The ‘scape Route Taken in Some Modern Landscape Photography

The word landscape is defined in Webster’s dictionary as "a picture representing a view of natural inland scenery, the art of depicting such scenery, or, a portion of land that the eye can comprehend in a single view." A crude analysis of the word is simply the isolation of its two basic components: land, which may be taken as the described territory, and scape, which may be considered as how that view is seen or depicted.

Making a landscape view in art has traditionally been a male activity, and can be envisioned as a functional and psychological extension of roles such as hunter, builder or explorer. The politically, socially, and culturally held timebound values of these male roles shaped much of what is considered landscape photography in the nineteenth century.

A general shift of cultural values in the twentieth century, along with an expansion of what a "landscape" could mean, fostered a development of multiple approaches in the United States including: pseudo-objective modernism (Edward Weston), spiritual meditation (Minor White), symbolism (Clarence John Laughlin), surrealism (Frederick Sommer), personal expression in found surfaces (Aaron Siskind), quasi-documentary interpretation (Walker Evans), and diaristic or performance related journalism (William Klein and Robert Frank). Since 1970 this subject category of photography has been further expanded through interactions with other media (conceptualism, painting, performance, and site-specific earthworks), and has also developed in specific ways such as color (Joel Meyerowitz, Richard Misrach) or the "subject objectivity" generally associated with "new topographics"(Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal). The overwhelming majority of these strategies have been predominantly concerned with visible aspects of the external world; still, a tendency to grapple with relationships between an internal and external reality has appeared with increased frequency during the past fifty years, and is particularly evident today.

The following male photographers do not base their work on specific description of a particular place, but on individually self-reflexive systems designed to explore the photographic meaning of landscape as: a visual symbol of the natural world, a metaphorical symbol for irrecoverable values, and a representation of modern day conditions. Their work9are distinctly separate ways of reinterpreting or redefining a traditional connotation of landscape. The diversity of their geographical locations (Tittle – Minneapolis; Divola and Bradley – Los Angeles; Felix – San Francisco) and subject matter suggest that these concerns possibly reflect a general attitude, rather than simply being products of common circumstantial biases.

The precedents for this work currently being produced are perhaps best exemplified by the tone and concern found in Robert Fichter’s work. The fact that his artistic maturation occurred during the 1960s suggests numerous corollary interfaces between movements in photography, art, and popular culture. Landscapes recur throughout Fichter’s work, although they are seldom-straightforward photographic depictions, as he freely uses different media to suit his artistic purposes. He expressed the framework for this ideology in his MFA thesis, Notes from a Biological and Psychological Garden (1966):

"The implication of a Biological Garden is that of a place where specimens are prepared for later study and by extension, that too would be the function of a Psychological Garden. Thus my imagery is drawn from a biological world and is developed only when I feel that the image has psychological relevance to my current feeling. This is best explained by saying that I am vastly interested in the biological world in an ecological sense, and that I am most interested in the themes and subthemes that it suggests to me: the place of man in the physical world as an interacting species with the most highly developed apprehension system."

Fichter has developed a position as social observer, often punctuating the lyrical romanticism of the works with cynicism or satire, and has been aptly described by Robert Sobieszek as a "Lone Cowboy of the Apocalypse." A recurring cast of characters – "Mr. Bones," "Baby Gene Pool," and various kinds of "Sacred Cows" – are used by him to enact quasi-moralistic tales. His tableaux do not convey Judeo-Christian moralities, but exist as fatalistic observations of mankind’s present day condition. Animal and human species are often rendered as comic caricatures, typically appearing in painted or drawn landscapes. The environments occasionally incorporate imagery which has been "borrowed" from modes of art or popular culture.

Fichter’s work is only an indirect indictment of landscape photography if the discussion of landscape, per se, is simply an issue of traditional approaches to the subject. But, if landscape is considered from a broader viewpoint, the pertinent aspects of this work from a contemporary standpoint are: personal reflection as a basis for the generation of content, and the contextualization of landscape in terms which refer to existing historical traditions, and present-day concerns.

Richard Felix has based prior bodies of work on particular places; the location of his current Visual Dialogues/Southwest portfolio was chosen both for its rich heritage of creative activities and its relative inaccessibility. Most people physically experience the southwest states either by passing overhead in a plane or driving through it. His photograph(s) of resonant places in this austere landscape are but a groundwork for the final pieces; multiple printing, drawing, painting, and ultimately the sculptural (oriental-like panel) presentation of the work alters and transforms each image. The landscape is transfixed in the moment of the photograph, and then extended through his addition of figures, texts, or charts – much of it taken from anthropological or historical texts.

The landscape, aggressively objectified through his manipulations, is injected into the narrative of story telling. An intentional level of ambiguity in these pieces by Felix slyly forces a viewer to extend his or her perceptions, both about the place and his characterization of it. It is not a dogmatic or journalistic style, yet still manages to invoke artistic, photographic, and cultural history.

The photographs by Tim Bradley revolve around a question of whether reality is an internalized fabrication of the mind, or the matter that exists in the world. They are persuasive glimpses of a fictive city landscape; he carefully constructs, lights, and photographs small models, which are generally based on places seen by him. There are corollary issues between his work and: the model and set construction of Hollywood productions; photographs by Jim Casabere; and the miniature sculpture by Michael McMillen. The different quality about Bradley’s work is that although the small black and white images are artifacts, which mark something irrecoverable, it exudes an emotional feeling of tragedy, dread, or fear.

The images contain iconic features of a landscape, yet lack the tiny embellishments that become apparent through being in place – or seeing a photograph of it. Remnants of Ancient LA combine classical elements of Roman or Greek architecture with the bungalow and freeway constructions endemic to Los Angeles. This series, along with Tabletop Los Angeles and Descent, is based on things which are immediately recognizable but in a different order, and only through careful study are they revealed as fictions. His dark printing and spare lighting imparts an eerie feeling to the images; they appear as glimpses of both a past and future time, or the spare and isolated moments of a landscape barely perceived when rapidly passed by in a car.

Bradley’s photographs convey something about the territorial feeling of an urban landscape, and manipulate the traditional theme of landscape; photographic veracity is used to create illusion and, although fascinating and inviting, the reality can never be entered. The imagery has a nostalgic air, as if a perceptual recovery of values is an essential part of locating and knowing one’s place in the world.

The reduction of a landscape to bare essential features is also a factor of Jim Tittle’s large black and white photographs, yet his narratives also employ figurative elements and impart a different feeling altogether. The camouflage of his props does not depend on minute details, but gestalt shapes and provocative lighting. Disparate and contradictory stylistic features (such as the cartoon-like figures, an unbalanced sense of scale, and a startling inclusion of oddly incongruous objects) make these views both inviting and emotionally unsettling. These designs are spatially, dimensionally, and temporally disruptive; they convey an appearance of melodramatic narrative through symbolic groupings, but deliberately withhold the information which would complete any story line. The parts bear vague resemblance to familiar moments of real life, yet circle around anything substantial – landscape simply becomes another ambiguous circumstance – and are as strange and alien as the dreams of another person.

John Divola has consistently investigated the issue of descriptive representation in photography. The landscapes in his Vandalism (1974) series were the private or hidden recesses of abandoned houses and, although his markings of the interiors are a dominant feature in the work, the images address what is an unseen potential of landscape as a subject. His Zuma (1977-78) photographs extended a fascination for how marks, colors, or shapes could be counter-played against forces and qualities of the natural world. These two series, and subsequent works done during the early 1980s, echoed parallel and overlapping concerns: a viewer’s sensorial familiarity with what are essential or recognizable elements of a landscape, an investigation of how photographic processes intersect with human perceptual processes, and the phenomenological conveyance of meaning through objects, symbols, or signs.
His most recent large black and white works, visually subdued in comparison to the narcotic and dizzying impact of his color images, appear staid – as if they were generic photographs. Things of the natural world, replete with the mystery of inherent physical forces, are divorced from their original environment; they undergo transformation in the artist’s studio, being ultimately reduced to a shell-like state, and the meaning of what remains in the photograph is opaque. These images are a synthetic dematerialization of the landscape (and of photography itself), and like the skin of a snake produce an almost transparent form of representation.

This devolution of "object meaning" in an image addresses how symbolic meaning may shift through time and process. Divola’s work is a pure and intellectually austere example of how the simulacrum is an unavoidable issue in making and viewing photographs; however, being both self-referential and a denotation of the natural world, his process achieves a level of melancholic expression untouched by most forms of appropriation.

The production of guarded emotional content has become a dominant aspect of a male point of view, as the landscape is often treated with an ambiguous moral message. The inaccessible romance generally celebrated in a consideration of many 19th century views had been replaced by an attention to the landscape as an arena for self-awareness. It is a stance that often lacks a passionate response to the materiality of a landscape, honoring intellect and reason, and only allows oblique reference to sentiment, romance, or emotion. A concept of the modern landscape view as a simulacrum is appropriate, defined as "an image or representation, an insubstantial form or semblance of something, a shadow or trace." For the relative value of emotion in a landscape view has changed, and has been transformed by the philosophical intelligence of the recent past, and this age. It is not exclusively a male attitude, but does seem to have inordinate substantiation within the set of male practitioners.

Changing cultural attitudes about the meanings of landscape are made apparent by the photographs of these artists. They are not necessarily myopic or bleak visions, but are evidence of rich psychological and intellectual investments that bear contemplation; they indicate new directions of thinking about landscape, and seek to escape past modes of depiction and representation.

© Mark JohnstoneMARK JOHNSTONE is a writer and photographer living in Los
Angeles. His writing also appeared in the Winter 1985—1986
CENTER Quarterly.
Center Quarterly (Catskill Center for Photography, Woodstock, NY)
"The ‘scape Route Taken in Some Modern Landscape Photography" was originally published in the Center Quarterly (Catskill Center for Photography, Woodstock, New York)Volume 8 # 4 (Fall 1987) PP 4—7