By PATRICK COLLIER
“Till paths be wrought through wilds of thought…”
One has to get through nearly six of the eight verses of “America, the Beautiful,” past when “spacious skies” become “halcyon” to sing the above phrase, something I’d venture to say very few people have done. Granted, the line refers to the Pilgrims as they took the first steps in exploring (and exploiting) the landscapes described in the song, “from sea to shining sea.”
Last week I spent a few days with my spouse on Oregon’s coast. I know I don’t have to sell Oregonians on the scenic beauty, and in that I probably couldn’t write anything that would bring new insight, to expound on such would be a waste of everyone’s time. Yet, elsewhere on these intertubes I have a self-appointed duty to chronicle such journeys, including posting the obligatory photos of sites such as Haystack Rock.
After posting about our mini-vacation and raving about the beach, sea and rocks, all the while apologizing for the inadequacy of my photos, I found that one reader responded with a link. It seems that one no longer has to attempt to capture scenic wonders with a camera, for the Unigine company has developed software, the Valley Benchmark DX11, that allows you to create your own. Call it a mini-mini-vacation: “The Valley Benchmark includes 64,000,000 square meters of very detailed terrain that includes mountains with snow-capped peaks, green expanses, rocky slopes, flowers, and a number of other photorealistic renderings.”
I did not see the word “beauty” or “splendor” once in the copy, yet it does promise that the software “amazes with its scale” and “procedural object placement of vegetation and rocks.” Purple majesty as algorithms.
One would hope that the fun would be in tweaking these “procedures” to create something that will have the components arranged in ways that run contrary to what we have more or less come to expect in the real world. However, it is more likely this program’s primary purpose is simply to replicate natural land formations and the likely configurations of flora upon it. For good reason: Standards are pragmatic; we have expectations that have precedence, not only from our personal experience but within the history of images of the landscape that have come before. They bring us comfort and in the right — or in the wrong — hands manipulate us.
But even within the long history of landscape photography that has itself established certain expectations, artists have been intent on personalizing the real thing, either by utilizing the technology that is the camera or pursuing a specific and personal agenda. Two exhibits, one at Portland Art Museum, and the other at Ditch Projects in Springfield, give us a fairly full spectrum of how photographers have approached and interpreted this genre.
Portland Art Museum’s current photo exhibit, “Surface” provides us an overview of this development with a goodly number of landscape photographs from the museum’s collection. An early example is Carleton Emmons Watkin’s “Rooster Rock, Columbia River” (1867), used as a stereograph. More recently, Chris McCaw’s “A Sunburn for the Portland Art Museum” (2012), has a hole burnt through the paper where our Sun should be. Both images have been manipulated to suit a purpose.
It is easier to forget there is a camera or photographer involved in the works by Maud Ainsworth, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Lily E. White and others of a similar ilk in the exhibit. Yet with later photographers, a restlessness sets in. The landscape requires enhancements, and in that comes what one might describe as a desire to show their hands in the making of the images.
Harry Callahan’s “Lake Michigan” (1949) is a subtle example as he pushes the contrast to highlight grasses; Minor White’s “Easter Sunday, Stony Brook State Park NY” (1963) uses exposure time to make light dance perpendicular to the flow of water just before a waterfall. Sharon Harper’s “Germany II” (2000) offers the viewers a completely blurred image; and, Doug and Mike Starn use tape to piece together their “Seascape (#72) (1985-86). The last two examples involve a greater degree of manipulation, yet in all of these later works the artist is every bit as present as the scene captured.
Even so, nowhere is the artist more assertively present than in a photo by Simon Norfolk. More akin to the earlier masters of the medium, in this particular piece Norfolk relies less on the photographic techniques to make a statement and instead uses the title, “Untitled (Namibia)” (1998) from the series “For Most of It I Have No Words: Genocide, Landscape, Memory,” to provide us the context with which to view the image. The image itself, although luscious, is an intentionally inadequate stand-in for a protest against genocide. The beauty is used to beget a sense of helplessness that hopefully turns to outrage.
In an indirect way, we come full circle back to the landscape in a near ideal state, even though its pristine nature has been compromised by having to endure our time in it. It has been carved into a shadow of its former self yet into something that still resembles its former state: Who would know the difference if no one was left to take note?
However, we have not yet reached the point in time when this post-and-pure-apocalyptic terrain exists without prescribed meaning or purpose. Indeed, much of contemporary landscape photography incorporates evidence of human presence and “industry.”
In the broadest sense, we do define the Earth’s surface.
Let’s be clear, “Three Ways to Draw the Landscape” at Ditch Projects in Springfield is not a drawing show. Then again, it is, at least in some respects.
The three artists in the exhibition, Jonathan Gitelson, William Lamson, and John Mann, are all members of Piece of Cake, a larger group of photographers in the Americas and in Europe. While not strictly a collaborative effort, the members do provide support and feedback to each other, and in this case come together to propose three ways to interact with the landscape other than with straight photography. Although photography is certainly a large component to the work here, each artist takes a different trajectory, which is what gives us the title of the show.
Like much of Gitelson’s recent work, “The Last Snow in Brattelboro” is diaristic. Using photography to chart and document his daily comings and goings, his two (or three) pieces in this exhibit chronicle the final melt of a massive amount of snow during the winter of 2010-2011. One piece is a photograph showing a rhododendron, a small patch of snow next to it and a wooden sign that is painted with the title of the project. The actual sign rests against the wall near the photo. The other piece is a map that includes photographs of locations in Brattleboro, again with small patches of snow.
He demarcates a path through his experience of his world. In “The Last Snow…” there is a bit of humor and pathos in the somewhat obsessive search for and documentation of the many quickly disappearing patches of snow scattered throughout the town. The map Gitelson has made includes all of these places, complete with a chart for snowfall amounts in the months of December through April. It looks very handmade, almost cartoonish, which lends itself to the feeling that here is a man who is alert and wistful but takes none of this, including himself, too seriously.
Still, humility notwithstanding, and even with something like the weather, over which we have little control, we do well to understand it as best as we can, observing and then coming to anticipate change. (Gitelson is looking for signs of spring.) In doing so, we bring ourselves closer to our primal, perhaps natural selves, which I would maintain has its merits for a landscape photographer. Yet, as we know, even the best prognosticators utilizing the latest meteorological tools often get it wrong.
John Mann takes the sense others have made of our world, most notably through cartography, and adds another dimension, both literally and figuratively, by mixing sculptural elements with parts of maps and then photographing them together. I have written about the use of photography as almost secondary to the art, not as a way to catalogue but to capture a “mood” of another medium and to emphasize the photo as an object, and, of course, the object in the photograph. In Mann’s case, this distancing of the various media from their purity as separate pursuits imbues the final product with a sense of isolation.
There are recognizable points on the pieces of maps and globes Mann utilizes in his small constructions. This is further enhanced by the placement of his rather enigmatic structures, most notably in the piece “Untitled (fulcrum)” where a sliver of a map that includes (if memory serves) the name of the city Hilo on the island of Hawai’i and an angled, thin slice of ocean. This piece of paper is placed on a small circular object to create the fulcrum — but a fulcrum for what purpose? To further confuse the viewer the shallow focal length of the photo blurs what might be crumbs scattered about the surface on which the fulcrum rests. We are “lost at sea” with questionable resources and a tool that serves no useful purpose in our dilemma.
One gets the feeling the joke is on the viewer, pointing not so much to a misanthropy as our collective futility, and Mann’s “Untitled (proposed on-ramp)” further drives home this message. A frail spiral is built up off the surface of a map (if it actually was built to scale, it would be a massive affair and not unlike a Tower of Babel). Given that its supposed purpose is for entering a lane, it is unclear whether the ramp leads down from the ether to the two-dimensions of the map or vice versa, either direction quite impossible.
William Lamson’s “A Line Describing the Sun” takes a more direct approach to the landscape than either Gitelson or Mann, calling to mind the land artist Robert Smithson, and to a degree Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long. The two-channel video documents a performance of sorts: Lamson burns a line into the soil of the Mojave Desert and uses a large fresnel lens mounted on his vehicle to record it. The line traces the arc of the sun as it passes overhead.
Although the contraption Lamson built, plus the methodical tracking of the sun and the melting of the ground into glass, bring a level of complexity to this piece, it is otherwise fairly straightforward. It is also as close as we come in this exhibit to an actual drawing, even though the line made is on the land itself. Yet, primarily because the piece is beautifully filmic — I want to write “epic” — I found myself “getting it” and still not moving on. Good thing, for the pacing is vitally important to a better understanding of making the arc and the endurance required for this performance under an unrelenting sun.
A quintessential photograph of Mount Hood taken from some distance, although striking, nowadays is a bit of a cliché. However, I suspect I will never tire of seeing the volcano to my right (as well as grateful for the clear skies that allow it) as I drive up I-5. And, although I imagine I have not taken my last snapshot of its snow-covered peak, the motivation to do so has significantly lessened.
Likewise, homage must be paid to those who came before with a lens encased in a wooden box We call them intrepid. For some, that romance endures without shame; for others, it is more the spirit and fortitude of those early landscape photographers that calls, as they seek both what is out there and those inspiring horizons that lie behind the eye.