The Landscape: Imperfect Study

By David Porti

Landscape as Photograph, by Estelle Jussim and Elizabeth Lindquist-Cock.Yale University Press. New Haven, 1985. $35.

“Landscape as Photograph” is recom­mended reading, enjoyable reading, and it will probably serve as a basis for the discussion of landscape pho­tography — I have already noticed a few particulars in publications which could only have come from this book. The book's contribution does not consist of its cogently developed ideas, but instead of its delightful particulars: the vivid quotations of vehement critics, the description of influences forming a school of photographers, the quaint manifestoes of artists. These particulars provide a good basis for the non-scholarly discussion of photographic art, which is where the fun is.
In fact, the blithest reader will probably get the most out the book, without questioning the nature of those obtainments. Such a person can overlook the authors' neglect of landscape photography's current status, and their inexplicable attrac­tion to certain lame ideas. It is understandable that art historians such as Jussim and Lindquist-Cock are reluctant to write of present-day matters which are still being decided by artists and critics. Among the fee­ble ideas that they have adopted is the purely rhetorical separation of propaganda and pre-propaganda (described below), which cannot be distinguished from one another as they occur, but only in the aftermath of their psychological effects, and then only with respect to a certain individual or group. The authors have also chosen to make their stand by asserting that all photography is to some extent conceptual, a daring defense of a point against which no one would argue. A gladsome reader should also forgive them for the naive bursts of social consciousness with which they sometimes end their chapters. This is a technique used by politically liberal writers to chasten readers - an edifying downbeat to tell them the chapter is through. But the feminist and environmentalist messages are not the kind that will disturb you, if it is time to put the book down and go to bed.
Perhaps more serious is the failure of the authors to include all of the ideologies significantly shaping photographic landscape art. Post­-Modernism is slighted, though as a trend it now exists in a well-articu­lated form, embellished and exten­sively marketed by artists and their allies. For such omissions the authors make sure to apologize. In “Some Afterthoughts”, they mention in a footnote that they omitted the ideology that maintains that the art market is a determinant of what sort of images are produced. Though the book is composed of the ideologies that have governed the creation of landscape photographs, this one is not in their smorgasbord for buyers of their thirty-five dollar book. In fact the book refers mostly to photog­raphers, philosophers, critics, and literati straight from the mainstream of the liberal arts curriculum of US higher education. On the other hand, the controversial sources are neglected or belittled — the sin­gle-mentioned Marxist critic, for example. Herbert Marcuse, is only condescendingly cited. A not-so-rollicking reader would perhaps prefer that more creative thinking would come from these writers, to complement the large display of admirably synthesized academic thought.
The authors seldom state a defini­tion of their own, a cautious way to write, which disables serious discus­sion of the authors' thoughts. They instead quote the formulations of other authorities, and proceed in their discussion with no indication of their assent. For example they pass through the whole of their chapter named “Landscape as Concept” with only the definition provided by Joseph Kosuth "that [Conceptual Art] is the inquiry into the founda­tions of the concept art ." I don't believe the book advances the careful thinking about photographic landscape traditions, but it serves as thought-provoking pleasure reading and a full bibliography for further reading. Each of the book's chapters maintains an essay style; descriptions, hypotheses, and anecdotes are built around a theme — Landscape as Symbol for example, or Landscape as God. The authors disclaim any presumption that landscape photog­raphers are comprehensively treated or that an accurate chronology is portrayed. Nevertheless, the order of the chapters suggests the progressing aspirations of the genre; to reflect God, to portray fact, to gain accep­tance as art, to isolate form, and more recently, to portray popular Culture, investigate concepts, and change attitudes toward environ­mental degradations. Though the book's ideas are seldom extensively developed, one may be careful glean­ing arrive at a generality that stands for much of a chapter. Hence for each chapter I have isolated one Major Conception, or M.C. Because so much of the book's merit resides in its Charming Details, I have also from each chapter selected one C.D. I will not vouch for the Major Conceptions but the Charming Details are often suitable for mention at parties. For all the Charming Details threaded together, you should read “Landscape as Photograph” yourself
Landscape as Artistic Genre: M.C: Landscape photography originated not only as a response to the desire for visual records, but also from the aesthetic ambitions of upper middle-class Europeans who had begun to seek natural beauty as a spiritual activity, under the influ­ence of Victorian aesthetics and Ger­man Meo-Platon ism. CO.: William Henry Fox Talbot invented the paper print because he failed to produce on his honeymoon a view from a mountain with a camera obscura.
Landscape as God: M.C: Land­scape photography was gradually transmuted from serving as evidence of a world wrathfully ruined by God, to a world designed by God to make soil from eroded mountains, to a world which was partly sublime (in­spiring emotional terror not directly attributable to the apprehension of God), and partly beautiful (not even particularly pertaining to God. but suggesting instead a backdrop for fauns and pretty nymphs). CD; Timothy O'Sullivan was dispatched along the Fortieth Parallel in 1867-68 to document the belief of Clarence King, his employer, that a God-sent cataclysm tossed the terrain of the western U.S. during a punishment wrought on sinners.
Landscape as Fact; MC; One only takes facts from photos as one needs them. CD; A. J. Russell's "Citadel Rock, Green River. Wyoming," a photograph dated 1367-68, documents the construction of both a temporary and a permanent bridge in the foreground, and the presence of an engine, a watertower, and a towering butte in the rear
Landscape as Symbol; M.C: "The essence of modern symbolism seems not to be the one-to-one interpreta­tion of allegorical, heraldic, or mythological symbols, but rather the creation of mood-evoking, ambig­uous, timeless icon [sic] ritualistically experienced in a state of quasi-reli­gious contemplation." CD: Pictori-alists at the turn of the century, in­cluding Edward Steichen, were pro-selytizers for photography as art, and emphasized the artist's handwork in their symbolistic prints, scratching and smudging the negative and making exposures through gauzed lenses in an effort to make lyrical and poetic effects.
Landscape as Pure Form: M.C: Since it establishes as its primary goal the creation of beauty and the discovery of ultimate truth (often synonymous), the photograph of pure form has been condemned as merely providing an aesthetic expe­rience removed from the arena of ethical and political concerns .... Douglas Davis claims that the basic requirement of this ideology [for­malism] is that no meaning of any kind can be allowed to pollute visual integrity'1… Critics like Davis are calling for renewed attention to con­tent, insisting that formalism has run its course in all the visual arts" C.D.(s): Theosophists (members of a movement originating from Bud­dhist and Brahmanic theories and in­fluential among turn of the century artists in the West] believed that ''jagged lines represent rage, rings and vortices signify sudden emotions, [and] fear manifests itself in zig-zags . . . . Kinesiologists [those who study principles of mechanics and anatomy in relation to human movement] theorize that we respond to visual forms by an imitative action, inadver­tent and unconscious, consisting of repressed muscular responses."
Landscape as Popular Culture: MC.: "Photos of random disorder and conflict between visual styles [for example, photographs of the strip shopping center, the subdivision, the cheap resort]. . . may bring us to a more tolerant enjoyment of pop-cul­ture ingenuity, its humor, and the paradoxes of the highway culture." CD: "The idea of country includes the idea of a tree, at least one."
Landscape as Concept: M.C: All photographs are conceptual, from those that are previsualized by the most meticulous artists, to the snap­shots of amateurs who conform to their preconceptions of what is im­portant to record. CD; "According to [Nathan] Lyons, Minor White had a tendency to illustrate a philosophy, while he himself was interested in discovennga philosophy. Intent on broadening the concept of the in-stantaneity of photography and relating to the flow of time rather than arresting time. Lyons walks through a landscape recording "the present and the past while meta­phorically configuring the future.2"
Landscape as Propaganda: MC: Photographs, without text, can only function as prepropaganda, rather than as propaganda, the latter iden­tified as information which moves its recipient to action. "Prepropaganda has the task of mobilizing our psy­chological responses, loosening the old reflexes, and instilling images and words in repetitive formulas. Accor­ding to [Jacques] Ellul, prepropaganda, perhaps surprisingly, 'does not have a precise ideological objective, it has nothing to do with an opinion, an idea, a doctrine. It proceeds by psychological manipulations, by char­acter modifications, by the creation of feelings or stereotypes useful when the time comes.3' " The authors suggest that with respect to environmental issues, the time for photographers to use their work as propaganda is now here. C.D: "Dur­ing the Great Depression, of the 1930s . . . [while] Hitler was preaching conquest, genocide and totalitarianism . . . Henri Cartier-Bresson is reputed to have said "The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photo­graphing rocks!" To which Adams is reported to have replied. "I still believe that there is a real social significance in a rock, a more impor­tant significance than in a line of unemployed."4 The authors of “Land scape as Photography “give Mr. Adams' retort a sympathetic reading, sug­gesting that he meant to say that aesthetics are of greater importance than material human needs.
In another chapter of the book, the authors remark that the noted psychologist Abraham Maslow rated aesthetics last in the hierarchy of human needs. It is a measure of the inscrutability of the authors, perhaps apparent even to the blithe, that one can never sense how they compare the value of beautiful landscape pho­tographs, with those of more urgent situations of human life.

1. Douglas Davis, Art Culture, Essays on the Post-Modern, p. 140­2 "Lyons." Video Data Bank. p. 21. 3 Jacques EIU, Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes p.3l. 4. Quoted from Robert Cahn and Robert Ketchum, American Photog­raphers and the National Parks. pl33.