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«Landscape in Artifice: Contemporary Photographic Trends as they Relate to Environmentalism CIS Senior Project Sage Cichock Advisor: Bill Sonnega May ...»

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Landscape in Artifice: Contemporary Photographic Trends as they Relate to Environmentalism

CIS Senior Project

Sage Cichock

Advisor: Bill Sonnega

May 6, 2013

Sage Cichock

CIS Senior Project Paper


The twenty-first century is one saturated with signs: logos are recognizable from childhood,

brands can be marketed without the necessity of slogans, and personal interests can be identified from

simple clothing choices. Furthermore, while signs can take many forms and functions, the photograph has proved to be one of the most accessible, utilized, and understood media of this era. The application of photography to personal memories, journalism, and professional art has made photographs an exceptionally prevalent part of culture. But the photograph has never been a medium of innocent artistic expression. These images document history and serve as traces of Earth as it is known to large populations. As such, photographs of the Earth itself spread understanding of the planet as a landscape.

Landscape imagery is not original to the photograph, but the conjunction of the popularity of the photograph with the development of branding and icons has made the essence of the photograph highly complex. In a world of increasing environmental issues, climate changes, and human removal from nature, these images serve as snapshots into natural worlds that are believed to exist based on photographic evidence. The power of the photograph is remarkable, as a tool by which to instill appreciations, alter memories, and prove events, the integration of this media into so many facets of the human experience does not come without consequences. As culture has moved into an era of the computer and mass mechanization, the ability of the photograph to be a believed omnipresent element of daily life has subsequently led to the development of altered photographs marketed as real. These images contribute to the relativity of the real in postmodernism and the interest in digital culture, but as applied to natural settings they also contribute towards a misunderstanding of the natural world.

Through the investigation of photographic trends of artifice applied to landscape imagery, it is clear that a problem of simulacra in landscape appreciation has been, and will continue to develop. A world which sees beauty in landscape by way of beauty in landscape images is one who also believes in a nature that exists contemporarily only in the photographic form. Traced through the canon of landscape art history, the development of this phenomenon is both clear and logical, but viewed through a perspective of urgent contemporary environmentalism holds severe implications.

Historical Progression and Development of Nature as Icon Though most recognized and popularized in the American setting, landscape painting as a genre originated in the Dutch tradition in the fifteenth century. Subjective or more overtly representational painting was trending in other genres during this time period, but at its origins landscape painting emphasized accurate depictions of individual sites as opposed to the romanticized quality which became prioritized in following centuries. Due to the commission of these paintings largely by wealthy individuals looking to showcase their properties or the community at large, landscapes quickly became subjected to appeasing the political, aesthetic and social motives of their instigators. This included the beautifying of mundane landscapes, inclusion of intentional viewer perspectives and the omission of compositional elements deemed unsightly.

In the American context, there was even greater opportunity for landscape to be represented through a high level of subjectivity. At the origins of the country's development, most individuals had never seen what was considered to be one of the most breathtaking natural

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for the political drive to settle and exploit the West for its natural resources. Artists, particularly those involved in the Hudson River School, were instrumental to this movement as they introduced the American population to this new world and admittedly framed the West as both alluring and lucrative.

In The Magisterial Gaze, Albert Boime observes that this perspective was set to tell the viewer that the future lies right over the horizon (10). The future was depicted as bountiful, beautiful and apt for cultivation. Using landscape imagery to imply these ideals followed clearly from the wide aesthetic appeal of the genre as well as the governments commitment to market the west to potential pioneers. As Boime notes, “compositions were arranged with the spectator in mind, either assuming the elevated viewpoint of the onlooker or including a staffage figure from behind which functioned as the surrogate onlooker” (Boime 1). While this viewpoint frequently went unnoticed on the part of the viewer, it nonetheless set a standard for individual landscapes and landscapes in general.

The artist Thomas Cole and others, such as Asher B. Durand and Frederick Edwin Church of the Hudson River School, became immensely popular, both in the Unites States and internationally and their paintings were windows into the world that awaited American expansion (figure 1). Viewers, especially those on the East Coast were instantly attracted to these depictions of the West, giving painters an opportunity to take liberties in the depiction process. More specifically, their paintings appeared as romanticized snapshots of western areas, when they were in fact syntheses of many sketches on the part of the painter. This meant that the marketed final products were not accurate depictions of each scene, but rather composed highlights from a selection of rough drawings.

Furthermore, many Westward Expansion paintings by the artists were commissioned by the government at the same time western lands were being surveyed. In many cases, surveys and paintings were produced on the same expeditions. The government-commissioned artists were sent along with the government surveyors, and subsequently, both tasks were accomplished while maintaining similar priorities (Boime 151). The larger agenda of surveying the west to quantify and divide the territory could be translated into the art that was marketed under the same motive. While often unnoticed on the part of viewers, expansion priorities imbedded in their paintings were established by including geometric compositional divisions and the projected view of potential ownership into each scene.

As the land changed to meet the demands of expansion and technology, the efforts on the part of those artists who showcased the land continued to adapt as well. Although Hudson River School painters and others like them were highly regarded for their artistic talent, their popularity was enhanced by a connection to their audience that went beyond surface aesthetics. Boime argues that one aspect of Cole's work that made it popular was the way he could encode futurity and progress into the landscape (Boime 8). This progress included a careful integration of those natural elements deemed breathtaking with the inevitable traces of technological development such as trains, agricultural equipment, and roadways. Initially something of opposites, these dueling characteristics of the contemporary scene were married to provide viewers with a utopian depiction of technological expansion into nature. For example, in Jasper Cropsey's “Starrucca Viaduct,” (figure 2) the viewer's eye follows the boy's gaze out to the expansive train bridge and developed area. The train and viaduct bridge symbolically pave the way towards the future and an ideal partnership of nature and technology.

In this composition and many others, technological expansion is shown in harmony with breathtaking natural elements. By settling the seemingly abnormal union of the natural and the constructed by placing technology in the more tamed and controlled areas of the landscape composition (Boime 84), painters implied to viewers that these innovations did not harm nature, but rather provided for its healthy domestication.

While these efforts addressed Westward expansion efforts and helped to market the new landscape genre, they also contained subliminal messages. Sales of art have long been contingent upon

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landscape in the confines of a rectangular frame reflects a mindset of domination and ownership (Boime 18).

Landscape as a genre developed substantially from its origins, but its inherent power to showcase the awesome beauty of the natural world remained despite industrialization. Although painters found compositional strategies to emphasize the harmony of nature and technology, those fearful of the developing world found that landscape paintings could serve as inspirational or spiritual.

As technology and settlement provided for the eventual alteration and destruction of the natural world, environmental organizations originating in the late 1800's such as the Sierra Club employed this same style of images to emphasize the beauty encompassed by nature and the necessity of its preservation (figure 3). Although the intentions of the Sierra Club commissions were far different from those of railway owners and Westward Expansionists, many of the artists employed were of, or inspired by, the Hudson River School compositional mindset.

Subsequently, qualities such as the raised perspective and framing remained to appeal to the established landscape aesthetic. Since the Hudson River School artists did not often paint specific scenes, but

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images to provoke social action meant balancing the need to present the existing natural destruction, while showcasing the beauty held by the nature that remained.

Marketing these images became a requirement of environmental organizations because their funding relied upon viewer reaction. In fact, because of their integral role in preservation efforts, this image movement “not only mirrored the values of the wilderness campaign; it also became a major site for making and contesting the definition of environmental reform” (Dunaway 120). The transition from private commissions to large-scale environmentalist marketing campaigns developed with minimal alteration required on the part of the artists’ practices or the viewership of audiences. Moreover, this mass-distribution of nature images allowed for the art and artists that were once only experienced via museum visits and costly prints to be recognized and beheld by individuals of varying financial and geographical situations. Like the private commissions of centuries prior, these images from the Sierra Club and other organizations were made available to the individual for private use, and because of their distribution for use in the intimacy of one's own home, the images were able to connect on a highly personal level. Finis Dunaway writes that this format “allowed the audience to imagine solitude; it simulated the ideal wilderness experience, the sense of being alone in nature, gaining a feeling of individual renewal” (179). The capacity of the images to connect with viewers on a personal level became of integral importance to marketing the environmental movement of the early twentieth century. Viewers felt as if they were not only gaining a view into the sublime natural world, but also developing a relationship with wilderness. The problem, though, is that the relationship and appreciation being developed was for the images and not nature itself. Furthermore, although the images were sold to raise funds for environmental protection, the poster and picture-book format of these prints sent a message contradicting the very purpose of the campaign (Dunaway 119). While attractive and easily accessible reminders of nature, these same qualities portrayed nature as something to attend to as convenient, not requiring any urgency.

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