«Landscape in Artifice: Contemporary Photographic Trends as they Relate to Environmentalism CIS Senior Project Sage Cichock Advisor: Bill Sonnega May ...»
A format shift in the distribution of landscape images from small-scale private to massmarketed prints was also reflected in the shift from the medium of paint to photography. Though convincingly realistic in quality, paint media allowed for different qualities of subjectivity on the part of the landscape artist than the photograph provided. The popularity of Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School's representations, however, set a very difficult standard to achieve through means of mechanical reproduction. Photographers such as Ansel Adams and others representing environmental organizations struggled with finding this same level of perfection in physical nature that was depicted by the painters of the Hudson River School and followers. A driving force in this matter was the reality of the environmental degradation that resulted from years of industrial expansion. While painters had the ability to transform the impacts of industrialization, photographers had to work with the physical nature still remaining. As Elliot Porter, a nature photographer and notable member of the Sierra Club, observed, “I became convinced, also, that photography's persuasiveness was greater the higher the aesthetic quality of the photograph” (Dunaway 157). This left photographers searching for nature to meet this standard and concurrently to convince urban dwellers that the natural world really did have scenes as beautiful as they had been led to believe.
Although the emergence of photography as a new media allowed artists some new opportunities for compositions and subject matter, aesthetic preferences were not re-invented for these images. The
consequence of their conforming to the existing compositional structure of landscape images (figure 4).
Audiences still wanted to see the magnificent beauty of the natural world contemporarily in photographic evidence, and while the medium did not allow for the image synthesis or alterations taken up by Cole and other Hudson River School painters, it did provide for incredible subjectivity through framing. This frame not only perpetuated the historic notion of nature residing in a composed rectangle, but also aided in the development of the idea of prescribed natural views. Though certainly a challenge at the outset, the ability of photographers to utilize a classic aesthetic form, in tandem with their ability to find slices of this ideal nature in reality, elevated the value of the photograph immensely. As Susan Sontag argues, the camera has been so successful in beautifying the world that the photo, rather than the world, sets the standard for beauty (85). This, in essence, is the problem posed by the photograph of nature: the standard began resting in the image rather than the physical subject, setting not only a precedent for images, but also for nature itself.
The popularity of natural images provided by this iconization provided a great deal of appreciation for landscape representations, but in doing so assembled a very complex assortment of motives and influences from eras past. In addition to the political efforts on the part of government representatives, environmental organizations, and high-powered individuals, nature's role in American religion and spirituality added further layers of influence and meaning into these images. As the presence of technology grew larger, nostalgic desires to relate nature to Eden became more prevalent, both to reassure individuals of their relationship with nature, and to reconnect with the God that seemed to be disappearing from the urbanizing world. As Dunaway argues, “trying to recover Eden, Newhall and Adams used photographs as emblems of memory, as reminders of primordial nature” (147). This primordial nature, however, never existed originally, but instead holds its proof in images as opposed to reality. These image trends and value standards not only developed into an iconic image of nature for mainstream media distribution, but subsequently an iconic nature which could be compared to physical nature. This iconic nature became a simulacrum with serious impacts for the nature these images originally sought to protect. More specifically, the result of only representing the best of the physical and symbolic world led to a lack of regard for the nature that exists in current form largely as a consequence of human changes. While the desire to rediscover in nature the God that is missing from the constructed world may be well intended, its manifestation as an icon has grave repercussions: it renders the belief in image-based nature inauthentic, and subsequently the belief in reality-based nature disappointing.
Compositional Familiarity Exemplified through the Art of Jeff Wall The tradition of landscape in Western art history remains present through contemporary times, creating further implications with the onset of popular and theoretical postmodernism. Furthermore, while the instantaneous quality of photography allowed for a great deal of artistic opportunity, the notion of the photographic trace has been challenged throughout the decades, but particularly since the 1980's. This trace is the characteristic of the photograph that defines it as an artifact of physical reality. Unlike even representational paintings which can hold ties to history or a contemporary reality, the camera as an eye which etches captured light on paper necessitates some
has allowed for a great deal of experimentation for contemporary artists interested in testing the boundaries between reality and artifice.
Jeff Wall, a contemporary photographer and artist made some of the first and most puzzling inquiries into photographic possibilities in creating reality and artifice to appear as unrecognizable from one another. Similar to many historic landscape artists, Wall is also a commissioned artist working to produce pieces for exhibits and collections. In addition, he carries similarities to photographers such as Ansel Adams and Carleton Watkins by utilizing paintings as the compositional foundations for his pieces. Wall's foundational inspiration differs, though, as his pieces challenge the nature of beauty in artistic compositions rather than strive to match it. For example, in one of his more popular photographs, “The Destroyed Room” (figure 5), the photographer uses the romanticist period painting, “The Death of Sardanapalus” (figure 6) by Delacroix as the structural basis for the setup of the room.
This room does not resemble the historic painting in subject matter, but it appears oddly familiar despite his rather non-traditional depiction of a household remnants. In this way, Jeff Wall uses historic or iconic compositions as the basis by which to present subject matter outside the canon of oil painting.
His usage and analysis of compositional beauty distinguishes his photographs from what might seem similar amateur snapshots. This happens as consequence of his utilization of cultural constructions of beauty in imagery to create his images. As Wall observed, “In The Destroyed Room, I was interested in a “remaking” of an existing image” (Wall 1). So while landscape artists may have felt obligated to attend to landscape compositional constructions, or only found their pieces to have general similarities to those prior, Wall's interest is more intentional, yet also more concealed. His images do not work from inspirations of past paintings so as to compete with them or gain more notoriety, but they instead use these foundations as catalysts for contemporary aesthetic appeal.
Jeff Wall's approach is highly complex in regards to the classification and understanding of
are recognizable because they have appeared commonly throughout the canon of art history. For example, in this photograph, like in many others, Wall carries a strong diagonal throughout the viewing plane and also utilizes traditional tactics such as color distribution and foreground/background separation to draw references in his contemporary pieces to those fitting a more popular conception of museum art.
Jeff Wall's approach can be analyzed effectively through critiques of contemporary media culture because his tactics share many commonalities to larger social phenomenons. In regards to landscapes in particular, media theorist Thomas De Zengotita writes, “natural things have become icons of themselves” (212). Using examples such as Mount Rushmore or the Grand Canyon, De Zengotita
large takes on a very similar quality on account of each genre having characteristics that audiences of all types recognize and expect. The landscape genre specifically has many of these standards, formed both by practices of artists and by the widespread popularity of specific pieces such as “The Oxbow” (figure 7) by Cole, or “Lander's Peak” (figure 8) by Albert Bierstadt. These paintings in effect, hold an elite status by which other landscapes are compared. Furthermore, pieces tied to specific properties can project standards of evaluation for that landscape throughout time. In sites such as the Rocky Mountains or Niagara Falls, “timeless” paintings can function as inspiration Fig. 8 “The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak”, 1863, Albert Bierstadt, oil on canvas for the land's potential, even if these standards are no longer possible given worldwide environmental changes.
In Jeff Wall's landscapes, these standards can be seen applied in ways similar to his methods in “Destroyed Room”. The photographer carries direct inspiration from past representations, but in an approach very symptomatic of the post-modern pastiche. Jean Baudrillard, a post-modern theorist addressed the larger origin of Wall's artistic concept, writing, “we too live in a universe everywhere strangely similar to the original- here things are duplicated by their own scenario”(23). Baudrillard's statement speaks to the familiarity in simulated images with iconic referents, since these images hold a false similarity to reality. Furthermore, Baudrillard's claim informs the potential of purportedly organic to be subject to this same falsity, as they too can be derived from models. Wall, like many of his contemporaries, samples from many artistic eras within his photographs with no clear or cohesive
glance appears very similar to that of the original. Upon a more critical viewing, however, the setting is littered with trash, telephone wires, and agricultural negligence which hold no place in the canon of iconic art history. With Wall's breathtaking reconstruction of the wind and care to find a site with similar attributes, the oddity of this littered, unattended landscape is quite informative. Baudrillard further argued, “The real is not only what can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced” (146). This concept is well applied to Wall's photographs as his photographic reality is a reproduction, but shows the impossibility of fitting imagined realities onto the physical reality. It reflects the contemporary desire to look for these ideals in landscapes of present day Earth, but also that the ideal cannot be achieved without tableau. These iconic landscape do not, and cannot presently exist, and therefore can now only exist through the aid of artifice. The wind gust in Wall's photograph can be reproduced near perfectly, but the found landscape portion of the photograph is less than iconic. In sum, the “ideal real”, or the reality which fits representational standards is not one which can be found naturally, but is now formed through the production of reproducible models. The landscape of Wall's “A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai)” is beautiful insofar as it contributes to the iconically referenced whole of the photograph. As a landscape, Wall treats the space by framing, perspective, and lighting, which contribute towards the beauty of his photograph. But without these treatments or the submissive role of the land to the composition, the land is forgettable, and I would argue, easily overlooked.