Monday, April 13, 2009

The civilized landscape: experience it or bust

I will wholeheartedly admit, it has taken me a really long time to understand and appreciate the complexities of landscape photography.  As an artist, I have always been attracted to images of people; to me landscapes have always seemed less intricate than the face of a human being.  Most of this has to do with the fact that I literally cannot photograph anything with a horizon line, it just doesn't come naturally to me.  But upon arriving at Columbia and being surrounded by many contemporary landscape photographers as well as reading numerous essays and articles about the topic, I feel like I finally have a clue.  

The topic for this week's readings is "New Topographics" which was the name of an exhibition at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in 1975.  This show included works from landscape photographers such as Robert Adams, Frank Gohlke, and many others.  The "New Topographics" exhibit indefinitely changed the way landscape photography would be viewed and practiced throughout the U.S., because it forced people to acknowledge the fact that the geography of the land is no longer considered "unspoiled."  That humans have become an intricate and integral component to the landscape.

For the New Topographics artists, the experience of being in the landscape is crucial not only to the picture making process, but also to the quality of image that comes out of their subjective experience.  A chapter written by Robert Adams entitled "Truth and Landscape" attempts to analyze some of Adams' thoughts he has encountered in regards to photographing landscapes.  At one point Adams points out the importance of the photographer's presence, that is, the photographer's point of view, to landscape art.  He states, "Making photographs has to be, then, a personal matter; when it is not, the results are not persuasive.  Only the artist's presence in the work can convince us that its affirmation resulted from and has been tested by human experience.  Without the photographer in the photograph the view is no more compelling than the product of some anonymous record camera..."  For Adams, beauty and aesthetics are not the only factors involved in making a convincing image.  The quality of image directly correlates with the subjective element to landscape art.   That for a photographer to divorce oneself from the experience of the landscape is undesirable and devalues the ultimate meaning of the art.

This same issue of subjectivity affected Frank Gohlke's opinions of artmaking.  He wrote, "As different as the places depicted in these photographs are from one another, they have at least one thing in common: being there made my pulse speed up, and the making of a picture seemed the only appropriate response."  For Gohlke, the infusion of place and photography is a seemingly personal and impulsive reaction to the landscape, and this relationship is thus
 documented in his work.  As Ben Lifson writes about Gohlke's love affair with the landscape, it seems to me, as I was reading Lifson's essay on Gohlke and his photographs, that Lifson not only loved Gohlke's work, but also seemed to have a crush of Gohlke, intellectually or otherwise.  Lifson gushes about Gohlke and the various photographic elements he has depicted throughout the years, narrowing his work down to six working titles/categories: The Singular Object, Tapestry, The Horizon, The Spectacle, Ruins, and Darkness into Light.  

One of Gohlke's main subjects, grain elevators, falls under a few of these categories, and he has found that by photographing these large objects in the landscape, he is experiencing a very personal reaction to them.  He states, "I tried to come to terms with my understanding of landscape, and the way in which photographs could suggest the experience of particular landscapes and also provide an analysis of the elements that make up that experience."  By experiencing the landscape of the grain elevators, I think Gohlke was able to manifest a deeper meaning to these giant oddities.  Who would think to photograph grain elevators without ever experiencing them firsthand?  These photographs take into account the physical relationship of these objects to their surroundings; their posture, stillness, solitude, and awe.  
Frank Gohlke, Abandoned grain elevator, Homewood, Kansas, 1973

Frank Gohlke, Grain elevators - Minneapolis - Series I, #26, 1973

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