Watkins and Timothy O’ Sullivan, the former in his representation of the mines as part of a larger landscape and the latter in his depiction of the subterranean labour conditions that left traces of the material and social realities in the production of the photograph (394-396). Kelsey presents the photographs of Lee Friedlander as a successor to Watkins and O’ Sullivan in this respect and as an alternative to the vapid images produced by the Sierra Club versus agitprop depiction of pollution or of housing developments. He particularly analyzes Friedlander’s photograph of Mount Rushmore where the camera is turned towards the spectators behind the glass which reflects their view in return. Issuing a similar observation to O’ Sullivan’s photograph of a miner at work, Kelsey writes that in Friedlander’s work “there are traces of the material basis of photography into the image” (397-400).
Rachel Mclean Sailor similarly studies landscape photography, in particular the pictorial album of the settlement in Custer Country, made by Solomon Butcher. Sailor notes how Butcher, who was a self-taught practitioner with a relatively meager artistic background, employed the visual rhetoric of landscape photography to foster a deeper understanding of the aesthetic and cultural identity of a physically harsh place. The vast appearance of uncultivated land and the subsumption of human subjects to the landscape created the false impression that Custer Country was aesthetically vacant and lacking in agricultural value (85). As a result, a longstanding myth of the hostile environs of the midwest overtook Butcher’s original intention to bolster a sense of community among homestead families in tempering the overwhelming physical qualities of the plains. Sailor further illustrates this effort in Butcher’s setting of portraits of families posing in front of their sod house dwellings (92-97).
Maura Lyons considers how Matthew Brady’s stereographs explicitly drew equivalence between wounded trees and human bodies. She traces the pairing of human and non-human victims as a vestige of the pictorial conventions of the age of romanticism, which emphasized human figures as a separate witness to nature rather than their mutual affinity. Lyons cites a number of 19th-century paintings as precursors of the practice of embedding human forms in landscape elements. The broad allegorical view of destruction impacted the imagination of veterans who designed regimental monuments at Gettysburg later in the century, “who embraced the image of the wounded tree as an echo of soldiers’ wounded bodies” (46).

Further reading

  1. Maura Lyons, “An Embodied Landscape: Wounded Trees at GettysburgPreview the document,” American Art 26, no. 3 (Fall 2012): 44-65.
  2. Rachel Sailor, Meaningful places : landscape photographers in the nineteenth-century AmericanPreview the document West. Albuquerque : University of New Mexico Press, 2014. (selection)
  3. Robin Kelsey, “Photography and the ecological imaginationPreview the document” in Braddock and Kusserow, eds. Nature’s Nation (Princeton: Princeton University Art Museum, 2018) 394-405

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