Before the Land
by Fernando Castro
Depicting the land seems to be one of those human acts as natural and fundamental as symbolizing and yet, it is not. The land is implicit but invisible in the prehistoric cave paintings of Altamira, Lascaux, or even the recently found, Chauvet. Rather, it is the things in the land that were of interest to prehistori-cal humans and that they first chose to represent. Perhaps only a human who sows the land and understands that her very survival depends on the land regards it as something fertile, prior, and even sacred. In photography, ofcourse, depicting the land was one of its first exercises—if only because it is less mobile than the creatures it sustains. In fact, it was clearly William Henry Fox Talbot's aim to improve upon the camera lucida's tediousdemands for depicting the Italian landscape that prompted him to search for a way to fix its image. In the second part of the nineteenth century, the mature medium of photography copiously depicted landscapes around the world with intentions that are not simple but have been extensively scrutinized; among them, the desire to exert a physical and conceptual dominion over the land. More recent landscape photography, however, has become less transparent perhaps because the clues are no longer provided by the optimism of a now dwindling modernity.
Several exhibits of landscape photography were shown during FotoFest 1996. In this essay I would like tocomment on the following: "Great Plains 1985-1995" by Peter Brown, "Mexican Landscapes (1858- 1920)"curated by Jose Antonio Rodriguez, "Long Views" by Rick Dingus, and "The Taking of the Landscape" by Enrique Carbo and Alfredo De Stefano.
Starting with the exhibit "Mexican Landscapes (1858-1920)" is advantageous because it allows us to dealwith some issues related to the history of the genre. Its curator, Jose Antonio Rodriguez, has succinctly spelled out some of the major moments in the evolution of landscapes according to evolving intentions. Rodriguez points out on the one hand, that "Dozens of traveling photographers came from Europe and the United States to document these territories [i.e., Mexico], fascinated with the notion that they were still conquerable." The implication is that landscapes were done to show Europeans and Euro-Americans a land that could be possessed. Desire Charnay, a Frenchman whose work is included in the exhibit (and whichstrictly speaking is not landscapes), focuses on the ruins of pre-Columbian buildings that continue even today to suggest that there are still undiscovered treasures to be had by exploration of remote lands. But one must not regard the project of traveling photographers so cynically so as to lose sight that although some viewers no doubt regarded their images coveting the lands they depicted, others considered them an addition to their knowledge of the world and/or a prop for envisioning Utopian ideals. Charnay was indeed an agent of Napoleon III in Mexico in 1851, but he also shared the encyclopedic goals of the Enlightenment. Hewrote,"these ruins fixed my resolve to make archaelogy the business of my life."
Charnay's images, where mostly desolate ruins are populated only by the usual native indispensable for estimation of relative size, are in sharp contrast with Rick Dingus's contemporary images of Chichen Itza showing ancient pyramids overriden with tourists. The Disney-size crowd in Dingus’s hand-painted color photograph shatters our yearning for exotic, “untouched” places that we inherit from the Romantic literature of Charnay’s contemporaries.
Rodriguez adds that "Little by little, though, the natural landscape began to acquire its own expressive strength as a subject." We join the curator in wondering why such aesthetic improvement in the depiction of landscape occurred. Was it simply due to a new wave of photographers more conscious about composition? Was it the early nineteenth century discovery of the intrinsic value of depicting landscape for itself— even when no momentous human event had occurred there? Was it the Romantic adjudication of lofty meanings to the commonplace? Was it a byproduct of the encyclopedic quest of the Enlightenment to neatly compaginate the "book of nature"? Or, was it perhaps the late eighteenth century discovery of the sublime as a kind of non-canonical experience in which we are overwhelmed by nature (In one of Kant's accounts: "Nature is therefore sublime in those of its phenomena whose intuition brings with it the idea of its infinity.")? The appreciation of landscapes in the nineteenth century is the aesthetic equivalent of our postmodern belief in nature and animals as proper objects of moral concern. The nineteenth century mind is so deceptively similar to ours that we often fail to realize how very recent it was for its notions we assume ancient.
A fourth moment was facilitated by the technology of mass reproduction of postcards and the imprvement of transportation. Photographs were intended for people who collected "vistas" of exotic places for private or social perusal, or for inspiring travel to distant lands. In all of the above, it was important for the viewer to know that the depictions were made in the "truthful" medium of photography; for it implied that such lands were really there to be known about, conquered, invested in, included within national frontiers, visited, or dreamed about.
In a final moment landscapes were done in the style of more "artistic" media like lithographs, drawings andpaintings without regard to truth. Although the pictorialistic aesthetic was tainted with a Romanticism that twentieth-century modern photographers found indigestible, insofar as it rid itself of the strict demands for veracity, ithelped to lay the ground for other visions of modernity—more than some of the former would care to admit. Pictorialists added darkened clouds for effect, included picturesque buildings, fauna and flora, omitted objects if composition demanded it, and blurred edges for looks. Their intention was to make photographic landscapes like landscapes in other media; i.e. to make them look and be produced more "artistically."
Hitherto, we have been merrily adjudicating intentions to images as if the images themselves spelled them out. But such adjudication is always, at best, an intelligent guess, an inductive inference, or a working hypothesis. We are not about to join the crowd that dismisses authorial intentions as useless for understanding works, but neither are we prepared to accept that they are necessarily irrelevant. Moreover, from working in the medium ourselves and from our involvement with photographic archives, we know that often photographers cither do not have very neatly defined intentions in producing an image, or, they have various independent intentions.
The "Great Plains" exhibit gathers straight color photographs produced over the span of a decade by PeterBrown in the land where the buffalo once roamed. By "straight" I mean that his images and those of many of the photographers in the "Mexican Landscapes" exhibit have been spared an overt kind of intervention by the photographers' hand. Except for careful attention to composition Brown's work is far removed from the pictorialist project and shares instead in that great American landscape photography tradition of Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and Richard Misrach, as well as in the documentary tradition of Walker Evans and Joel Sternfeld. Having said that, we do not mean to claim that placing Brown's project inside the same Venn diagram as others explains it; only that it clues us into its ideological and iconic lineage. In fact, the nuances that distinguish Brown's work from those other oeuvres are helpful in our understanding it. To that end, it is important to establish for the purpose of analysis that his project includes works that are strictly landscape, as well as "city-scapes" (for lack of a more elegant word), architectural photography, and contextual portraits. It is Brown's intention, however, to have us consider the different groups as part of a whole: "This simple idea [of a trip] has allowed me to cover much that I've found of interest in the landscape, from open grassland to agriculture and ranching, to crossroads towns, to the roads themselves, to the entrances to the small cities, to strips, main streets, signs, churches, schools, theaters, neighborhoods, and people." It would be tomisinterpret Brown's work not to take into account his intentions, because what he is asking us to do is to consider the landscape as the substance that endures the accidents of time and human intervention. To put a Heideg-gerean hyphen to it: landscape is thus the horizon in which things-in-the-world show themselves to us; or hide.
Some of Brown's strictly landscape imagery is deceptively simple: flatland, horizon and sky. However, the minimalism of the image, although conscious, is not some sort of art-historical echo, rather it is an appreciation of the nature of the land he is depicting where vast distances and an austere ecosystem are the rule. The merely informative nature of his titles notwithstanding, a certain poetry of the vernacular seeps through them. In Plowed Field, Levelland, Texas, 1992, Brown presents us with a patterned land of brown hues so rich one can almost smell the soil in the image. On the one hand, the image delights us synaesthetically, while on the other, it documents the transformation of the natural landscape. Unlike the overtly partisan photographers of the FSA and more recent ecologically-minded photographers, Brown maintains a neutral—though not detached—position with regard to the treatment of people and nature. Potash Lake, Sand Hills,Nebraska, 1993 captivates us with its delicate, almost impressionistic color, but an unassuming carefully placed barbed-wire post scars the image like a Barthian punctum. Even in images like Red Water, near Dalhart, Texas,1990 that one may be inclined to interpret in the ecological vein of another desert photographer, one must refrain in adjudicating a denunciatory stance because Brown is more interested in establishing than alerting. It is as if Brown anticipates the viewer's association of his images with those of other photographers to play him/her like a yo-yo, only to bring him/her back to the neutral ground of his own work.
The architectural and the contextual portraits in "Great Plains" complete the eco-system of the landscape posing more questions than making definitive statements. There is tender irony in his handling of its denizens; as in Sign Painter, Sabinal, Texas, 1982" and Antler Garden, Green River, Utah, 1987. Brown's peculiar brand of subjectively-provoked objectivity also permeates the architectural work. The green curtains of Main Street, Sawyer, Kansas, 1992 are by no means a demeaning comment about kitschy decor, but a kind of reflection about the kind of "down-to-earth" mentality that settled the plains. For Brown the Great Plains are a habitat of incongruities; a place where we can sublimely forge the infinite in our imagination as well asintimately confront the ordinary world of its inhabitants. Seeking a balance between criticism and admiration, Brown writes about this project: "These things and events describe a landscape, and, in turn, a culture that seems metaphorically American to me: an energetic mix of openness, high spirits, tenacity, andcare—coupled with more than occasional blindness, a chronic need for money, and a limited respect for the natural world."
The work of Enrique Carbo and Alfredo De Stefano in "La Toma del Paisaje (The Taking of the Landscape)" exhibit, acknowledges the legacy of Ansel Adams somewhat irreverently. "Taking" in the title oscillates ambiguously between "the act of photographing," "appropriating" and "handling." Carbo, who—as a professor of the LIniversity of Barcelona—lectures on the history of landscape photography,shows works from two series expressive of two kinds of relationship with the landscape. In the series "A Forest to Last a Lifetime" (Un bosque para toda la vida), Carbo presents in large, 40-x-40" prints, forest vignettes reminiscent of Adam's X except that they are not of particularly beautiful or spectacular loci.Irreverently and meticulously, Carbo paints upon the image gilded code bars and numbers that give the geographic coordinates of each locus. The viewer, by the way, unless he/she is a psychic, has no way of knowing what the symbols mean unless the photographer or an extremely observant cartographer tells him/her. Thus, Carbo lays over a Romantic perception of the forest, its perceived commercial identity as inexhaustible resource. Carbo never reprints, all the images are unique for every forest locus with different coordinates. In this work the layer of straight landscape photography has been anteceded by the layer of manipulated image, yet both manage to coexist. Once again, we find the non-commital intelligence in this work that we found in Brown's.
A different kind of relationship with the landscape is expressed by the other series of Carbo "fictional Primitive Statues." If in the other series he alluded to the reductionist numerical identity a locus in the planet has for the exploitative mind, in the latter series Carbo confronts the inquisitive mind'ssearch for meaning in nature. Wind-eroded monoliths the world over have fascinated dreamers and even experts. Some rocks appear so sculptorical that not few trained archaeologists have engaged in speculative theorizing about the hands that sculpted them. Once again boasting the unique print for dozens of such rocks, Carbo finds, produces, and reproduces these sculptures, placing his own marks, not on the image itself but on its supports. Thus he separates the marks with in-tentionality from those marks of causalsignificance. However, the marks (x's, handprints and circles) he himself makes on the support margins, occasionally bear some resemblance to marks found on rocks—thus leaving room for doubt as to the symbolic potential of natural objects. Carbo does present these cyclopeah menhirs with a certain degree of reverence—as if suggesting that even if they are not intentional, they may still be symbolic. Some take that to be the paradox of the straight photographic image.
In spite of his Italian surname, Alfredo De Stefano is a Mexican photographer from Coahuila, the Mexican state to which Texas once belonged. His current work on exhibit is from the series "Vestiges of Paradise." The intervention marks of De Stefano on his huge color prints made from black-and-white negatives are less conspicif-ous than those in Carbo's work. Although his images are all of the northern deserts of Mexico, his tides do not make more specific the exact place, but rather establish the photographer's response to the landscape. Viento (Wind), for example, conveys by small vectorial arrows the sound and direction of the wind not visible in the image. In a landscape of sky, clouds, faraway mountains, and sand dunes titled Time (which in Spanish means both "weather" and"time"), arrows in the image indicate the reflection of the photographer upon the forces that move sand to shape it into familiar rhythms. The photographer portrays the desert as one who intimately coexists with it and not as mere traveler.
The images of "Vestiges of Paradise" are sublime in that late Eighteenth century sense that came to play such an important role in describing the West and in displacing beauty from twentieth century art. De Stefano's landscapes are awe-inspiring and even ominous in a way beautiful things are not (Unless, forgetting that beauty is canonical, as is customarily the case, one applies the term licentiously). Moreover, De Stefano's scribbled marks are at times scratched out of the negative itself—as in Las rodadoras (Tumblers). In this ironic image of ephemeral passing carved out of a permanently-damaged negative,rootless migratory plants glide through the desert surface. Certainly, such a sacrilegious scarring of the negative would have upset more than one /64 photographer's aesthetic and even moral sense. For the latter, the impeccable radiance of the print goes hand-in-hand with the desire for pristine nature and is evidence of the intrinsic beauty of the natural world. Whereas in De Stefano's work, beauty is a distraction and aims, rather, at what is extrinsic to nature; namely, the concepts with which we respond to it. Damage to things is, afterall, less morally repulsive than damage to desert dwellers. Occasionally, the concepts are blatantly thrown at us not only in the titles but by writing them in the image itself as is the case with Arena (Sand); written, in fact, where some weeds are depicted.
Morally, if you will, Rick Dingus's markings on his panoramic color prints in "Long Views" are much more conservative, because he does preserve theintegrity of its negative substrate. What Dingus' panoramic camera "sweeps" is also more dispersed geographically than in Brown's "Great Plains"; although one gets the impression that both photographers could have met at some backroad in the Panhandle. Although often Dingus' titles have the familiar ring of the photograph in the documentary mode, clearly it is not his intention to submit images as records. In fact, the thrust of his manipulative artistic enhancement of the image deflates its evidentiary role so that we are forced to reflect more on the mindproducing the image than on its referent; or, on the interaction of both. Dingus explains it thus "In my layering of marks on photographs, and in the references provided by the places that I photograph, I'm interested in both participating in and observing the phenomenon of change by setting up a dialogue between inner experiences and outer ones."
Dingus' so called "color photodraw-ings" look painterly and "artistic" in the way some pictorialists meant. The pastel-like strokes on his works often resemble those of that Nineteenth century painter of battles, so revered by Dali, Jean Louis-Ernest Meissonier, in their ability to animate the grasses of battlegrounds and to organize the image by adding chaos. By adding an alien medium to the surface of the color print of Scattered Ashes, White Rock, NM, Dingus adds movement and mood, conceals, reveals, and camouflages. His darkened skies in both views of Field House near Snyder, Texas have the effect of making the house glow in the midst of an artificial darkness; giving the modest building a heroic presence in the landscape. The artist interprets his own photographic image by the way he chooses to intervene in it. InWind Blown Fence, Lubbock, Texas, the fence that stops the paper debris is a metaphor for the photographic print with one side towards the referent (the invisible wind) and the other towards its producer and/or interpreter. It is as if nature blew objects towards the photographer and he stopped them with the grid of his artistic hand. The photographic image becomes a canvas on which the artist expresses his responses to the natural and cultural forces that caused an object or a landscape. Tin Roof and Cattle, Spur, Texas shows a land whose horizon bears the curvature of a globe. The conjunction is eloquent, the world looks small.
At the end of the Twentieth century, conceivably, we have grown more intelligent but also less capable than a hundred years ago. More intelligence may not be always worth rejoicing about, whereas being less capable of anything sometimes may. Perhaps a hundred years from now people will not be able to even guess our intentions and the distinction between kinds of photography will be determined onlystylistically or by association with other objects found in the same stratum deep under the land. •
Fernando Castro is a photographer and writer living in Houston.