Thoughts on Challenging & Expanding the Genre
I still remember a trip I made years ago where our flight path took us over the Yosemite Valley. It was a crystal-clear October morning with only a light scattering of high cirrus clouds overhead and an unobstructed view of the landscape below. Even from my vantage point at 22,000 feet, the jewel of the Yosemite landscape —The Half Dome— was instantly recognizable. Moreover, it left me with a keen sense of place with an undertone of disquiet. I was naturally taken aback by this sensation. How could seeing this icon of the American West from this angle stir such feelings? Upon reflection, I realized that this was something that I had confronted before. Something that I had felt on numerous occasions when faced with places of such great notoriety.
Years earlier, during one of the multiple trips to the park, I felt profoundly moved as I stood in the shadow of this magnificent feature of Yosemite. Oddly enough, I had a troubling awareness of time displacement. My real-time experience of the park was stitched together with numerous memories of all the iconic photographs I had visually consumed throughout my life, including works from Ansel Adams or Edward Weston or the countless anonymous postcard and calendar views. Some have argued that the sheer density of imagery makes Yosemite as much a cultural state as a natural one.
Image vs. Reality
The National Park Service utilizes a scenic vista management program to recreate the historic views captured in those early photographs. Landscape, in general, is also true of Yosemite: the tension between the image of a place and the reality of that place -a tension shaped by the photographic practice of the last 150 years— is at the heart of a conflicted relationship with the land we use and inhabit.
The highly influential images of Ansel Adams have had an enormous influence on attitudes about nature and landscape –much the way Edward Abbey influenced people through his written words. From the start of Adams’s career in the 1930s until he died in 1984, he took thousands of photographs in the American West. Adams presents the landscape as an untouched, untainted, uninhabited wilderness. A passionate love for nature-inspired Adams – he viewed himself as a conservationist and photographer – but his work is rife with contradictions. He worked hard to erase any human presence from his images, and even a cursory examination of his technique reveals how artfully he fabricated them. The unintended consequence of Adams’ carefully framed and dispassionate views was -and continues to be – the reinforcement of a deeply rooted duality in the American psyche: that the natural world is separate from the human one. Our relationship with nature is one of visiting and not inhabiting.
The Altered Landscape
Succeeding generations of photographers have certainly challenged Adams’s legacy. I mentioned the flight from Reno, Nevada, to a conference in San Diego, with a connection in Phoenix, Arizona. I was fortunate enough to catch “The Altered Landscape: Photographs of a Changing Environment” at the Nevada Museum of Art. In 1975, William Jenkins curated the now legendary exhibition “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” at the George Eastman House in Rochester, setting the NMA exhibition trend. The latest show examined the desolation and unexpected beauty of built environments like industrial parks and strip malls. Nature was rejected as unspoiled or ideal. In The Altered Landscape, artists like Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, and Joe Deal were exhibited with more contemporary artists like Edward Burtynsky, Chris Jordan, Richard Misrach, and Subhanker Banerjee. Land use and human activity are the subjects of their study. Though the work in the exhibition varied widely in style and content, some of the earlier work, reflecting on alterations and abuses of the natural environment, seemed to be returning to the dualism of Ansel Adams.
There is much to see, ranging from the majestic tectonics of Ansel Adams’s “Moon and Half Dome” to the domestic scene of Robert Adams’s “Newly Completed Tract House to the polluted landscapes of Edward Burtynsky’s “SOCAR Oil Fields #6.
With all that said, what’s next?
Just as the landscape is an ever-evolving construct, so is photography itself. Fine art photographers are adapting their ideas and means of expression in a wide variety of works. In keeping with these changes, educators push photographers to dig deep into their creative minds to challenge the norms and expand their horizons within the landscape.
Samy’s Photo School and National Park Photography Expeditions (NPPE) have led photographers on a quest to find their creative voices. Several up-and-coming fine art landscape photographers that have been students of NPPE are meeting with critical success. While not entirely abandoning the traditions of the past. We are also seeing expansions of both men as a part of the environment and men outside the domain. Several of the students’ works I have featured here land on either end of that spectrum. A few abstract ideas on landscape imagery will also be presented.
Ted Rigoni is a prior NPPE Masterclass student that has advanced his work to a place where his work is recognized and winning awards. Ted’s images are great examples of man as a part of the landscape. His “Mojave Rail” collection explores and celebrates the rails that helped open and build the American West. These images are a tribute to one of the new directions of fine art photography within the landscape genre.
Martha Hernandez is another NPPE Masterclass student whose work meets with success and is an excellent example of impressionism within the landscape. Her work focuses on the more traditional view of the pristine land where man is absent in the environment. Her highly stylized images use the landscape more as elements –or building blocks– as part of her final images. Her practiced and distinctive use of ICM (Intentional Camera Movement) has become as identifiable to her work as Monet’s splotches of blended color are to his. Martha is a fine example of an artist that has developed her voice.
Nathan Cowlishaw –who goes by the name Nathan Arizona and @talking_tree on his Instagram account– is another fine art landscape photographer that has embraced the man as a part of landscape school. Classically trained at Southern Utah University and self-taught well beyond his foundational work at University, he has a distinctive style that presents rural and urban decay as a beautiful aspect of the land. Nate has been pushing the boundaries of traditional landscape photography while incorporating his signature and nostalgic “Ektachrome look” in much of his photography. His work ranges from the disturbing to the serene and never fails to evoke strong feelings from the viewer. He is also a master of the Deadpan style of photography, or what is commonly called “the thing itself.”
These three photographers are just a few fine art landscape photographic artists presenting compelling examples of challenging and expanding the genre. As an instructor with National Park Photography Expeditions, I am always excited to see our students grow. There are moments when they have presented something that goes beyond our instruction. I then get this renewed sense of appreciation for all things that go “Beyond the Lens.”