Category Archives: Essays

Short essays on photography

On the Preciousness of the Idea

There is nothing in art photography that I couldn’t do. Well, actually, there is a lot I can’t do. But I could do it all if I really wanted to. I’m talking about the ‘process’ side of photography. I’m talking about creating B&W photographs using the Zone System, or creating old-fashioned Ambrotypes or Cyanotypes. I’m talking about all the varieties of ‘camera-less’ photography, and the many facets of digital/Photoshop wizardry. I could be an expert in any of these processes (or all of them, if I lived long enough) if I really wanted to be. I don’t.  I’d rather have a really great idea for a photographic body of work.

I’m not dismissing photographic processes—far from it. Superior process execution can be a crucial element in artmaking—when the process furthers the conveyance of the idea behind the art. Consider how Ansel Adams’ skill with the Zone System enhanced the message of the sublimity of unspoiled nature encoded in his landscapes. If, however, mere process excellence is the idea behind the art, then the work conveys little more than the skillfulness of the artist.  Such a piece is better categorized as craft rather than art. As David Bayles and Ted Orland observe in their classic essays on artmaking, Art and Fear: “Simply put, art that deals with ideas is more interesting than art that deals with technique.”

In fact, if the idea is strong enough, a lack of fine craft doesn’t necessarily diminish the photographic art. Henri Cartier-Bresson wasn’t all that fussy about his prints (he assumed his images would be printed in books anyway). For him—and for the rest of the art world—the art of his photography was the capture of the decisive moment, not the production of fine prints in the darkroom.  And no one will ever accuse Cindy Sherman of developing fine prints for her famous Film Stills series, but that work is now enshrined in the canon of photographic art.

It is the idea conveyed by the image that is the essence of the art in a photograph. However, the idea that inspires the artist need not be the idea that others see in the art. Cindy Sherman has said that her motivation for creating her famous Film Stills photographs had as much to do with a chance to play dress up as anything else. The postmodernist art world saw in Film Stills a critique on the how popular media (especially movies and television) portray the female. Most artists understand this inspiration/interpretation dynamic. As emerging Colorado photographer Patti Hallock says of her latest series: “… the story I tell myself about the work isn’t the same as the story I’m telling you.” A photographer who insists on viewers seeing the same idea that motivated the image generally bludgeons the viewers with an overly detailed artist statement. Generally this is not a good move, as the Film Stills case implies. Allowing viewers the opportunity to create their own interpretation of the work increases the chances that they will engage with photographs. If that happens, then no matter what interpretation they come up with, the photographs and the photographer have succeeded.

If the art world cannot see a worthwhile idea behind the images does that mean that the photographs and the photographer have failed? Perhaps, but not necessarily. Truly inspired and original work sometimes takes some getting used to. The art world initially dismissed Pablo Picasso’s early work. Eugène Atget’s photographs of old Paris were largely ignored for decades before his genius was recognized.

Even when photographs that have meaning for the photographer never muster much public interest, the work has failed commercially, but not necessarily artistically (it fails artistically as well if its process execution is so flawed that the photographs’ messages had little chance to communicate). Let’s face it; few fine art photographers achieve any real measure of commercial success anyway. The vast majority of us labor away in obscurity—taking what satisfaction we can from artmaking that helps us ask, and sometimes answer, questions important to our lives. Even those photographers who achieve significant recognition understand that, in the grand scheme of things, relatively few people are interested in their work. Robert Adams, of New Topographics fame, writes in Why People Photograph, “Almost all photographers have incurred large expenses in the pursuit of tiny audiences, finding that the wonder they’d hoped to share is something that few want to receive.” Tellingly, he adds: “Nothing is so clarifying, for instance, as to stand through the opening of an exhibition to which only officials have come.”

So, an inspired and inspiring idea is the key to art photography. What, then, are the characteristics of a great idea for art photography?

Relates to Human Concerns        One aspect of a great idea, clearly, is that the idea relates, in some fashion that can be expressed visually, to one or more of the fundamental concerns of human life – the search for peace, happiness, love, understanding; the experience of joy and misery, human connection and rejection, life and death; the appreciation for beauty, humor, surprise, wonder, adventure; the emotions stirred by great events and tragedies, etc. It is this connection to the human ethos that generally gives a photographic idea meaning to the photographer, and the potential to connect the resultant photograph to the viewer. The challenge for the photographer is to capture images that are at once intensely personal yet also manifest an invitation for others to find in the images a connection to their own human concerns.

Originality          A second aspect of a great idea is originality. This element can be more confounding to deal with than the human element. In some level, there is little photographic ground that has not been already well covered by other photographers. Adding to the challenge is that while originality is highly prized, the art world wants to be able to see some connection to past masterpieces (in photography or other art media). Photography critics, curators, and especially academics and historians like to be able connect dots, to see trends, to compare and contrast, to identify the artist’s comment on the old with his new. That makes them look smart. Further, such references in the work tell them that the photographer is not just some lucky bumpkin, but rather someone who is well versed in art history. This automatically elevates the photographs and the photographer to a higher standing in the art world. While it is not out of the question for something completely new to find acceptance in the art world, it is just as likely (or more so) that the work will suffer the fate of Picasso’s initial work—dismissed for some time, until appreciation for the new idea finally develops, probably by a new generation of critics, curators, and historians. Yet if such historical references are ineptly handled and not clearly accomplished in support of a new idea, the photographer can be dismissed for being a clumsy appropriator of someone else’s work and idea.

Inevitably, as ever more photographers scrabble for ever more elusive originality, some photographers (often aided and abetted by bombastic artist statements) will try to pass off novelty or abnormality as an inspired new idea, when in fact there is little more than the banal. As LensWork editor Brooks Jensen warns in his collection of essays Letting Go of the Camera: “Because the bizarre and the abnormal are so easy to achieve, producing a mess and promoting it as genius is very seductive, especially to the general, ‘less educated’ public who will buy the concept, philosophically and commercially. Such pretense is based on blind faith in an unethical authority.”

Tree with many branches             A third characteristic of a great idea is that it has the potential to spawn a family of related ideas. In the early years of the last century, when photography was just emerging as an accepted art medium and its genres were just forming and thinly populated, a big idea (e.g., straight photography) could span different genres. Artists could jump from an inspired idea in one genre to another inspired idea in a completely different genre. Consider Paul Strand who achieved acclaim even though (and perhaps because) his genius was evident in a variety of genres (landscape, portraiture, abstracts, social study, etc.). However, the reality of today’s art world is such that a photographer is less likely to achieve traction if her work is spread out over multiple genres. The artist is expected to branch out from the main trunk of her defining big idea, but the overall oeuvre is expected to be viewed as an interrelated whole. Once again, I call upon Cindy Sherman as a prime example. The art world expects Cindy Sherman to do Cindy Sherman in dress up, as a comment on feminine identity. Sherman tried something else once, but the art world wasn’t having any of it, and Sherman soon went back to dress up. That is not to say that all of her work is the same. From her main theme, which the Museum of Modern Art describes as the examination of “the construction of identity and the nature of representation,” Sherman creatively has spun many variations of her big idea and remained, as MoMA puts it, “consistently original.” The challenge a photographer’s faces, when she gains some measure of acclaim with a first idea, is to distinguish between next ideas which are essentially copies of the first idea, and original branches from the first idea. Failing to make the distinction can have a serious consequence. As Picasso once said: “Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility.” Even the most acclaimed artists can suffer this fate; according to Robert Adams it happened to an icon of 20th century Modernist photography. In Why People Photograph Adams writes: “For every Atget, Stieglitz, Weston, or Brandt, who remain visionary to the end, there is an Ansel Adams who, after a period of extraordinary creativity, lapses into formula.”

So what I really want for my photography is not a new camera or lens, or a how-to book on the trendiest photography process. What I really want is a truly great idea for my next body of work. I want an idea that can lead to images that touch me, and potentially touch others as well. I want an idea that can distinguish my work, but at the same time relates my work to the photographic canon. I want an idea that I can take it in a lot of different directions yet maintain a familial connection in all my art. Such a great idea is the most precious thing that I, as a photographer, can own.

The Photography of the Altered Landscape


This paper will explore the history and evolution of American landscape photography, concentrating on western landscape art, and culminating in the art of contemporary landscape photographers. It will be taken as axiomatic that those photographers who have dedicated much of their artistic life photographing the American landscape have also concerned themselves with the state of the land more than most. Of course not everyone who has taken a landscape photograph is a dyed-in-the-wool conservationist. On the other hand, it is difficult to believe that anyone who has sought out the landscape as a subject of his or her art on a consistent, often artistic-lifelong basis would look upon a mountain and wish that it would be strip-mined for its minerals, or look upon a desert scene and daydream about how good a shopping mall would look there. So, while photography—as a tool—has been used extensively by those aligned with development, art photographers, for whom the landscape has been their greatest muse, have by and large aligned their art with the cause of conservation and wilderness preservation.

Of course American landscape photographic art did not spring whole cloth as a new genre of visual art. In order to place contemporary landscape photography in context, and to understand the choices that contemporary landscape photographers have in creating their art, we must first understand landscape photography’s roots in landscape painting and earlier American landscape photography.

The Landscape Art Tradition

Chinese Landscape Painting

Those whose cultural horizon is circumscribed by the Western art tradition might be surprised to know that landscape art achieved high status in China far earlier than in the West. As one author on Chinese landscape painting noted, “the landscape is the great subject of Chinese painting, and Westerners are properly amazed at the very early date of its first full expression.”[1] That ‘very early date’ was centuries before the landscape genre achieved a standing in the Western visual art tradition. The Chinese had created a sophisticated concept of nature long before the development of the three main philosophies (Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism) associated with historic Chinese culture, and this concept of nature was bound into these philosophies. Since landscape painting is linked inextricably to nature, such paintings were to become an important element of the art inspired by each of these philosophies.[2] By the 10th century (late Tang dynasty) “landscape painting had evolved into an independent genre that embodied the universal longing of cultivated men to escape their quotidian world to commune with nature. The prominence of landscape imagery in Chinese art has continued for more than a millennium and still inspires contemporary artists.”[3] Not surprisingly then, a Chinese artist will be mentioned again, when the discussion turns to contemporary landscape photography. For now, the important aspect here is to note that the message encoded in landscape art from the very beginning is that a nation’s cultural health is tied intimately to the health of its land.

Western Art

In Europe, it wasn’t until the 16th century that the landscape painting became more than background for figural compositions. In particular, it was the Reformation that gave the landscape its own standing in the art world. Convulsive waves of iconoclasm swept the Protestant world after its rupture from Rome, resulting in the suspicion by a great many Protestants that paintings, religious paintings in particular, were idolatrous. Since religious art was out of favor among Protestants, artists, particularly those in Northern Europe, turned to pure landscape painting, since such painting “had no overt religious content, although it could be seen as a reflection or even glorification of God’s work on Earth.”[4] This notion that visual art could capture the sublimity of nature and suggest to men nature’s relationship to the sacred would come into play prominently centuries later in United States when a few men, filled with almost religious fervor, would try to convince a nation that abusing its land were acts akin to sinning, sins redeemable only by acts of conservation and preservation.

The Romanticism movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries inspired the next major development in the landscape’s standing in the art world. Since Romanticists thought nature “awesome, fascinating, powerful, domestic, and delightful”, landscape paintings “became perhaps the most important visual vehicle for Romantic thought.”[5] In the fledgling United States, the Romanticism movement inspired the so-called Hudson River School of landscape art, whose first and most prominent artist was the painter Thomas Cole. In what seems to encapsulate the dueling viewpoints about America’s development (some would say exploitation) of its land, Cole’s most iconic painting, The Oxbow (1836), has been interpreted by some art historians as suggesting that the land “is bountiful and ready to yield its fruits to civilization,”[6] even other art historians feel Cole “expressed through his paintings serious doubts about the country’s expansionist tendencies, which he feared would result in the destruction of wilderness as new frontiers were occupied and settled.”[7] The social tension generated between the advocates of exploitation and conservation, a tension that could be captured in the same art, would turn out to be one of the enduring contours of America’s socio-political landscape.

Of course it was America’s western frontier that would soon be the young country’s obsession, a preoccupation that inspired, and was in part inspired by, the western landscape paintings of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. But as important as their sublime paintings of the West were to establishing and burnishing the young country’s cultural myths of the western frontier, it was photography that, soon after its invention in Europe and introduction to the United States, would dominate the way American’s viewed and considered its relationship with its Western lands.

19th Century American Landscape Photography

In a testament to the lure of the frontier West and fascination with a new invention, many individuals risked limb, if not life, to capture spectacular images of the post-Civil War era western landscape, despite severe challenges imposed by an often dangerous terrain and an inherently hazardous technology. In the main, however, the history of photography in this period generally revolves around the works of three men, Carleton Watkins, Timothy O’Sullivan, and William Henry Jackson, if for no other reason than their prodigious output of images.

Pertinent to this paper is the duality of their work, especially that of Watkins and Jackson. It is not the duality of ‘documentary’ photography considered ‘art’ photography, although that duality certainly exists.[8] The duality pertinent to this paper is this: images that, for the most part, were made for commercial or governmental agencies to promote, one way or the other, further exploitation of the land, but that were also utilized to promote conservation and creation of national parks.  What can be discerned about the motivation behind their landscape art? Does this duality imply a duality in motivation of the image-maker? Certainly both Watkins and Jackson must have been aware that development would significantly alter the fragile western landscape. However, it seems that Watkins and Jackson operated from relatively neutral perspectives; Watkins influenced more by a Modernist-like sense of aesthetics, and Jackson by a more fluid sense of his role as servant to both powerful institutions and changing societal views on land stewardship.[9]

On the other hand, the motivation of the late19th, turn of the 20th century Pictorialist landscape photographers is fairly clear. They wanted to make photographs that would be accepted as art, even if it meant creating photographs that looked more like paintings. For the Pictorialists a ‘photo realistic’ image of a landscape scene was undesirable; they considered mechanically achieved realism as mere documentation and therefore the antithesis of art. An exemplar of their style of landscape (and one of the most expensive photographs ever) is Edward Steichen’s The Pond – Moonlight, However this work, and its ilk, did not much influence later generation of landscape photographers, except perhaps as the way not to photograph the landscape.  The Modernists who followed rejected the Pictorialist style loudly and with vitriol, while the Postmodernist who came next were even crueler; they made clear what they thought of the Pictorialist’s standing in the art world by not bothering to appropriate their images.

American Landscape Photography in the 20th Century

The Early Decades

By the start of the 20th century, America’s western frontier existed only in myth, music, and the movies. Still, the cultural memory of a seemingly unending frontier and inexhaustible resources remained strong.

Alarmed by unfettered farming expansion and wretchedly inappropriate soil management in the water-limited Plains and the Mississippi Valley, and in later decades by urban and suburban sprawl in the resource-limited West, the conservation movement that had gone dormant after the establishment of Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks in the 1860s and 70s, re-formed and re-energized. Modernism had taken hold of American art by the second decade, and a number of the Modernist landscape photography masters of this period were closely associated with the conservation movement. In their art they melded Modernist formalist concerns with aesthetic choices aligned to the message and tone of the conservation campaigns, especially those of the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society. The message, while echoing the ancient Chinese view of nature and human society’s interdependence with nature, more directly referenced America’s Emersonian and Thoreauvian natural philosophies. The tone of that message has been described as a form of Social Gospel, a secularized offshoot of liberal Protestantism that emerged in the late 19th century to inject moral values in public debate.[10] The conservationist’s version of the Social Gospel emphasized the spirituality of nature, and the social sinfulness of overdevelopment. They argued that exploiting the land to the point of damage to nature ultimately led to damage to human society.

Spurred on in the 30s by the ecological disasters of the Dust Bowl and horrific Mississippi Valley floods, conservationists, with the aid of Roosevelt’s New Deal administration, did all they could to raise issues of land use and abuse from the local level to the national stage. The focus in these years was on replacing the exhaust-the-land-and-then-move-on approach of the first generation of Great Plains farmers with a national policy of land stewardship. During these years, it was film makers who made the major artistic contributions to the conservation cause, specifically filmmakers Pare Lorentz and Robert Flaherty, although photographers Arthur Rothstein and Dorothea Lange made significant contributions as well. Echoing the Social Gospel theme, these artists essentially presented nature in almost religious terms, casting the ecological disasters, not as the random acts of an unknowing, uncaring universe, but rather as Mother Nature’s retribution for man’s sins against her.[11]

The Post-War Decades

In the post-WWII years, the focus of conservation shifted from stewardship toward preserving remaining wilderness areas. Conservationist argued that in an era of ever increasing social conformity caused by advertising, the ubiquity of mass produced goods and the phenomenon of sprawling cookie-cutter suburban housing, man needed access to wilderness to renew him and restore a sense of self identity.[12]  Renowned landscape photographers like Philip Hyde, Ansel Adams, and Eliot Porter, to name just a few, lent their art and moreover their passion for conservation and the preservation of the wilderness to the cause. Photography books, filled with sublime images of nature, and accompanied by text by renowned naturalists and others, became the conservationist’s weapon of choice in their battle against the forces of development and unfettered exploitation of the natural resources. [13] The key rationale for the photo book was that photography, in the hands of a great artist, could capture the sublimity of nature, thus adding resonance to the Social Gospel and Emersonian and Thoreauvian messages in the text.[14] The philosophers Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant had claimed that the sublime “provokes intense religious emotion and allows people to feel the presence of the deity,”[15] and the conservationist and like-thinking photographers wanted to tap into that passion. Adams thought that “photographs of wild nature carried religious meaning; indeed he wanted to restore an older, more spiritual conception of art.” [16] Of course the notion that landscape art possessed the power to capture such sublimity harkened back, perhaps unknowingly, to a view of landscape art first developed during the Protestant Reformation.

The photography books, especially the Sierra Club’s prestigious and expensive Exhibit Format series, were credited with playing a significant role in conservation and wilderness preservation successes in that era, in particular for preventing the building of a dam at Echo Park inside Dinosaur National Monument, and the passing of the Wilderness Act in 1964. However, to achieve that image of sublime nature, so important to the books’ messages, western landscapes, wilderness areas in particular, most often were photographed as if the photographer were the first human to come upon the scene. Ansel Adams, who emerged in the 60s as the brightest star in the photographic art firmament, was most responsible for evoking a sense of untouched wildness. John Szarkowski once wrote of Adams: “I think we are primarily thankful to Adams because the best of his pictures stir our memory of what it was like to be alone in an untouched world.”[17]  However, such a view of America’s landscape was not sustainable. As Richard Wrigley wrote in the Introduction to his book Ansel Adams, “Today, Adams’ patriotic and pantheistic certainties have become untenable. It remains to be seen whether the ubiquitous debris and environmental decay of the late twentieth century are as photogenic as the textures of undefiled nature which Adams strove so determinedly to capture.”[18] As it turned out, the answer to Wrigley’s question would be provided by another Adams, Robert Adams, and a new generation of landscape photographers.

The Turning Point of the 70s

In 1975 the International Museum of Photography in Rochester, New York, opened an exhibit titled New Topographics – Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. The exhibit, which featured the works of Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Stephen Shore, and others, marked a turning point in American landscape photography; indeed the ramifications of the exhibit would be felt worldwide and continues to this day. As the exhibit’s title made clear, the exhibit would not feature the landscape photography that American’s were used to seeing in their Sierra Club coffee table books. In a new style of landscape photography, a style anticipated a few years early by the unlucky and now mostly-forgotten Charles Pratt[19], man’s impact on the land would not be necessarily excluded from the composition:

Their [The New Topographics photographers] photographs were not romanticized images of the vast outdoors of the American West but depictions of everyday suburban sprawl. They focused on manufactured landscapes, paying particular attention to the environment altered by mankind. They looked to the suburban tract houses, strip malls, land developments, and industrial parks that populated the late twentieth-century terrain, making it clear that the idea of an untouched landscape, both past and in the present is a myth. [20]

For Robert Adams, the truth was more important than the sublime. The truth of man’s alteration of the land did not have to exclude beauty, but the pursuit of the beauty and the sublime would not be at the expense of truth. As he wrote in the Introduction to his monograph What Can We Believe Where? Photographs of the American West, “In common with many photographers, I began making pictures because I wanted to record what supports hope: the untranslatable mystery and beauty of the world. Along the way, however, the camera also caught evidence against hope, and I eventually concluded that this too belonged I the pictures if they were to be truthful and thus useful.”[21]

‘Useful’. What Robert Adams meant by that term was this: he too hoped his images would spur his fellow Americans to reconsider what they were doing to their land. He asked them to reconsider their actions not by presenting them with sublime images of the few seemingly pristine wilderness areas that still existed and asking for its preservation, but by showing Americans what they had already done to their land, and asking them to consider a new course of action. The New Topographics artists and their heirs had exposed the falsity of the myth of the American West. While it was undoubtedly jarring to Americans raised with the landscapes of Ansel Adams, the New Topographics work would soon become the touch point for the next generation of landscape photography. Certainly many photographers would continue to capture nature at its most beautiful. However, the truth—the reality of man’s alteration of the landscape—not the pristine and sublime, would be the overriding concern for most conservation-minded landscape photographers going forward.

In any case, entering the ninth decade of the century, the American mood had changed. Americans were now more cynical due to an unpopular war and because of all the social upheaval of the 60s and 70s. It became difficult for the pristine landscape photograph to be regarded as little more than irrelevant ‘picture postcard’ art. ‘Beauty’ in the arts would be in for a rough decade.

The Postmodernism of the 80s

With the 80s came the phenomenon of the postmodernist movement in art. While it did not sweep away modernism—few art movements have ever completely gone away—postmodernism did hold sway during the 80s. It displaced the Modernist’s standard of aesthetics with its own conceptual standards, which in turn were informed by a grab-bag of what the art historian Geoffrey Batchen called “a variety of sometimes competing theoretical models.”[22] The most prevalent of those models in the American art scene were conceptual art and appropriation of iconic images. In general, American photographers who rose to prominence in the 80s as Postmodernists choose to focus on the social landscape rather than on the natural landscape; they chose to comment on media stereotyping, race, gender, feminism, identity, and the like. The enduring tug of war between conservation vs. development, as a social issue, apparently wasn’t high on their agenda.

So what would a postmodernist ‘landscape’ look like? In his series American Tourist, photographer Roger Minick captured the “essence of the 1980s American tourist” at locations such as the Grand Canyon, Mt. Rushmore, and other scenic American vacation spots. In this series, sublime landscapes are merely backdrops to snapshots of garishly dressed Americans—outfitted with the universal paraphernalia of tourists—captured in classic ‘we were here’ poses.[23] In these images, nature is reduced to the status of a prop in a comment about American culture. Americans visit these sacred spots, Minick seems to be saying, not to seek deep renewal of their spirits as proposed by the Social Gospel of conservationists earlier in the century, but rather to check off an item on their travel bucket list. In the 80s and early 90s American photographer Patrick Nagatani, whose father’s family lived outside of Hiroshima, created a series entitled Nuclear Enchantment. Nagatani’s photographs are an emotional comment on America’s nuclear weapons program. In this series, the land—areas of New Mexico associated with the nuclear weapons program—is, as in Minick’s American Tourist, once again not the focus, but rather the foil to a larger social subject.

Of course the New Topographics artists of the mid-70s didn’t disappear, they kept on working into the postmodernist decade and beyond, and they were joined by a legion of followers. Their work, even the specific work of the New Topographics exhibit, has been variously categorized as leading-edge Postmodernist or even Postmodernist. The confusion over categorization is understandable given the radical departure from the landscape art of the high Modernists of the previous generation, and the undeniable element of irony—a frequently used contrivance of postmodernist art—embedded in many of the New Topographics images. It is especially easy to classify New Topographics artists Bernd and Hilla Becher as Postmodernists, and many historians do, because their work—deadpan images, presented in grids, of water towers and other industrial architecture—is far more easily categorized as ‘conceptual’ and ‘typological’ than it is ‘landscape’.[24]

While enthusiasm for the Postmodernist’s view of art waned by the end of the 80s, no discernable art movement replaced it. Now, in the 21st century, aspects of both modernism and postmodernism continue to strongly influence contemporary art.

Contemporary Photographic Landscape Art

With no dominant art movement to dictate the aesthetics of their art, contemporary landscape photographers are free to pick and choose from the vestiges of past art movements; they are free to mix and match as they sit fit. Even sublime beauty, virtually banished by postmodernists, has returned from art exile. However, the intent of the landscape artist in creating his or her art; that is, to stir mankind to reconsider his harmful actions towards the land, continues to be the dominant motivation.  Even here, however, there is a subtle, but important change. Where once the emphasis was on specific conservation actions (save this canyon, declare that area protected wilderness), now the focus is more earth-wide and ecological; not preservation of ‘land’, but preservation of an ecological balance that includes land, sea, fresh water, air, plants, insects, and animals. In his Foreword to American Photographers at the Turn of the Century – Nature and Landscape, Thom Harrop, the Managing Editor of Outdoor Photography magazine, wrote:

The photographers presented in this volume share a love of the environment and a desire to see it preserved for humanity and for the endless cadre of flora and fauna with whom we travel. For all of our sakes, we hope that their efforts behind the camera will become a rallying point for a new approach to the third planet, eliminating the casual attitudes which have brought us to our current state.[25]

The freedom of aesthetical expression has led to a great diversity of imagery. There are artists—Colorado’s John Fielder comes to mind—who downplay man’s damage to the environment and capture sublimity in nature, thus referencing the landscape expression of a past era. There are artists, like Edward Burtynsky, who themselves create sublimity by the sheer size of their prints; the scale of the prints matching—and therefore commenting on—the scale of man’s alteration to the imaged landscape.  There are artists, like China’s Yang Yongliang, who utilize digital wizardry to create ironic takes on the traditional Chinese ink and paper landscapes of centuries past, with high rise buildings pressed together to take the form of mystical mountains, power line towers taking the form of calligraphic trees, and smog taking the form of mist.[26]

By and large, contemporary artists—artists like Colorado’s Evan Anderman—don’t intend their art for directly confrontational use, as did Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and the other 20th century Sierra Club photographers. As Katherine Ware has written of the photographs and photographers represented in her book Earth Now: American Photographers and the Environment:

Despite their social content, these pieces were made by people who consider themselves artists. Their work is presented, almost without exception, in galleries, museums, and art-world magazines, rather than being seen in the context of propaganda or advocacy. Following in the tradition of the critical landscape, these photographers bring a spirit of reconciliation to their work, asserting the importance of maintaining our connection with nature despite tensions between the natural and man-made realms. They display an interest in adaptions, compromises, and even, sometimes acceptance. This shift towards a more holistic view that encompasses human life and endeavors as an integrated part of the natural cycle seems to offer a middle path between the conservation ideals of Adams and Porter and the blistering critique of some of their respondents.[27]

In the contemporary approach to landscape art, the artists may care deeply about the land and for the environment, but they capture beauty as they sees it, even if the beauty is a result of man’s damaging alteration of the land. Capturing beauty is a way to encourage people to look at the images. When we look at their images, and study them closely, contemporary artists hope most viewers will see the need to live more wisely than we have to this point in the only home we have in the universe.


Today’s landscape photography can trace its artistic roots to ancient China and, in the Western tradition, to the Reformation of the 16th century. Artists of those eras sought to capture the sublimity of nature, as a way to express a connection between man and the divine. In America, the 20th century started with the Pictorialist, who endeavored to imitate Impressionist paintings. They were followed by early Modernists, who sought to evoke an emotional response to the sublime splendor of seemingly untouched nature. Emerging in the mid-70s were the New Topographics artists who could see no point in portraying pristine nature, given the overwhelming evidence of man’s despoilment. They presented an unflinching and often pessimistic view of man’s impact. Their work marked a turning point in landscape photography. While some contemporary landscape artists continue to mine the conceptual vein first opened by the New Topographics artists, other contemporary landscape photographers have moved onto a new ethic and a new aesthetic. These artists are neither afraid to show man’s alteration of the land, nor afraid to reveal the beauty that sometimes accompanies such change.

If American western landscape photography of the early 20th century sought to show the land as we liked to believe it was and hoped it always would be, contemporary landscape photography seeks to show us our land as it actually is and likely will continue to be—that is, much altered by man, for good or for bad.


[1] Sherman E. Lee, Chinese Landscape Painting, (Cleveland: The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1962), 3

[2] Department of Asian Art,Nature in Chinese Culture”, In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–, (October 2004), (accessed October 24, 2014)

[3] Kwo Da-Wei, Chinese Brushswork: Its History, Aesthetics and Techniques, (Montclair: Allanheld & Schram, 1981), xv

[4] Marilyn Stokstad and Michael W. Cothren, Art History (4th Ed.), (New York: Prentice Hall, 2010), 689

[5] Stokstad and Cothren, Art History, 953

[6] Ibid., 956

[7] H. H. Arason and Elizabeth C. Mansfied, History of Modern Art (6th Ed.), (New York: Prentice Hall, 2009), 43

[8] See Martha A. Sandweiss, in Foreword to Carleton E. Watkins – Photographer of the American West, by Peter E. Palmquist, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983), xii

[9] Sandweiss, Carleton E. Watkins – Photographer of the American West, xiv. See also, Peter B. Halles, William Henry Jackson and the Transformation of the American Landscape, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 6-7

[10] Finis Dunaway, Natural Visions – The Power of Images in American Environmental Reform, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), Chapter 1 Gleason’s Transparent Eyeball

[11] Dunaway, Natural Visions, Chapter 2 The Decline to Dust

[12] Dunaway, Natural Visions, 126-129

[13] Dunaway, Natural Visions, Chapter 5 Nature on the Coffee Table

[14] In his Foreword to Eliot Porter’s landscape photography book “In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World”, (New York and San Francisco: Sierra Club and Ballantine Books), 1962, David Brower (then the executive director of the Sierra Club) wrote: “This is symbiotic art: Eliot Porter corroborates Thoreau and Thoreau verifies Porter, one never diminishing the other.” The title of Porter’s book is a quote from David Henry Thoreau’s essay Walking

[15] Dunaway, Natural Visions, xix

[16] Dunaway, Natural Visions, 129

[17] John Szarkowski, in his Introduction to The Portfolios of Ansel Adams, (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1977)

[18] Richard Wrigley, Ansel Adams, (New York, SMITHMARK Publishers, 1992), 9

[19] Andy Grunberg, “CHARLES PRATT’S VIEW OF NATURE”, The New York Times, last modified June 27, 1982.

[20] Author identified only by initials ‘SMC’, “Topographics”, in Photography – The Whole Story, ed. Juliet Hacking (London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd, 2012), 400-401

[21] Robert Adams, What Can We Believe Where? Photographs of the American West, (New Haven and London: Yale University Art Gallery/New Haven Press, ) 2010,

[22] Geoffrey Batchen, Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography, (New York: MIT Press, 1999), 5

[23] “Binoculars, jean shorts and loud clashing colors: Photographer captures the essence of the 1980s American tourist”,, last modified April 2, 2013,

[24] For in-depth discussions about the categorization of The New Topographics work, see: Lauren Higbee, Academia.Edu, “Reinventing the Genre: New Topographics and the Landscape”, last modified December 12, 2011,

See also: Kelly Dennis, “Landscape and the West: Irony and Critique in New Topographic Photography”, Cultural Landscapes in the 21st Century. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Forum UNESCO University and Heritage 10th International Seminar, April, 2005, For the various categories the Bechers’ work have been placed, and for a measure of their influence in the history of photography, see: Hacking (ed.), Photography – The Whole Story, 219, 400-403, 411, 431, 440, 509, 517, 555

[25] Thom Harrop, American Photographers at the Turn of the Century – Nature and Landscape, author Gregory J. Kroitzsh (Five Corners Publications, 1994), Foreward

[26] For a discussion of one of Yang Yongliang’s works, Fairyland, see: Frank Mercado, “Fairyland – a Whispered Warning”, Frank Mercado Photography, last modified December 8, 2013,

[27] Katherine Ware, Earth Now: American Photographers and the Environment (Albuquerque: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2011), Introduction

On Finders and Makers

Basically, there are only two categories of art photography, the found and the made. I realize that is like claiming there are basically only two categories of color, whereas the overall reality for photography, as with color, is spectrum.  Nonetheless, at some level, a photographer either finds an image by capturing an existing scene, or makes an image by creating a scene to be captured.  Photographers who specialize in finding the scene are finders; those who specialize in creating the scene are makers.

The finder is one who sees beyond vision to recognize, as most do not, that this particular scene—if rendered just so—may reveal an existential, if not essential, narrative. With this specific ability to see beyond vision and recognize something beyond the obvious, the finder shares a soul most closely with the plein air painter.

Frederick Evans, A Sea of Steps-Stairs to Chapter House -Wells Cathedral, 1903

Frederick Evans, A Sea of Steps-Stairs to Chapter House -Wells Cathedral, 1903

The maker shares a soul with the assemblage sculptor; the maker is essentially an assemblage sculptor who works, ultimately, in two rather than three dimensions. As does the assemblage sculptor, the maker forms a narrative in her mind, and then realizes that idea by creating an arrangement of materials and light in front of the camera.  For the maker, the final rendering of the idea, that is, the expression of the narrative, is embodied in a two-dimensional arrangement of silver halide grains (or pigment dots, or pixels), rather than an arrangement of metal, stone, wood, or other materials in three dimensional space.


Regardless of the approach, finding or making, if the resultant photograph is to be considered truly artful, the image must suggest some aspect that relates to the human existence.  For art that does not inherently and ultimately deal with some universal human concern is limited as it generally will not resonate with the external viewer for long if at all, and likely will not survive separation from the artist’s statement. Since the narrative is the most essential element of visual art, the ability to recognize narrative is the most important talent for a photographer. It is more important than the ability to pre-visualize how the six dimensions (three dimensions of space, plus time, color, and value) of the found or made scene may be rendered in the frame of a two dimensional photograph. It is more important even than the skill to render the pre-visualized image into a photograph composed of silver crystals or pixels.  It is by virtue of this ability to see or conjure some aspect that stirs the human heart that the photographer, whether a finder or maker, shares a soul with all other types of visual artists.

Jerry-Uelsmann, Untitled, 2003

Jerry Uelsmann, Untitled, 2003

A thoroughly unsystematic review of the history of photography (i.e., flipping through the pages of Robert Hirsch’s textbook on the subject) leads to the conclusion that makers have dominated the art form, at least if the masters of photography are categorized with respect to their most iconic images. Of course there have been some very important finders throughout: Frederick Evans (the intense spirituality of gothic cathedral architecture); Henri Cartier-Bresson (the decisive moments in the routine of everyday life); Garry Winogrand (glimpses of the human comedy playing out in streets of cosmopolitan America); and Edward Burtynsky (scenes of man’s depredation upon the land). For every finder, though, one can identify many makers. Virtually all portraitists, from the era of the Daguerreotype onwards, whether traditionalists like Julia Margret Cameron, Gertrude Käsebier and Yousuf Karsh, or non-traditionalist like Diane Arbus and Philippe Halsman, stage their subjects to one degree or another, and so must be considered makers. The Pictorialists, with their heavy print manipulations, must be considered makers, as well. In fact all photographers who substantially alter the original scene, or who combine images—from the analog manipulations of Oscar Gustav Rejlander, Jerry Uelsmann, and Joel-Peter Witkin, to the digital manipulations of Gregory Crewdson and Thomas Demand—are makers. When one considers the ‘straight’ Group f/64 photographers of the early Modernist era, one immediately thinks of Ansel Adams, finder of breathtaking vistas of the High Sierras. But also members of f/64 were makers like Edward Weston, with his sensuous posing of anthropomorphic peppers and nudes, and Imogen Cunningham, who created exquisite abstracts in light and line with delicately lit flower arrangements.  Then, in the 1980s, the art world rebelled against the strictures and structures of modernism. With their emphasis on the appropriation of pop cultural iconography, most of the renowned Postmodernist photographers—Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, and their ilk—must be categorized as makers.  A few postmodernists, like Bernd and Hilla Becher, were finders. The Becher’s created a conceptual-typological body of work with found scenes of obsolescent industrial structures.

Yang Yongliang, The Moonlight - The Landscape without Night, 2012

Yang Yongliang, The Moonlight – The Landscape without Night, 2012

What of our current altermodern, post-postmodern art world? An even more unsystematic and necessarily superficial review of contemporary art photography on the Internet, a review that specifically discounts the bazillions of digital/cellphone snapshots and selfies posted daily, reveals that—sadly for those of us more enchanted by found photography—the art world is tipping even more heavily in favor of made photography.  Why is this so? I suspect that the combination of time, an ever increasing number of art photographers (art institutions around the world alone crank out thousands of new photographers each year), and the ubiquitous, open gallery that is the Internet, has resulted in making it ever harder for photographers to find un-trampled ground; that is, found scenes that are fresh and not some echo of existing imagery. So modern photographers, like Yang Yongliang, with digital cameras and Photoshop skills in hand, turn ever more towards made imagery, where the photographer’s imagination can be used to create a bit of artistic separation.

Fairyland – a Whispered Warning

Fairy Land, from the series Phantom Landscape III, Yang Yongliang 2007

Yang Yongliang, Fairyland, 2007


From a distance, or perhaps with only the most cursory of inspections, a viewer might see Fairyland, by contemporary Chinese photographic artist Yang Yongliang,[1] as a modern update of the traditional Chinese landscape. Apart from the fact that it is a work created by photographic and computer wizardry rather than by hand and brush, the obvious visual similarities might lead to the casual conclusion that Fairyland is simply another link in a long chain of landscape art that traces back to at least the Song dynasty.  Such a conclusion would be at best incomplete. What Fairyland actually is, what it actually is about, is rather more complicated than that.

It is argued here that Yang uses an ironic imitation of the traditional Chinese landscape painting to communicate an important social message. In particular, this paper maintains that Fairyland warns Chinese society of a danger to its very soul.

A number of factors are considered in arriving at this conclusion, each of which is briefly reviewed: the historical Chinese response to landscape art, the key aesthetic element of the traditional Chinese landscape painting, the societal role that photography has played since its introduction to China in the mid-19th century, and the environmental message coded into contemporary landscape photography. Fairyland is examined in detail and its apparent visual elements compared to those of traditional landscape paintings. Finally, after Fairyland is analyzed with respect to the factors noted above, an interpretation of its meaning is presented. It should be noted that no claim is made that this interpretation aligns with the intent of its artist.

The Chinese Response to Landscape Painting

“Landscape is the great subject of Chinese painting, and Westerners are properly amazed at the very early date of its first full expression.” [2]

Only since the fall of the European academy system in the nineteenth century[3] has the landscape genre achieved anywhere near the standing in the Western visual art tradition that it has held in the Chinese world for over millennia. As Chinese art historian Michael Sullivan notes “Next to the supremely difficult art of calligraphy, the Chinese have for centuries looked on the landscape painting as the highest form of visual art.”[4] However, to the Chinese, a landscape painting is more than an ‘Art’ object. Sullivan explains: “landscape painting in China is a language of extraordinary richness and breadth, able to embody the strongest emotional and poetic feelings and the profoundest philosophical and metaphysical ideas.”[5]

The landscape’s prominence in Chinese art is due primarily to its connection to nature. Landscape paintings were to become an important element of Daoist, Buddhist and Confucian-inspired art because all three philosophies were strongly influenced by the sophisticated Chinese conceptions of nature that predated the development (or in the case of Buddhism, the introduction) of these belief systems.[6] In fact, the “steady growth of a generally accepted philosophy of nature” in China was to provide a “perfect climate for landscape painting.”[7] So strong has been the landscape tradition in China that even with the numerous and large scale social and civil disruptions over the centuries, artists have maintained the tradition throughout the centuries. As noted by a Metropolitan Museum of Art essayist: “By the late Tang dynasty, landscape painting had evolved into an independent genre that embodied the universal longing of cultivated men to escape their quotidian world to commune with nature. The prominence of landscape imagery in Chinese art has continued for more than a millennium and still inspires contemporary artists.”[8] Yang Yongliang is clearly one of those contemporary artists so inspired.

The Aesthetics of Chinese Landscape Painting

“In China, only two arts are considered fine arts—calligraphy and painting—and the only tool employed by these sister arts is the Chinese brush, whose scope is truly unlimited.” [9]

There is more to the Chinese appreciation for landscape art than imagery that enables a virtual commune with nature. Almost, if not equally, as important to this appreciation is a valuing of the quality of the ‘brushstroke’ and the ‘hand of the painter’. As art historian Sherman Lee puts it: “To the Chinese the value judgment of a picture rests primarily on its brushwork as related to, and derived from, calligraphy. The nearest we Westerners can get to the essence of what a Chinese sees in a Chinese painting is our concept of touch. Touch differentiates one artist from another and the non-artist from the artist.”[10] With his hand and brush, the artist must control form, line, space, density, contrast and balance if his painting is to meet the highest standards of aesthetics.[11] Sullivan argues that this appreciation (of brushwork and the hand of the artist) explains why repeated themes in landscape art are not experienced as repetitious. He likens the experience of master landscape paintings to the experience of great music by different musicians; it is an aesthetic experience that can be repeatedly enjoyed because

“in the hands of a master interpreter each familiar work is born again, and much of our pleasure comes from the performer’s understanding of the theme, from subtle nuances of his interpretation and, above all, from his touch. In Chinese painting, too—particularly from the fourteenth century on—what matters is not the novelty of the theme … but the artist’s interpretation of it, and the quality of his touch.”[12]

A Closer Look at Fairyland

In Fairyland, craggy monoliths seemingly rise from mist and fade in recession, recalling Mi Yu-

jen’s 12th century Cloudy Mountains.[13] The size and grandeur of Fairyland’s steeply rising mountains are accentuated by trees Yang places in the left and right foreground, a scale and perspective strategy that references Ch’u Ting’s 11th century Summer Mountains.[14]

Fairyland is landscape in format as well as ostensibly in content; the landscape format references the scrolls of ancient Chinese landscape paintings. There too, on three of its corners, appear to be the traditional red seals of the Chinese artist and collectors.[15] In the upper right corner, flying high in the sky and seemingly untethered, is a kite—the traditional Chinese symbol of auspiciousness.[16] The entire image, save for the red seals, is produced in gray scale, thus alluding to the monochromatic paintings created with India ink. Finally, as were most traditional landscape paintings, Fairyland—as its title implies—is a scene found only in imagination. The traditional landscape painting may have been inspired by a real place and time, but it was not a representation of reality; it was an image of a perfect reality and timelessness.[17]

At this level of description and detail, Fairyland certainly seems to conform to the expectations of a Chinese landscape painting.


On the other hand, however much a landscape photograph may mimic the formal elements of a traditional Chinese landscape painting, the hand of the artist can never be part of its value. The photographer’s ‘hand’ can only be seen indirectly, through composition, selection of focus, aperture, shutter speed, and so forth. The unaltered photographic print is an object that is a product of chemistry or of electronics and mechanics; the artist’s hand does not directly manipulate silver crystals or digital pixels.

Therefore, Fairyland lacks the key aesthetic element of Chinese landscape art—the artisanal quality—the hand of the artist as seen in the brushstroke. Fairyland can never be appreciated by a tradition-savvy Chinese in the same way he or she can appreciate a Fan K’uan painting. This raises the question: How can Yang, a Chinese artist trained in calligraphy and traditional art, be satisfied with merely mimicking classic landscape art with photography, knowing such work cannot evoke from his fellow Chinese the same depth of response as would a brush and ink painting by his hand?

More questions arise when, upon closer inspection, Fairyland reveals that its evident subject is not nature after all. Its ‘trees’, so reminiscent of the trees in Tiger Hill, Suchou by 16th century artist Hseih Shih-ch’en,[18] are in fact power line towers; its monoliths are not ‘mountains’, but rather they are amalgams of modern high rise buildings. There is, in fact, no evidence of nature at all, save the mist. And—considering that the buildings and towers imply an urban setting and that choking pollution now plagues major Chinese cities—the ‘mist’ is likely smog.[19]  Fairyland is not a nature landscape; it just superficially looks like one. Is Yang lampooning the traditions of his earlier artistic training?

The Meaning of Fairyland

Understanding Fairyland requires consideration of two other perspectives: the primary role that photography has played in Chinese society since its introduction; and an awareness of the major trend in contemporary landscape photography since 1970.[20]

Photography was introduced into China soon after Daguerre’s announcement of his invention in 1839,[21] and the camera was soon put to work there. When early Chinese photographers attempted the landscape, they almost invariably tried to evoke the traditional painting. An example of such early landscape photography is Yan Ziling fishing platform, Fuchun River, Zhejiang, 1914, by Huang Yanpei. Of this image Chinese photography historian Dr. Claire Roberts writes: “His photography, with its calligraphic inscription, has a detached scholarly air, not unlike a Chinese brush-and-ink painting, and records memories and feelings associated with place.”[22]

However, photography’s ‘objectivity’, its faithfulness to a real place and time, made it a very different form of expression than the traditional landscape painting. Furthermore, as previously mentioned, the Chinese photographic artist has no way to express the artist’s ‘touch’ in landscape work. These two reasons alone may explain why the landscape was not consistent subject for Chinese photographers, and why portraiture and catering to Western traveler’s demands for souvenirs was to dominate the use of the camera for decades. When the landscape was photographed it was, often as not, for the purposes of attracting Western investment in a particular location.[23] This is not to say that photography did not have an impact on Chinese society, quite the contrary. As Roberts notes “In China photography has played an extraordinary role in the transformation of visual culture, touching on many aspects of people’s lives. Unlike the traditional form of expression, such as brush-and ink painting, the new technology offered a powerfully modern, seemingly objective representation of reality mediated through the lens.”[24] In particular, photojournalism, featured in emerging mass media, was to play a crucial role, in the 19th and 20th century, in shaping the national consciousness and identity, alerting the Chinese to the depredation of foreign powers, and “inspiring them to save their country and their culture.”[25]

In the 1970’s Robert Adams created groundbreaking landscape photography.  His New West landscapes “were not the pristine untouched-by-human-hands variety of an Adams of an earlier generation—Ansel Adams. No, Robert Adams captured landscapes undergoing assault by humans and their structures and detritus. Yet these images were not mug shots of muggings; the captivating thing about New West is that the images are beautiful in form and simultaneously tragic in content, simultaneously a feast for the eye and an ache for the heart.”[26] Today, environmental photographers in America[27]and around the world[28]take their cue from New West and create narratives about the damage inflicted on the environment by unchecked urban and suburban sprawl and a society blind to the damage caused by its uncaring throw-away culture. They do so by insisting on expressing reality over depicting myth, thus making a clear break with the early 20th century landscape photographers who portrayed majestic landscapes as if untouched by human hands. The key tool in conveying their message is irony, often in the form of the juxtaposition of the detritus of society’s sprawl amidst the beauty of nature.

Interpreting Fairyland in light of these two additional perspectives leads to an uplifting meaning of the work.

Yang’s apparent mimicry—and then unsettling reversal—of a beautiful and classic Chinese landscape is not parody, but irony. By using the outer form of traditional Chinese landscape painting, Yang sets the viewer’s, especially the Chinese viewer’s, expectation of a calm and calming scene of idealized nature. But closer inspection leads to the disconcerting truth; ‘trees’ are not trees but ugly high tension power line towers, ‘mountains’ are not mountains but high rise buildings crushed together, the ‘mist’ is no doubt the pollution created in streets clogged with fume-belching vehicles. What at first seems to be a scene of soul-easing tranquility reveals itself to be a metaphor for claustrophobic and frenzied urban living. While the wrenching dissonance caused by the irony may be felt by all who view the work, it must be especially painful to a Chinese viewer accustomed by culture to a much different metaphysical reaction to landscape art.  Yang utilizes this irony to make an environmental point that, again, must be most poignantly felt by the Chinese: What of the land now covered by streets and buildings and overlaid with smog? What has happened to the land so treasured by our historical culture and so important to the ancient philosophy of our people?

With this interpretation it is unimportant that Fairyland does not reveal ‘the hand of the artist.’ What is important is that it delivers a message by way of cognitive dissonance, the eye unable to deny the beauty in the scene, the mind unable to deny the horror of the damage to environment. With this interpretation, Fairyland is fine art, but its message also is consistent with the traditional role of photojournalism in China: alerting the Chinese to another depredation upon the land, this time a depredation of their own making.


Tapping into Chinese cultural memory and setting the viewer’s expectations by seemingly presenting the classic nature landscape, Fairyland suddenly reverses to an unsettling narrative when, upon closer inspection, comes the realization that its ostensive symbols of nature (mountains, trees, and mist) are actually symbols of urban sprawl. Eschewing cynicism that would diminish its message, and in the whispered voice of the great Chinese landscape paintings, Fairyland in this way speaks to the damage modern society is inflicting on nature. Fairyland is a landscape, but not because it superficially looks like one. Rather it is a landscape because ultimately its subject is nature—that is, nature in danger of being overwhelmed. If Fairyland falls short of the aesthetic standards of the Chinese landscape painting it more than succeeds in maintaining the traditional role of photography in China—alerting society of a danger. The danger is that China’s cherished natural landscape, so important to the traditional Chinese philosophy of life and so lovingly idealized by Chinese landscape artists through the centuries, is threatened by unbridled urban growth. Perhaps photography, as it has in the past, once again will inspire the Chinese to save their country and their culture.

[1] Yang Yongliang was born in 1980. He was born and currently lives and works in Shanghai. From an early age he was taught Chinese traditional painting, calligraphy and various art forms for ten years. In 2005 he started creating contemporary art, including modern ink painting, photography and video art. [This short biography is based on information from Yang’s website. The complete biography can be found at]

[2] Sherman E. Lee, Chinese Landscape Painting, (Cleveland: The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1962), 3

[3] Laura Auricchio, “The Transformation of Landscape Painting in France”, In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–, (October 2004), (accessed September 16, 2013)

[4] Michael Sullivan, in Symbols of Eternity – The Art of Landscape Painting in China, (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1979), 6

[5] Ibid

[6] Department of Asian Art,Nature in Chinese Culture”, In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–, (October 2004), (accessed September 16, 2013)

[7] Lee, in Chinese Landscape Painting, (Cleveland: The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1962), 3

[8] Department of Asian Art.Nature in Chinese Culture”, In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

[9] Kwo Da-Wei, Chinese Brushswork: Its History, Aesthetics and Techniques, (Montclair: Allanheld & Schram, 1981), xv

[10]  Lee, in Chinese Landscape Painting, 5

[11] Kwo Da-Wei, in Chinese Brushswork: Its History, Aesthetics and Techniques, 56-73

[12] Sullivan, in Symbols of Eternity – The Art of Landscape Painting in China, 2

[13] See Lee discussion of Mi Yu-jen’s Cloudy Mountain, in Chinese Landscape Painting, 28

[14] See Wen Fong discussion of Ch’u Ting’s Summer Mountains, in Summer Mountains – The Timeless Landscape, (New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975), Plate 13

[15] “Introduction to Chinese Painting”, Long Island University, (accessed September 16, 2013)

[16] Malcolm Goodman, “Kite History of China”, The Kiteman, United Kingdom, (accessed October 9, 2013)

[17] Sullivan, in Symbols of Eternity – The Art of Landscape Painting in China,  6-7

[18] Lee, in Chinese Landscape Painting, 85

[19] Calum MacLeod and Sunny Yang, “China talks tough in war on smog”, USA Today, (September 13, 2013),, (accessed October 9, 2013)

[20] It is not an unreasonable assumption that Yang would be quite aware of both of these considerations. See his biographical information at:

[21] Jeffrey W Cody, and Frances Terpak, Brush and Shutter: Early Photographs in China, (Los Angeles: The Getty Research Institute, 2011), Foreward

[22] Claire Roberts, Photography and China, (London, Reaktion Books, Limited, 2012), 7

[23] Cody and Terpak, in Brush and Shutter: Early Photographs in China, 52-61

[24] Roberts, in Photography and China, 63

[25] Cody and Terpak, in Brush and Shutter: Early Photographs in China, 15

[26] Frank Mercado, “Robert Adams Retrospective: Almost Too Much of a Good Thing”, in Frank Mercado Photography, October 2011, (accessed September 23, 2013)

[27] Katherine Ware, Earth Now: American Photographers and the Environment, (Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2011)

[28] Mark Johnson, “Environmental Photographer Of The Year 2013: The Winning Shots”, International Business Times, (April 10 2013),, (accessed October 9, 2013)

Of Comets and Pixels: On the decline of art photography and the rise of pixelography

‘The world is going to hell in a hand basket, and so is art photography.”

As I am an aging member of the Boomer generation, it should not be surprising that I believe the first part of that statement. Supposedly every generation, as it approaches the end of its rope, feels this way. So far, all past generations of Q-Tipers have been wrong about a looming apocalypse. But given the probability of global warming causing environmental disasters, terrorists wreaking havoc with dirty bombs, a killer comet paving the way for the insect world to have its at-bat, diminishing fresh water supplies undermining the already tenuous civility of human society, a cyber-Pearl Harbor causing the meltdown of our financial infrastructure, and the ticking time bomb that is the Yellowstone mega-volcano, well I think my generation may have a better chance of being right than wrong about this world-going-to-hell thing.

Still, there is really no new news here. The current younger generation, as have all previous younger generations, likely will shrug off the concerns of us old farts and somehow muddle on.

But what about the ‘… and so is art photography’ bit? What’s that about? More drivel from another geezer stuck on the ‘Zone System’, you say? Well, perhaps. But hear me out.  I think I’m much firmer ground with this one.

Have you ever noticed that art photography is the only major art form that needs the word ‘art’ in its title? Nobody refers to ‘art painting’ or ‘art sculpture’. The ‘art’ branch of photography must be distinguished because photography has a red-haired offspring, the run-of-the-mill snapshot (sneeringly referred to as ‘vernacular photography’ in the … uh… vernacular of art photography). Thanks mostly to the ubiquitous smartphone with its just-better-than-a-pinhole-camera lens, a bazillion snapshots are posted online every day.  Vernacular photography is stronger than ever. Well, maybe not stronger than ever, but for sure there is a lot more of it than ever.

So why then is art photography in danger?  As with vernacular photography, are there not more art images than ever before? Well, yes. But whereas snapshots still primarily rely on photons to form the image, even the digital image, art photography is ever more reliant on the manipulation of pixels to create the ‘art’. In art photography today the photon is more like what clay or marble is to sculpture—merely a raw material, merely a starting point. As NYU Professor of Photography and Imaging Fred Ritchin states in the introduction to After Photography, his look into the future of photography,  “Rather than a quote from appearances, a [digital photograph] serves as an initial recording, a preliminary script, which may precede a quick and easy reshuffling. The digital photographer—and all who come after her—potentially plays a postmodern visual disc jockey.” In short, art photography is in retreat and a new art form based on the manipulation of pixels, an art form many are calling ‘pixelography’, is on the rise.

Of course the usual retort is that manipulation always has been a part of art photography. True enough. But to argue that therefore nothing has changed is to miss the point that the bulk of today’s ‘photographic’ art imagery is possible only by the manipulation of pixels, not by the manipulation of the impact of photons on light sensitive mediums. Ever more, the image that the artist pre-visualizes can only be realized by manipulating pixels. Furthermore, photons are not needed to create the pixels; they are merely a convenient way to do so, and the trend is away from the photon from even that role.  In Photography Reborn: Image Making in the Digital Era, an exploration into the impact of digital technology on photography, author, educator and photographer Jonathan Lipkin asks “What will happen as modeling software becomes increasingly capable of generating photo-realistic imagery that cannot be distinguished in any way from real life?”

In the world of art photography it is not the art that is going the way of the Dodo; there is more art labeled ‘photography’ than ever before. It is the photon that is losing its essential role in the creation of that art. As a consequence the word ‘photography’ in the art form’s title is becoming a quaint anachronism. Art photography—the species of art realized by the capture of photons and the manipulation of light sensitive materials—is headed towards extinction. Pixelography is its killer comet.

The Iconic Image and Photographic Fame

Recently I had the pleasure of taking in an exhibit at the Longmont Museum featuring two “American Visionaries”, photographer Dorothea Lange and her one-time husband, the artist Maynard Dixon.

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936

As expected, the exhibit featured many of Lange’s FSA-era photographs; after all these were the photographs that admitted Lange to the pantheon of early 20th century American photographic gods. Foremost among her FSA-era photographs on exhibit was the iconic Migrant Mother.

Iconic. That word is rarely far away when Migrant Mother is mentioned.

Reflecting on Migrant Mother started me thinking about the role of the ‘iconic’ work in the making of an art ‘god’. Certainly most renowned artist have at least one iconic piece, the truly greats usually more than one. Michelangelo has David, The Pieta and Sistine Chapel, Da Vinci, The Mona Lisa, Warhol, Campbell Soup and Marilyn. But some famous artists have none. The city of Denver is loopy over the honor of hosting the Clyfford Still Museum and its collection of Still’s abstract art. But I wonder how many museum patrons, when asked which was Still’s iconic painting, would identify the same image. Of course Still’s titles, like 1957-J-No. 2, don’t exactly aid his paintings in gaining membership into the brotherhood of iconic art.

My musing over iconic images soon returned to photography, my chosen art. Can a photographic artist be elevated to deity or even demigod status, I wondered, without having created at least one universally recognized—within the art world universe at least—iconic image? I mentally rifled through the early 20th century gods: Stieglitz (The Steerage), Steichen (The Pond), Adams (Moonrise, Monolith), Watson (Pepper), and Strand (Wall Street), Evans (Allie Mae), Lange (duh). Check, check, check, check, check, check, and check. I quickly scanned the mid-century artists: Callahan, White, Weegee, Capa, Smith, Frank, Cartier-Bresson, Brandt. Check them all off.  Late-Modernist? Robert Adams, Winogrand, Friedlander, Arbus? Yup. Postmodernists Prince, Kruger, and Sherman? Check, check, and check.

So they all have at least one iconic image. But does that make an iconic image a pre-requisite for fame? Certainly no one would entertain the idea that one great photograph by itself can make the artist. Just look at how many great photographs, by photographers you’ve never heard of or will ever hear of, can be found on Flickr. Certainly a significant number of really important images (‘important’ by whatever standards photo art historians employ) must be the primary basis for admittance into the pantheon. But among those ‘significant numbers’ must there be at least one universally acknowledged ‘memorable’ photograph, an image that epitomizes the artist’s legacy, before that legacy can elevate the artist to the status of god?

I searched my memory for counter examples. The Bechers came to mind.  Bernd and Hilla Becher were a husband and wife photography team who gained fame for their exhaustive typological series of aging industrial structures, especially water towers, in post-war Germany. I suppose one could argue that no one of those numbingly similar water tower images constituted the ‘iconic’ water tower. On the other hand, it could be argued that any one of those water tower images, just because they were so numbingly similar, constituted the iconic image. I think that latter position would win since if a photo historian were to be presented a mug shot of an aging water tower, I’d bet that the first name he’d come up with is ‘Becher’.

As I stood there in the Longmont Museum, gazing at Migrant Mother, that most iconic of iconic photographs, I concluded that yes, a photographic artist must do more than stir the art world. The artist must create at least one image that will be remembered, an image that will be conjured whenever and wherever the artist’s name is mentioned. If he or she is to gain lasting fame, the photographic artist must capture an iconic image.

The Photographs That Will Be Remembered

Years ago, when my infatuation with photography was still in its infancy, there was a guy I knew, call him Arnie, who was an outstanding photographer. Arnie was a co-worker and fellow engineer and one of a clutch of co-workers and spouses that my wife and I socialized extensively with at the time. When Arnie would return from vacation all of us would look forward to his slide show. I was in awe of his photography because when Arnie went on vacations he did not take snapshots, he created art.

After one of Arnie’s slideshows I couldn’t help but gush over his photographs which, that night, were mostly of flowers. He politely thanked me, but then surprised me by adding: “You know, in the end, the photographs that are remembered are those of loved ones, of family and dear friends and good times enjoyed together.”

Some years later, long after I lost track of Arnie, I heard that he had passed away. Since he was a bachelor, I wondered what befell his slide collections. I sadly concluded there was a good chance they ended up in a landfill somewhere, lost and forgotten.

Now that I’m really into ‘art photography’ I occasionally have to remind myself that it is the likely fate of my art photography, indeed of most of the world’s output of art photography, to end up in whatever is the digital equivalent of a landfill. The inescapable reality is that of the thousands upon thousands of art photographers laboring in the world today, and of the thousands more graduating from art schools each year, only a tiny, tiny fraction will attain such stature that their art will be remembered past their death. Most of today’s photographic art soon will be lost and forgotten.

Such a gloomy thought might lead one to conclude that I believe there is no point in pursuing my art, and that I believe that most other art photographers should give up as well. Of course I believe no such thing. As the photographer and author Ted Orland has pointed out, an artist creates art in order to make sense of his or her world. Should that art help someone else make sense of the world then perhaps the art may gain some following. In rare cases that following will survive the artist’s passing. However, fame and survival is something that happens to art. It is not why art is created. We artists create art for ourselves first and foremost. If others, now or in the future, find something for themselves in our art, well, so much the better.

So I take my art seriously.  I give my art the best I have to offer, and I give the art of other photographers the respect that I wish for my own photography.  I do this with full knowledge that my art and theirs likely will never gain much of a following and will, in all likelihood, end up in the great bit-bucket in the sky.  Still, I’m happy because I’m creating art. And happier yet in the knowledge that for every ‘art’ photograph I’ve taken there are scores more that I’ve taken of loved ones—family and close friends. So in the end, Arnie’s words comfort me. For among these simple family snapshots are the photographs that will be remembered.

Three Influential Photographs of the Western Landscape


The landscape of America’s West has long been the subject of American photographers. Samuel Morse scarcely had introduced the daguerreotype to America when explorer John C. Fremont decided to add daguerreotype equipment to his 1842 expedition to the land between Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains. The experiment, although apparently a complete failure (Fremont’s field reports did not mention a word about his efforts at photography), remains important because his attempt anticipated both the fascination with photographing the American West that continues to this day and the logistical difficulties that such photography would entail.

Later, professional photographers would be more successful in imaging the West. The wet plate process was just out of the toddler stage when Carleton Watkins began capturing dramatic and romantic images of Yosemite around 1860. Since then the list of photographers who have followed in Watkins’ footsteps reads like a “Who’s Who” in American photography:  O’Sullivan, Jackson, Muybridge, Coburn, Strand, Watson, Adams … the list goes on and on. Although from time to time interest in imaging the western landscape has waned, it remains one of the enduring genres in American photography. Of course there are many reasons for this.

No doubt the most basic reason is that, historically speaking, landscapes always have been a favored subject of visual artists. But the continued interest in imaging the landscapes of the West goes well beyond this conventional motivation. Long-lived socio-political cross-currents (for example, land exploitation vs. nature conservancy) and cultural myth maintenance (nowadays primarily sustained for commercial reasons) continue to motivate such photography. Over the years even photographers better known for other genres—Eadweard Muybridge, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Lee Friedlander for example—have taken a stab at western landscape photography.  Generally such dabbling has resulted in images that today are interesting only to photography historians.

However, in each period of American photographic history the western landscapes of a few photographers have risen above the rest to receive widespread and long lasting public attention.  As a consequence, their photographs have tended to imprint the photographer’s ‘way of seeing’ western space on the general public; that is, the photographer’s way of seeing western spaces was thought to be the way western spaces actually were. In this manner, a certain way of visualizing the West would become the norm in American culture, until at some point another photographer’s vision of the West replaced it.

This paper focuses on three such influential photographs, each taken at a very different time in American history by an acknowledged master of that period. Specifically, this paper analyzes Study among the Rocks of Echo Canyon Utah, 1869, by William Henry Jackson; Clearing Winter Storm, 1940, by Ansel Adams; and Mobile Homes, Jefferson County, Colorado, 1973, by Robert Adams. The paper discusses the societal context that surrounded each photograph and the influence that the photograph has had on the American public and subsequent western landscape photographers.  While the analysis focuses on these specific photographs, each was selected as a representative of the respective artist’s principal body of work, and hence the analysis extends accordingly.

Study among the Rocks of Echo Canyon, Utah, 1869

Figure 1 William Henry Jackson Study among the Rocks of Echo Canyon #33, Utah, 1869

Events in the latter half of the 19th century severely stressed the American social fabric. The Civil War and its aftermath were of course the major contributors to this dynamic, but there were other factors as well. Vast waves of immigrants added to the number of urban poor, numbers already swollen by those displaced by the destruction of the southern plantation system. The financial panic of 1873 only added to the country’s insecurity and woe. This was this social context in which the phrase, often attributed to Horace Greeley, “Go west young man, go west” reverberated throughout the last decades of that century. Why ‘Go west’? To take advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862 and lay claim to a piece of land one could call his own.

How tempting was the idea of ‘going west’? Certainly early in the second half of the 19th century, especially for those situated in the cities east of the Mississippi, the notion may not have been as appealing as we today assume it was. Was the West tamed? Was a scalping as likely an outcome as any other? Was there enough ‘there’ there for a realistic chance at a better life? No doubt there were those who, filled with the go-for-broke pioneer spirit we like to assume all Americans have, did not need much, if any, urging to head west. But folks are folks, and most humans are not great risk takers. That was no different in the latter half of the 19th century than it is now.

Certainly, the wild beauty of the West was well photographed. As western historian Martha Sandweiss writes: “no part of the American historical imagination is so shaped by visual imagery as is its images of the nineteenth-century West.” (Sandweiss, 2002) Carleton Watkins’ photographs and stereographs of the West, especially those of Yosemite, were widely distributed in the East, as were the western landscapes of Coburn and Muybridge. While certainly saying something about the beauty of the West (and the need to preserve that beauty), I suspect most in the East understood that they would not be homesteading under the shadow of El Capitan. On the other hand, Timothy O‘Sullivan’s images of the West captured the more likely, if less appealing, homesteading sites. However, many of his landscapes were of barren deserts and wild river canyons, and generally devoid of any indication of human activity save the occasional melancholy image of his mules and portable darkroom. As photography historian Robert Hirsch says of O’Sullivan: “[He] saw the West with ‘eastern’ eyes, as a hostile place where one must struggle to survive.” (Hirsch, 2009) O’Sullivan’s landscapes may have been fascinating to look at but they probably didn’t quicken the heart of potential homesteaders.

Then there are the western landscapes of William Henry Jackson. Like O’Sullivan, Jackson worked for Government survey teams at times, although later in his career Jackson also worked for the railroads. Jackson, like O’Sullivan, was commissioned to create images that would attract settlers to the West. The images that Jackson created, the images that were presented by the Government and railroads to the people of the crowded and impoverished East, offered one primary prize, space: space to breathe, space to farm, space to try for a better life.

There was an important difference, however, between the images of Jackson and those of his contemporary western landscape artists, a difference that best can be discerned by analyzing one of Jackson’s images: Study among the Rocks of Echo Canyon (see Figure 1).

An examination of Study shows that the scene is captured in the straight documentary style typical of western landscape photography of the period. The wet plate process, used to create Study and virtually all of the western landscape photographs in the era prior to the commercial availability of dry plate products in 1879,  precluded everything but the most straight forward image taking procedures.[1] Handling large, slippery, chemically toxic wet plates in a hot portable darkroom, knowing that the image had to be taken and the plate developed within minutes, was not a context for photographic experimentation in style. Moreover, it was the straight documentary style that best accomplished the goals of the great western landscape photographers of this period. Anything that smacked of a manipulated or ‘painterly’ image could be construed as an ‘interpretation’ rather than a ‘record’ of fact. The Watkins, O’Sullivans, and Jacksons of this era needed to convince the populace of the East that their landscapes were of real spaces; they needed the public to believe that the wonder and promise of these spaces were not the figment of an artist’s imagination.

So far, Study has shown us only how Jackson’s work was similar to his contemporaries. How then does Study represent the key difference between Jacksons’s work and that of his contemporaries, in particular of O’Sullivan’s? The difference in Study is the inclusion of evidence of development. Jackson purposely included in many of his landscapes signs of human activity, signs of progress; signs that could be interpreted by the naturally wary to mean that ‘going west’ would be an acceptable risk. Jackson’s way of seeing, his way of communicating to viewers about space, his inclusion of these signs, makes his version of the West more inviting.  Although the rugged canyon walls in Study suggest the rigors that a homesteader undoubtedly faces, the railroad line clearly tell the viewer that others have gone before him. As it slides by the canyon face, the rail line is presented as a welcoming magic carpet to the West. And what of the telegraph lines and poles? Are they not evidence that the homesteader will not be cut off from loved ones left behind?

In an period of social and financial distress, at a time when the East was crowded with refugees from inside and outside the country, at a time when the socio-political currents of day carried mostly dark messages, Jackson’s images, especially those like Study, could be interpreted as seconding Greeley’s message to the East’s beleaguered and wary masses: ‘Go west.’ And they did, at first in a trickle, and then in a flood.

However, even before Jackson closed the shutter on Study, there were some already worried about the negative impact of a mass migration of settlers to the West. It was clear to them that water would be an issue in the arid West, so for all of its open space there was a limit to the population that could be sustained there. Population growth beyond that point clearly would stress the environment. Further, the West held natural wonders like Yosemite and Yellowstone that would wither if besieged by an uncontrolled onslaught of tourists, developers, miners, and timber men.  In was this concern that eventually evolved into the conservation movement. The early proponents of conservation immediately grasped that photographic imagery could be an important element of their campaign to arouse among the public and, more importantly, Congress sympathy for their point of view. Carleton Watkins’ 1860s Yosemite images, for example, played a role in influencing Congress to establish Yosemite as a National Park in 1864. (Carleton Watkins) (The Evolution of the Conservation Movement) So, ironically, by the time Jackson’s shutter did close on Study, photography was employed as a weapon by both sides of what would become an enduring war on the American socio-political battlefield, conservation vs. development.

Clearing Winter Storm, 1940

A remarkable population shift to the West resulted from America’s involvement in World War II.  One study shows that the populations of just three western states, Washington, Oregon, and California, increased by 15% between the years 1940 and 1945, “permanently altering their demographics and economies.” (Tassava, 2010) The swelling population of the West created great pressure on western space; to support the newly acquired taste for suburban living huge parcels of land were needed for freeways, houses, schools, and strip malls. Trees were needed for lumber, rivers needed for water and to generate electricity, and air needed for combustion.  So after a hiatus during WWII, the conservation-development war restarted more intensely than ever.

Political and commercial proponents of development established programs to persuade the public to allow developers unfettered access to western resources. But the movement for conservation and environmental protection, now led by the Sierra Club, re-energized. Recalling that almost a century earlier Watkins’ photographs had helped establish Yosemite as a national park, and that Jackson’s photographs had done the same for Yellowstone, conservationists once again sought to utilize images of the western landscape to shape public opinion. Thus the linkage between photography and conservation became an enduring one.  As Finis Dunaway, author of Natural Vision – The Power of Images in American Environmental Reform, states in his book’s introduction: “Yet the history of environmental reform is more than the passage of a series of laws; it is also the story of images representing and defining the natural world, of the camera shaping politics and public attitudes.” (Dunaway, 2005)

Figure 2 Ansel Adams, Clearing Winter Storm, 1940

However the imagery from the previous century was spent ordnance; the Sierra Club needed fresh ammunition for this battle. Fresh ammunition was what they got in the western landscape portfolios of Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter and others; portfolios that featured images like Adams’ Clearing Winter Storm, 1940 (see Figure 2). The Sierra Club deployed this ammunition, particularly Adams’ images, in a new weapon specifically attuned to America’s evolving postwar culture, the environmental coffee table book. In this manner, as Hirsch notes, the public “came to see [Adams’] images as the absolute pictorial testimony of the American Western landscape, a site of inspiration and redemptive power that must be preserved.” (Hirsch, 2009)

Clearing, as representative of Adams’ greatest work, was a new kind of landscape. Certainly it wasn’t new in terms of subject matter; Yosemite is arguably the single most photographed space in the American West. Nor is the scale of the image novel. In fact the 8 x 10 view camera used by Adams to capture Clearing is almost a toy compared to the 18 x 21 plate camera that Watkins used for many of his Yosemite photographs. Nor does Clearing demonstrate in Adams a unique quest to capture fine detail; as Hirsh notes: “Watkins initiated the cardinal construct of American landscape photography: God was in the details.” (Hirsch, 2009) Watkins even matched Adams in his pursuit of prints with maximum available tonal range. So why is Adams’ landscape work ‘new’? It is because he went so far beyond Watkins in all of these aspects, save the size of his negative (and technology would mitigate that aspect), that Adams’ images could not be called an evolutionary step beyond Watkins’ work, but a revolutionary one.

How did Adams start this revolution in landscape photography? He did so by combining four elements to perfection. The first two elements were the key to his artistic persona: mindset and vision. The third element was the photographic technology available to him, technology that was vastly improved over that of Watkins’ time. The final element was the newly developed Zone System[2] that allowed him to employ scientifically rigorous processes to extract the maximum capabilities of that technology.

Adams’ mindset for photography—the gospel of straight photography and sharp focus—was that of Group f/64, which he help found in 1932. While he shared this gospel with others in the group, his vision for landscape photography was his own. That vision pushed him into Yosemite Valley and other remote places in the Sierra Nevada in weather conditions that others before him eschewed. This allowed him to ‘be there’ when sublime combinations of light, weather and the monumental structures of nature materialized before him, creating scenes never before captured in a photograph. With experience born of years of photographing, he learned to ‘pre-visualize’ how he could translate the scene before him into the desired print using the Zone System to manipulate the photographic technology available to him.

To capture Clearing Adams took advantage of lens, film and print paper technology that Watkins could only dream about. For Clearing Adams used a 12 ¼” Cooke lens to expose the film.  The 12 ¼” lens on an 8 x 10 view camera (roughly the equivalent to a 45mm lens on a 35mm camera) provided a view approximating what the human eye would see. Adams set the aperture to f/16 to assure great depth of field. Despite the small aperture he set the shutter to 1/5 second; fast enough to avoid showing movement in the clouds.  The fact that he would worry about cloud movement meant of course that his panchromatic film could capture clouds in the first place. Watkins had only orthochromatic emulsion at his disposal, so capturing any detail in the sky was usually out of the question.  While the technology of Adams’ day provided him the potential to translate the scene into the print that he pre-visualized, it was his Zone System that actually carried out that translation.

An explanation of the Zone System is beyond the scope of this paper. However, in his Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs (Adams, 1983), Adams provides a detailed explanation of how he employed the Zone System to create Clearing. The Zone System quickly became the new standard by which art photography would be measured.

From a sociological perspective, the major difference between Adams’ landscapes, as exemplified by Clearing, and those of say, Jackson, is Adams’ conscious exclusion of any indication of human presence, in either person or by artifact.  Of course with an oeuvre as large as Adams’ there were many exceptions. By and large however Adams and the Sierra Club “celebrated a landscape devoid of people, a pure space apart from civilization.” (Dunaway, 2005) Clearing is not so much a record of what was ‘out there’ as it is a vision of how Adams and the Sierra Club wanted the natural world to be remembered. Although addressing another one of Adams’ iconic images, Hirsch might as well be describing Clearing when he writes: “It is mythological, conveying a sense of optimism about the open Western space that says there are still uncovered possibilities in America and our society can push on into its future.” (Hirsch, 2009)

The enormous popularity of Adams’ landscapes, due in part to their accessibility to the general public via what Dunaway refers to as the “curious phenomenon of the environmental coffee table book in postwar America”, also had an enormous impact on the photographic art market. The photographic art market up to that point had been almost non-existent.  But, as Hirsch writes, “By the 1960s, the accessibility of Adams’s [sic] images, the respect for his technical brilliance, and the ability of his work to command higher prices gained photography entrance into a broader range of arenas, including mass media, galleries, and museums.” (Hirsch, 2009) While Alfred Stieglitz is credited for almost single-handedly gaining for photography the status of ‘Art’, it was Ansel Adams who almost single-handedly gained for photography the distinction of ‘Art’ that people were willing to go to galleries to see and to pay real money to buy.

Mobile Homes, Jefferson County, Colorado, 1973

Figure 3 Robert Adams, Mobile Homes, Jefferson County, Colorado, 1973

Americans continued to move westward in the postwar years in great numbers, drawn by temperate climate, inexpensive housing and plentiful jobs. This shift, coupled with the postwar ‘baby boom’, led to an enormous population growth in the West.  By the 1970s, even as the general public continued to see the West through the gaze of Ansel Adams’ heroic vision, a new breed of landscape photographers—Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams among them—looked out upon the western spaces and did not see what the cultural myths told them to expect to see. They did not see the landscapes of Ansel Adams. What they saw instead was suburban sprawl, highways lined with billboards and litter, mountains ravaged by mining, forests denuded of trees, and many other signs of man’s depredation upon the land. They saw, in fact, what was really there to see. They began to ask themselves what was the point of depicting the West, as Ansel Adams almost always had, as a vast, unspoiled and unpopulated space? They began to take images like Robert Adams’ Mobile Homes, Jefferson County, Colorado, 1973 (see Figure 3). According to photography and art historian Kelly Dennis, their apparent aim was to “question the validity of the centuries-old distinction between nature and culture in some of the West’s most mythologized imagery.” (Dennis, 2005)

The term “New Topographics” was coined to denote these human-altered landscapes, the term coming from the title of a 1975 exhibition featuring the work of Robert Adams and others at the International Museum of Photography in Rochester, New York, New Topographics – Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. Dennis writes that the exhibit’s title was “clearly a nod to nineteenth-century topographic photography under the initial exploratory auspices of the U.S. Geological Survey, as well as an acknowledgement of the alteration of that terrain during the century intervening—an acknowledgement missing from the mid-century photographs by Ansel Adams.” (Dennis, 2005)

Mobile Homes[3]  is simple and yet complex—and ultimately confusing. At first glance it seems to be simply a return to the straight forward, detached, documentary landscapes of the O’Sullivan and Jackson era.  But its composition is quite traditional, and the sharp focus and full tonality range aspects of the image clearly trace to Ansel Adams and the other 20th century Modernist masters. Finally, there is the element of irony in the image. There can be no disputing that placing a mobile home park in the foreground of what otherwise would be a classic western landscape—a threatening sky overlooking the brooding mass of a hill or mountain—is an ironic take on the heroic but no longer realistic imagery of Ansel Adams. A review of contemporary environmental photography makes it clear that this break with heroic Modernism by an insistence on reality over myth and the use of irony are the most influential and lasting aspects of the work of Robert Adams and his New Topographics brethren. (Ware, 2011)

The societal impact of images like Mobile Homes is not so clear. Is Mobile Homes a call to arms, or is it just another passive ‘Art’ object, or something else altogether? There were certainly those who criticized the New Topographics images for not being more strident, more demanding of action. Their criticism is reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s questioning of the effectiveness of social reform photographs—like those of Lewis Hine—if they are also beautiful. (Sontag, 1973) This alleged loss of effectiveness, coupled with the ‘fine arts pedigree’ of their imagery, leads such critics to dismiss Robert Adams and the other New Topographics photographers as creators of essentially socially useless Modernist art pieces; in these critics’ view there is no ‘call to arms’. Dennis challenges such criticism. She counters that, while the New Topographics photographers “indisputably romanticize their subject, for all that they reflect the depredations of the landscape”, this does not relieve the viewers of the responsibility of passing judgment on the situation. (Dennis, 2005)

In any case, what is clear is that with its complex mixture of Pre-Modernism, Modernism and irony, images like Mobile Homes moved western landscape photography to a new place—a significant step away from traditional Modernist sensibilities and towards, but not necessarily arriving at, cynical Postmodernism. For Mobile Homes, as a representative of Robert Adams’ work at least, may be discouraging but it is also hopeful that Americans will wake up from its dreams of a mythic West, and take steps to fix the reality.


Almost as soon as the camera was introduced in America, serious photographers were taking landscapes of the American West; they have been taking such images ever since. Certainly the visual arts’ historical attraction to landscape imagery is one reason for this. However something in the myth-makeup of the American psyche, as well as certain long-lived socio-political dynamics in American culture (particularly westward migration and the struggle to balance conservation and development), also impel such image taking. Most of these photographs receive only short-lived attention by the general public, if they receive any attention at all outside of the art world.

On the other hand in every era there have been western landscape photographs that, by virtue of the unique social context in which they were taken and by virtue of the artist’s unique way of seeing the West, have had wide-ranging impact not only on the photographic world, but also on society at large. Three such impactful photographs are analyzed, one each by 19th century documentarian William Henry Jackson, 20th century Modernist master Ansel Adams, and 1970s New Topographics photographer Robert Adams. The three images are shown to be linked not only by genre and significant influence on society and the art world but also by the thematic presence or absence of human activity. The Jackson photograph and the Ansel Adams photograph are presented as positive images of the West, with Jackson’s image encouraging settlement in the West while Adams’ awe-inspiring image subtly warns of what will be lost if development is not controlled. An argument is presented that the images of Jackson and Robert Adams attain their social power by including evidence of human activity while the Ansel Adams image gains its social power by exclusion of such evidence.  Finally, this paper proposes that the image of Robert Adams is a complex mixture of elements: the compositional elegance, sharp focus and tonal range beauty of the Ansel Adams image; the emotionally detached, documentary style of the Jackson image; and the ironic inclusion of signs of human depredation in an otherwise classic western landscape. If Jackson’s image uses signs of human activity to send an upbeat message about the West, Robert Adams’ image uses signs of human activity to send an ironic and deflating message about the myth of the American West and the grandeur of its unspoiled open spaces.


Adams, A. (1983). Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Carleton Watkins. (n.d.). Retrieved December 5, 2011, from Wikipedia:

Dennis, K. (2005). Landscape and the West: Irony and Critique in New Topographic Photography. Cultural Landscapes in the 21st Century. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Forum UNESCO University and Heritage 10th International Seminar.

Dunaway, F. (2005). Natural Visions – The Power of Images in American Environmental Reform. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Fielder, J. (1999). Colorado 1870 – 2000 Historical Landscape Photography by William Henry Jackson, Contemporary Photography by John Fielder. Englewood, Colorado: Westcliffe Publishers in cooperation with The Colorado Historical Society.

Hirsch, R. (2009). Seizing the Light – A Social History of Photography, 2nd Ed. New York: McGraw Hill.

Papageorge, T. (n.d.). Tod Papageorge on Robert Adams – The Missing Criticism – What We Bought. Retrieved December 8, 2011, from AMERICAN SUBURB X / ASX:

Sandweiss, M. A. (2002). Print the Legend – Photography and the American West. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sontag, S. (1973). On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Tassava, C. J. (2010, February 5). The American Economy during World War II. Retrieved December 5, 2011, from

The Evolution of the Conservation Movement. (n.d.). Retrieved December 5, 2011, from Library of Congress:

Ware, K. (2011). Earth Now: American Photogrpahers and the Environment. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press.

[1] Jackson used large format cameras with glass plate negatives varying from 3”x4” for stereo, and 5”x 8”, 8”x10”, 11”x14”, and even 18”x 22” for standard negatives. (Fielder, 1999) In all likelihood, Study was contact printed on albumen paper from an 8”x10” wet glass plate negative.

[2] The Zone System, a codification of the principles of sensitometry, was co-developed by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer

[3] Robert Adams has used 35mm SLR, 2 ¼”x2 ¼” TLR, and 4”x5” view cameras in his work. Mobile Home is a 6”x 6” silver gelatin print from a 2 ¼”x2 ¼” panchromatic film negative. The film was exposed with a Rolleiflex TLR.  (Papageorge)

It’s Complicated: Essays on Photography

Unintentional Art

In painting, the Art medium to which photography is most often compared, the painter’s hand, not the painter’s tool, plays the primary role in the creation of an object. The paintbrush creates an object only under the control of its wielder’s hand, and practically speaking the only motivation for putting paintbrush to canvas these days is the creation of Art. The object created may or may not be aesthetically pleasing, and may be created by someone who may or may not be talented, but if the intention for creating the object is Art, then the object is arguably Art. And if all paintings are created for Art’s sake, then there can be no such thing as unintentional painting Art.

In contrast, there are of course many reasons other than creating Art why someone would pick up the photographer’s tool, the camera, and create a photo object. In fact, the vast bulk of photographic images are created for purposes other than to create Art. The laws of chance insure that some of those photographs will be technically and, depending on the viewer’s aesthetic sensibilities, artistically equal if not superior to any image created by a photographer who intended to create Art. Thus it is that photography always has had the potential for the creation of unintentional photographic Art. Still, if for no other reason than the lack of artistic intent on the part of the photographer, such photographs didn’t necessarily have to be considered Art. Photography did not have to create a sub-category for unintentional photographic Art. But it did. Of course before that could happen, Art first had to create a sub-category for photography.

Nineteenth century America did not view photography as an Art medium, at least not an Art medium of equal rank to painting and sculpture. Then in the transition years of the 19th and 20th centuries, Alfred Stieglitz virtually single handedly forced Photo-Secessionist photography to be accepted as gallery Art. A few years later Beaumont Newhall and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) coaxed the American Art world into accepting the photography of early 20th century Modernist masters as museum Art. Stieglitz and Newhall deliberately created a distinction in photography that hadn’t existed previously in America—a distinction between Art photography and the rest of photography. So it was that a new sub-category of ‘Art’ was born. But this sub-category, unlike the sub-categories of ‘painting’ and ‘sculpture’, had to affix the term ‘Art’ to its title, as in ‘Art photography’, in order to distinguish it from the rest of photography.

A few years later Edward Steichen and John Szarkowski, as Newhall’s successors at MoMA, would include all forms of photography in their exhibits. But far from trying to eliminate the Art/non-Art distinction by persuading America to the converse of its 19th century opinion, Steichen and Szarkowski merely mystified things by pronouncing, ex cathedra as it were, that certain images selected from all manner of photography should be considered Art if he who sat on the judgment seat of photography, as Christopher Phillips would say (Phillips, 1989), declared it so. So it was now possible for a non-Art photograph to be considered Art.

Of course the general notion of unintentional Art is not now, nor was it then, a radical idea in the Art world. But as Walter Benjamin noted, in his seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, uniqueness, authenticity, cult value and, implicitly, the passage of time and the perspective of a later age were usually required before the ‘Art’ tag was attached to an object not originally created as a pure Art object per se. (Benjamin, 1936) So it seems to me that the notion that certain ‘non-Art’ photo objects—objects created here and now, created with little claim to artistic intent or authenticity, objects that could hardly be called unique or be said to have a cult value—could be declared Art should have been considered a fairly radical idea.

So why did MoMA’s radically new view of photographic Art stick? Benjamin’s Work of Art essay offers an explanation. Photography had developed within the context of the Western Art tradition. That tradition, Benjamin essay implies, includes the attachment of ‘aura’ to objects exhibited by a prestigious institution of Art and presented to the public in a manner that indicates that the objects are to be considered ‘precious’. So by virtue of displaying selected ‘non-Art’ photographs within the context of a prestigious museum—and by the time of Steichen’s directorship MoMA was a prestigious Art institution—‘aura’ was conveyed to these objects despite their non-artistic beginnings and brief existence.  The irony of course is that while Benjamin inadvertently provides the explanation for how aura became attached to these photographs he had predicted that the emergence of photography—the poster child for art in the age of mechanical reproduction—would usher the withering of aura in Art.

For better or for worse, the Art photography world would have to deal with the notion of ‘unintentional photographic Art’.

Lady Luck

Alfred Stieglitz once warned amateur photographers: “Don’t believe you become an artist the instant you received a gift Kodak on Xmas morning. …The machine may see for you, but its eye is dead. Your eye should furnish it with life. But don’t believe that all open eyes see. Seeing needs practice—just like photography itself.” (Stieglitz, 1909)

In the early years of the 20th century, when Stieglitz and others were struggling to earn a place for photography among the traditional Arts, the role of ‘luck’ in the creation of an artful image was a touchy subject. Lest they jeopardize their arguments in favor of photography’s acceptance as an Art, their stance was that luck had little to do with their Art. Susan Sontag quotes Ansel Adams as saying: “A photograph is not an accident—it is a concept”. (Sontag, 1973)  ‘Accidents’, both lucky and unlucky, was the theme of Edward Weston’s caution to photographers in an article he wrote in 1930: “Until the photographer has learned to visualize his final result in advance, and to predetermine the procedures necessary to carry out that visualization, his finished work (if it be photography at all) will represent a series of lucky—or unlucky—mechanical accidents.” (Weston, 1930). Yet even though the early masters sneered at luck and relegated its role to the processes of the vernacular photographer, the fact remained that with a bit of good luck the vernacular photographer was perfectly capable of capturing an image that an independent critic, unaware or uncaring of who the photographer was, might declare to be Art. John Szarkowski’s famous 1964 exhibit and book The Photographer’s Eye erased any lingering doubts about that.

In his essay Introduction To The Photographer’s Eye—John Szarkowski (1966), Hugh McCabe outlines what this exhibit was all about: Szarkowski begins by stating a core tenet of his outlook on photography which is that it is fundamentally different from other picture-making processes in that it is based on selection rather than synthesis—the photographer takes elements of the real world for his picture, whereas the painter makes the elements of his picture from scratch. This immediately posed a new creative dilemma—how can this process be used to create meaningful pictures and valid art? This question would not be answered by means of recourse to existing theories of visual art, but instead tackled by a rag-bag consortium of commercial photographers, amateur enthusiasts and casual snap-shooters, who may not have been consciously trying to answer it at all, but nevertheless have managed to evolve an aesthetic practice that defines what photography is. (McCabe, 2010)

The vernacular photographs included in this exhibit, artful as they were, were not freakish anomalies. In her book Diana & Nikon: Essays on Photography, Janet Malcolm wrote: “Any question of Szarkowski’s having mischievously stacked the deck—of his having illustrated The Photographer’s Eye with rare, uncharacteristically artful vernacular works—has been dispelled by the developments that followed the book’s publication. Thousands of vernacular photographs that have since been unearthed have aesthetic qualities that equal, if they do not surpass, anything in the book, and show the same singular lack of stylistic distinctiveness. For where other mediums offer clear distinctions between their academic, folk, and vernacular productions … photography has neither a primitive style nor a commercial style nor a reportorial style nor a child’s style.“ (Malcolm, 1977, pp. 58-59)

However, later in the 20th century—notably, after photography was well established as a bona fide Art—some well regarded photographers would disagree with the early century masters’ contention that luck was relegated to the vernacular photographer alone. Jerry Uelsmann, in an interview, acknowledged the roles of “luck and intuition” in the success of his images. (Maher & Berman, 2006) Janet Malcolm says that Garry Winogrand objected “to the very idea” that the Photographer “can control and predict his results”. She goes on to quote Winogrand’s response to a question about what makes a photograph alive instead of dead. Winogrand, referring to a Robert Frank image of a gasoline pump (probably Santa Fe, New Mexico), said: “When he took that photograph he couldn’t possibly know—he could just not know—that it would work, that it would be a photograph. He knew he probably had a chance. In other words, he cannot know what that’s going to look like as a photograph.” Winogrand went on to famously say: “In the simplest sentence, I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” (Malcolm, 1977, p. 33) Winogrand clearly felt that even the Art photographer requires a bit of luck to capture a special image.

Winogrand’s hypothesis was confirmed—at least in regards to Robert Frank—by Frank himself in an interview he granted at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the U.S. publication of his seminal work The Americans. Sarah Coleman covered that interview, and as Frank discussed his iconic Trolley, New Orleans she wrote: “Dressed in his trademark John Deere baseball cap, looking more like a factory worker than a famous photographer, Frank sat in a red leather chair on stage and seemed mildly tickled by the attention he was receiving. ‘Photography is partly an accident,’ he affirmed, after admitting that the cover image of “The Americans” was serendipitous. Everything about that image, from the sad eyes of a black man in the segregated back section of a New Orleans trolley car to the watery reflections in the upper windows, speaks volumes about a fearful, divided country. But when he shot it, Frank said, he ‘wasn’t aware of the way it was arranged.’” (Coleman, 2009)

The disagreement over the role of luck in Art photography, a non-contemporaneous affair since the antagonists were separated by a generation, was between the Modernist masters of the 20th century. The early century Modernists, steeped in Western art traditions and anxious to have their photography accepted as a major Art form, essentially sought what Walter Benjamin would later describe as ‘authority’ for themselves and ‘aura’ for their photographs. They rejected ‘luck’ because it diminished ‘authority’. Later century Modernists, with the acceptance of photography as Art in the rear view mirror, could afford to be more open about luck’s role in their Art making.

In any case, by the 1980s the topic became irrelevant because by then the Postmodernist held sway in the Art world.  The Postmodernists question the very idea of the authority of the Artist (for example, Sherrie Levine’s appropriation of Walker Evans’ images), and the aura of Art (for example, the ironical mounting of Art in a fake gold frame). So a Postmodernist’s response to the question of whether luck diminishes the authority of the Artist and consequently the aura of his Art would be: “Who cares?”

Even the very notion of what constitutes a ‘lucky’ vernacular image changed because, under the influence of ideologists and theorists, Postmodernists displaced the Modernist’s aesthetic standards with their own, conceptual, standards of judgment. These new standards prize images which question photography’s role in maintaining society’s power structure and characterizing and objectifying certain under classes. Cindy Sherman’s images, as a comment on the depiction of women in popular culture, are prime examples of the Postmodernist aesthetic. Clearly it would take a different kind of lucky vernacular photograph—lucky conceptual rather than lucky beautiful—to match up to the Postmodernist Art standards.

Regardless of whether or how much luck is involved in the creation of their Artful images, photographers of all persuasions require a special kind of luck—the luck of being ‘discovered’—if those images are to hang in a museum or gallery. Referring to this kind of luck as the ‘great equalizer’ among photographers, the description of a recent photo exhibit added: It is the latter trait, unquantifiable and subject to no external influences, that may well be the critical factor in unearthing photographers of excellence and insight yet unknown. (New Orleans Museum of Art, 2011)

 It would seem that the wise photographer will court Lady Luck.

The Mathematics of Art Photography

Chance (perhaps a term less offensive to Modernist sensibilities than luck) has seen to it that it is not the creation of an Art-worthy image that separates the Art photographer from the vernacular photographer. Both can create Art, and chance plays a role in each of their distinct approaches to photography. However, chance is inextricably tied to the notion of probability—and probability in turn, with the notion of number of opportunities. But number of opportunities is photography’s middle name. For no other Art—certainly none of the hand crafted arts—can create so many artifacts in so short a time.

Since chance is part of the equation of photography, and that equation must factor the huge number of opportunities photo technology affords, one way to unravel the Art photographer-vernacular photographer bollix is to focus on the probability that, for any given blink of the shutter, the photographer has created Art. This line of thinking leads to a clarification of the distinction between the Art photographer and the vernacular photographer because in photography, as in life, chance favors the prepared. So, in photography it follows that organization, perseverance, experience, and skill will increase the probability of creating Art. Hence it is not the ability to create Art—chance provides all photographers with that—but the Art photographer’s organization, perseverance, experience, and skill that significantly increase the probability of creating Art that distinguishes him from his vernacular brethren.

In every art medium a body of work is important in establishing the Artist’s bona fides. For most Art mediums, it is the qualitative dimension of the corpus that is the key evaluative consideration. In Art photography, however, the quantitative dimension can be just as important.  With photography’s potential to generate a large number of images in a short amount of time, coupled with some probability, even a very low probability, that every snap captures an Artful image, an Art photographer cannot be identified merely by having created a modicum of Artful images. Any photographer, regardless of intent or skill level, can create, if he takes enough photos, a fair number of Artful images.  So if a photographer is to be distinguished from a prolific vernacular photographer and be afforded serious consideration as an Art photographer he must often create a significant number of Artful images.

On the other hand, given his general modus operandi, it is highly unlikely that even a prolific vernacular photographer will create a body of work on a specific subject, discounting the ubiquitous family snapshot, or consistently utilize a specific style, except of course the style-less snapshot style. It’s no wonder then that the budding Art photographer strives to create a distinct style of his own, to focus on a specific subject, and make that style and subject the distinctive signature of his portfolio and subsequently his body of work. For a distinctive signature offers multiple potential benefits; it mitigates the need for quantitative separation from vernacular photographers while establishing aesthetic separation from other Art photographers.

In Art photography, numbers count.

In the (I)deology of the Beholder

In a phenomenon that may be unique to photography—or more specifically to Postmodernist photography—it is often the body of work as a whole, as an entity, that is declared the Art. So rather than being a collection of Art, the corpus is the Art because the concept being explored is discernable only in large. A case in point is the body of work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Their body of work consists primarily of hundreds of images of industrial structures, most notably water towers. Each tower image is a fairly straightforward mug shot; no one of them is terribly interesting by itself. It is only in review of their corpus can one conclude, if one is motivated enough to bother, that something else beyond a fascination with water towers is at work here.

The Bechers’ is not Art for the common man. When Robert Hirsch discusses the Bechers’ work in his history of photography it is as if he is reporting on an especially esoteric social science project. (Hirsch, 2008). The average Joe on the street likely would be hard pressed to view any one of the tower images as Art. If confronted not with a single image, but with the images in their hundreds, he is likely neither sophisticated enough or caring enough to figure out, much less appreciate, what the concept behind the Art is.

This phenomenon is a consequence of the displacement of Modernist’s standards of aesthetics with Postmodernist’s conceptual standards, which in turn are informed by a grab-bag of what Geoffrey Batchen called “a variety of sometimes competing theoretical models”. (Batchen, 1999) In the Postmodernist era one has to bone up on Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, and semiotics, and god knows what else, just to get a clue about what someone is up to with his Art. Sadly, a theoretical model for ‘beauty’ that Joe Six-pack could understand apparently didn’t’ make it into the bag.

As with the Bechers’ towers, all too often one cannot discern the ‘concept’ behind one of the Postmodernist images unless it is viewed in conjunction with its oeuvre brethren. Certainly this is the case with Cindy Sherman’s work. Only when her work is considered as a whole rather than piece by piece, does the concept, the feminist sensibilities, become evident.

Sure, there are ostensive Modernist artists—Robert Adams for one—whose body of work, like those of many Postmodernists, seems more about conveying a message (in Adams’ case, the blight on the natural environment caused by the metastasizing of human structures) than being a collection of Art. But if in fact the Artist really is a Modernist (as I believe Adams is) rather than a born-in-the-wrong-decade Postmodernist, you will see that each piece generally conforms to Modernist aesthetic standards and can be evaluated on its own relative to those standards.  Adams’ Irrigation Canal, Larimer County, Colorado, 1990 is a case in point. The same cannot be said always of Postmodernist Art. Cindy Sherman in a clown suit (Untitled, 2004) is not a comment on women’s portrayal in modern culture; it is just a portrait of a clown.

To be fair, there are Postmodernist Artists whose photography can stand up to Postmodernist standards on a piece-by-piece basis; Barbara Kruger is one. Each of her images—Your Body is a Battleground, for example—functions, as Hirsh describes it, to show its viewers “the tactics by which photographs impose their messages, revealing the hidden ideological agendas of power.” (Hirsch, 2008) Of course the text helps.

When Pictorialists and Modernists held sway in the Art world, you had only to rely on your eyeball to let you know whether you should appreciate an Artist’s photograph, and you didn’t need to analyze his entire body of work in order to do so. When you did review a body of work of a celebrated master, you were likely to be amazed by how many interesting and eye-holding images it contained; in the Postmodernist era you are more likely to be amazed by how few.

There was a time when beauty was in the eye of the beholder. Today beauty is in the ideology of the beholder. And good luck if you’re not up on, or don’t care for, the ideology.

It’s Complicated

The answer to the question of ‘who gets to say’ that this photograph is Art is either very easy or very complicated.

If one follows Barthes’ approach then the answer is easy, the answer is: ‘you and me’. The answer gets more complicated when social theorists weigh in. A Marxist critic like Martha Rosler says it’s the capitalist-controlled art market that has the final say.  She goes on to say that this market is designed to enhance the social status of the bourgeoisie, assign to the proletariat the status of “the uncultured, the naïve, the philistine”, and define the proletariat “out of the audience of art photography”. (Rosler, 1984) More equanimous critics like Christopher Phillips make the argument that it’s MoMA and its succession of powerful Curators of Photography—the photography world’s “judgment seat” as he calls them—that have, directly or by their far flung influence in these matters, the final say. (Phillips, 1989)

Actually, if one considers both the low and high ends of the art market, all three may be right. Those that can only afford to buy low end art buy such art to decorate their lives, and hence they can make the ‘Is it Art?’ call with their hearts. Like Barthes, they can look at a photograph for whatever punctum—if any—is there for them. However, the high end of the art market is different. As Rosler points out, the high end serves a different ‘audience’ (to use her term), and this audience buys Art more for investment reasons and status reasons than as a way to scratch any aesthetic or decorative itch.

The real question for the high end market is not ‘who’ gets to say whether ‘this image is Art’ (or not), the question that really matters at the high end is instead ‘Is he an Artist?’ High rollers buy the photographer, not the photograph[1]. The photograph is the investment; the ‘right’ photographer insures that the investment is sound. And here is where I think Phillips has it right. The high end market players, dealers, buyers, sellers, the whole lot, require a universally accepted compass to keep everyone on the same page, to keep everyone pointed to the same true north. Hence the art market looks to a god on the judgment seat at MoMA to identify ‘who is the photographer’, whose photographs are precious, timeless, and coveted.

In other art mediums, where only artists create Art and hence the connection between Art and artist is simple, the relationship linking the two questions “Is it Art?” and “Is he an artist?” is such that answering one answers the other. But in the world of photography all one can say about the connection between Art and artist, between photograph and photographer, is: It’s complicated.

Works Cited

Batchen, G. (1999). Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography. New York: MIT Press.

Benjamin, W. (1936). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung .

Coleman, S. (2009). ROBERT FRANK AND “THE AMERICANS” . Retrieved March 13, 2011, from

Hirsch, R. (2008). Seizing the Light: A Social History of Photography (2nd Ed). McGraw-Hill.

Maher, C., & Berman, L. (2006, November). Jerry Uelmann Interview. Retrieved May 1, 2011, from

Malcolm, J. (1977). Diana & Nikon: Essays on Photography. New York: Aperture.

McCabe. (2010, February 21). Introduction To The Photographers Eye – John Szarkowski (1966). Retrieved May 3, 2011, from Traces Of The Real:

New Orleans Museum of Art. (2011, May). Retrieved May 3, 2011, from New Orleans Museum of Art:

Phillips, C. (1989). The Judgment Seat of Photography. In R. Bolten (ed.), The Contest of Meaning (pp. 15-48). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rosler, M. (1984). Lookers, Buyers, Dealers, and Makers: Thoughts on Audience. In Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation (p. 311). New York: Museum of Contemporary Art and David R Godine (Boston).

Sontag, S. (1973). On Photography. New York: Picador.

Stieglitz, A. (1909). Twelve Random Dont’s. Photographic Topics .

Weston, E. (1930). Photography – Not Pictorial. Camera Craft, Vol. 37, No. 7 , 313-320.

[1]  Wikipedia reports that one of the Bechers’ cooling tower photographs sold at auction for $150,000 in 2004 (  I suppose it’s possible that someone was convinced that the tower would look perfect hanging next to the family portrait in the living room, but I suspect that the price had much more to do with the name ‘Becher & Becher’ than it had to do with a swell image of a cooling tower.

The Myth of the Muse

There is an enduring myth about Artists: they have access to something that most of us do not—a Muse which provides inspiration for some creative action. As this myth goes, the artist is most productive when his muse is whispering in his ear—he need only to listen and then apply his talent. Conversely, when an artist goes through a dry patch, it is his muse which has left him, or due to distraction he has temporarily lost his ability to tune into the muse’s frequency.

The myth of the muse has been perpetuated through the ages because the idea serves the art world well. In particular the myth reinforces another myth—the specialness of the artist; he not only has rare skills, he has a muse—and most of us have neither. The myth is maintained but only very subtly because if pushed too hard the Muse would take on the status of the Leprechaun, and instead of subliminally enhancing the aura of the artist, would reduces him and his Muse to cultural joke.

The myth has been perpetuated both in Art and in writing. In a 2008 article for the Guardian, a UK publication, feminist and journalist Germaine Greer discussed various artists who had living breathing muses rather than the more common Harvey the Rabbit, perceptible-only-to-the-artist type. She had this to say about the role of the muse: The muse in her purest aspect is the feminine part of the male artist, with which he must have intercourse if he is to bring into being a new work. She is the anima to his animus, the yin to his yang, except that, in a reversal of gender roles, she penetrates or inspires him and he gestates and brings forth, from the womb of the mind. (

Artist Judith Levy does her bit to maintain the myth in a piece on her website entitled “Artist and Muse”, where she discusses her work that explores her “artist/muse relationship and creative process.” (

When I’ve asked various working artists I’ve know what inspires them, the typical answer is not Muse, but desperation, deadline, due date, 11th hour. A case in point was a brief discussion I recently had with a young photographer whose work was being exhibited at a small Denver gallery. It was clear that there was a single thematic thread throughout the work, so I asked her what inspired to create art around this theme. Her answer, essentially, was this: with the deadline to get Art up on the wall for her showing rapidly approaching she hadn’t been able to come up with anything. Nada. Finally, in desperation, she just starting shooting, and suddenly it all sort of came together. One image led to another. A theme discovered, a body of work created. Just in time. And it was good work too. Desperation and Deadline, coupled no doubt with sweat and talent, had carried the day—a Muse was not involved.