Alex Nyerges: Chasing the Light II

Every now and then there is a photography exhibit that offers, if not the truly novel, then at least the truly fresh, that is, a wonderfully different expression of familiar genres. Chasing the Light II, now on display at the Richmond’s glavékocen gallery is just such an exhibit. Filling the gallery’s generous wall space, Chasing consists of an impressive number of large monochrome pigment prints of photographs captured by artist Alex Nyerges during early morning strolls around Richmond and other cities around the globe. Just as a maestro conductor can tease out delightful nuances in a classic symphony, Nyerges (whose day job is the Director of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts), manages to squeeze fresh, captivating images out of two longtime standard genres, the flâneur and the cityscape.

West Side Shadows, 2017

What distinguishes Chasing from most cityscape photography is that Nyerges generally eschews the formulaic composition consisting of a wide-angle, iconic viewpoint bathed in glorious light. While such images make great postcards, they generally no longer move the needle for most gallerists. Nyerges instead seeks out compositions that are at least as much about the highly graphic and formal elements of the scene as they are about the ostensive subjects, even highly recognizable subjects like the Eiffel Tower, or Richmond’s 9th Street Bridge. With an obviously deep understanding of composition and design (who can be surprised by that!) Nyerges prefers to focus on visually arresting arrangements of shade, shape, and texture as these design elements are briefly fashioned by the sun as its early morning rays play on the city’s architecture and environment. Since color can distract from the appreciation of shade, shape, and texture, printing most of the Chasing photographs in monochrome is a brilliant choice. This fact is brought home by the few color photographs in the exhibit, as they don’t carry quite the same visual punch as their B&W brethren.

Look Right, Look Left, 2017

The emphasis on design means that Nyerges, unlike most flâneur street photographers (think Cartier-Bresson or Winogrand), generally does not make people on the street, doing what people on the street do, the fulcrum of his images. However, those few images that do depend on people for their punctum—for example, Look Right, Look Left, a view of a London street corner from above—remind us that cities, after all, are constructs built by people for people. In any case, there is an element of Cartier-Bresson in most of the exhibit’s images. Given how fleeting is the perfect light during the early morning hours—and it is precisely that perfect light that Nyerges is chasing for his graphic compositions—there certainly is an element of the decisive moment in most every image.

Chasing the Light II is a wonderful exhibit. See it if you can. It runs through December 23rd at Richmond’s glavékocen gallery. Proceeds of the exhibit go to benefit the VMFA.

Posted in Reviews

Kenneth Josephson: Encounters with the Universe

In this era of pyrotechnic digital imagery and ubiquitous arm-length photography, the current photography exhibit at the Denver Art Museum—Kenneth Josephson: Encounters with the Universe—may not, at first glance, seem especially exciting. However, the exhibit offers patrons willing to invest a little time and a bit of mental effort something more rewarding than mere visual stimulation.

Kenneth Josephson_2015_265

Kenneth Josephson, Polapans, 1973

Although not a household name, Kenneth Josephson was—in the 60’s and 70’s—at the forefront of what academics and photo historians refer to as conceptual photography. Schooled in the art of photography by the legendary Minor White, and heavily influenced by Modernist masters Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan, Josephson’s most important work focused inward—on photography itself. For example, he conceived of a brilliant way (photographs within photographs) to prompt viewers to be as aware of the act of picture-taking as they are of what had been photographed. Before mouse-click digital replication, Josephson created images like Polapans, 1973. Before trendy arm-length selfies, he conjured images like New York State, 1970.

Kenneth Josephson, Stockholm 1967

Kenneth Josephson, Stockholm, 1967

But unlike a lot of conceptual photography, which tends to be somber, intentionally inartistic, and decodable only by academicians and historians, there is an air of whimsy and lightheartedness to Josephson’s work. His photographs can be enjoyed by anyone, for their visual interest alone, whether or not the deeper, conceptual aspect is wholly appreciated. So it is with photographs like the sublimely beautiful apparition of a tree in winter (Chicago, 1959), or the puzzle that is a car with an apparently reversed shadow (Stockholm, 1967).

Kenneth Josesphson-New-York-State

Kenneth Josephson, New York State, 1970

Encounters with the Universe provides evidence, at least to anyone not so inured to the charm of photography by over-saturation that he can no longer marvel at true creativity, that the greatest gifts that a visual artist has to offer are interesting ideas behind interesting images.
Kenneth Josephson: Encounters with the Universe is on view at the Denver Art Museum through May 8, 2016.

Posted in Reviews

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.

Posted in Essays

The Photography of the Altered Landscape

Introduction

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.

Conclusion

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–, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cnat/hd_cnat.htm (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. http://www.nytimes.com/1982/06/27/arts/photography-view-charles-pratt-s-view-of-nature-washington-dc.html

[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”, DailyMail.com, last modified April 2, 2013, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2302670/Photographer-Roger-Minick-captures-essence-1980s-American-tourist.html

[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, http://www.academia.edu/1947419/Reinventing_the_Genre_New_Topographics_and_the_Landscape

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, http://conferences.ncl.ac.uk/unescolandscapes/files/DENNISKelly.pdf. 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, https://www.frankmercadophotography.com/2013/12/fairyland/

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

Posted in Essays

The Altered Landscape

The best visual art tends to possess these qualities: it engages the mind even as it captures the eye. Visual art missing both traits is a disaster; visual art missing one or the other quality motivates the viewer to move on, as either the eye gives up hope of stimulation, or the mind drifts away in search of a more interesting puzzle. Two distinct but conceptually related exhibits now showing at the Carmen Wiedenhoeft Gallery in Denver’s RiNo art district meet the criteria for the best in visual art. Imposition features the aerial landscape photography of Denver born and based Evan Anderman. Overlook, a pop-up exhibit in conjunction with the near-by Rule Gallery, features paintings and drawings of man-altered landscapes by Colorado born, now Santa Fe based, Nina Elder.

Imposition is the latest in Anderman’s growing oeuvre of aerial landscape art. This exhibit features ten large (most are 30×54”, the largest is 48×72”), visually stunning color aerial landscape photographs of the Eastern Plains of Colorado. The initial response to aerial landscapes is like that usually evoked by abstract art, as small telling details are at first overwhelmed by large scale shapes, colors, and textures. One piece in particular struck me as a play on the Color Field abstract art of the 50s and 60s. Fallow Fields is composed of strong geometrical shapes of neutral color capped by an almost implausibly iridescent green quadrilateral. The formalist in me thrilled when I looked upon this piece.

Evan Anderman, Fallow Fields, 2014

Evan Anderman, Fallow Fields, 2014

The formal beauty of each of Imposition’s images is the hook. One is inclined to gaze for a while from a leisurely distance to soak in the beauty, and only later move in to seek out the details. That’s when the questions arise, the inquiry begins, and a dialog ensues. Which shapes are natural, which made by man? What is that? How was it formed? Why is it there? Sometimes the image answers readily (e.g., tractor tracks, erosion, irrigation); sometimes it does not. In any case, the eye and mind are engaged.

The aerial landscape art on display here is the consequence of several significant developments that began in the last century. On the technical side were the developments of small, relatively affordable airplanes, and portable high resolution cameras and lenses. The subject of aerial photography, the land itself, underwent significant change, due to the emergence of monolithic agribusinesses that operate on geographic scales previously unimaginable, and the development of massively powerful machines that are capable of reshaping the contours and texture of the land to an extent not previously achievable by beast-drawn tools.  No less significant a development was the evolution of the intent of the landscape photographer. The 20th century started with the Pictorialist, who endeavored merely 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. Now we have contemporary landscape artists—artists like Evan Anderman—who are neither afraid to show man’s alteration of the land, nor afraid to reveal the beauty that sometimes accompany such change.

Imposition doesn’t answer the question of whether man’s alteration of the plains is good or bad. This exhibit doesn’t go there. But it does make one see and think about our man-altered world. We get to draw our own conclusions, whatever they may be. If landscape photography of the early 20th century sought to show us our land as we’d like to believe it is and hope it always will 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.

Nina Elder, Jumbo (Trinity Test Site, April 7, 1945), 2012

Nina Elder, Jumbo (Trinity Test Site, April 7, 1945), 2012

Overlook, although also contemporary landscape art, is less neutral than Imposition. Elder’s work tends more towards the New Topographics formulation—especially that of photographer Robert Adams—where human-created ugliness is presented in jarring counterpoint to the beauty of the surrounding land. A case in point is Jumbo (Trinity Test Site, April 7, 1945), a large (22×30”) graphite and charcoal drawing.  A classic Southwestern desert landscape, complete with craggy mountains in the background, and a canopy of cirrus clouds overhead is the stage for huge earthmoving equipment, apparently employed in the preparation of the site for early nuclear weapons tests. While Elder claims in her artist statement that she approaches the post-industrial landscape as “pure spectacle”, the fact that she used radioactive (presumably low-level radioactive) charcoal in the Jumbo drawing, would indicate an intent to evoke a decidedly non-neutral reaction to this particular man-altered landscape.

Like the Imposition pieces, there is a lovely formal beauty to Overlook’s paintings and drawings. Overlook engages the eye and mind, even if the messages embedded in this work leave less room for personal interpretation than does Imposition. Imposition and Overlook make a stimulating pairing.

This dual exhibit at the Wiedenhoeft is unusual for a couple of reasons. Generally, Anderman exhibits his work at his own gallery, Journey Through Landscape. Nina Elder is a Rule artist, and the Wiedenhoeft and Rule galleries are rivals, if friendly rivals, in the emerging RiNo art scene. So I applaud all the parties involved for pulling together to create this wonderful show. The Denver art scene is the beneficiary of their collective efforts.

Imposition and Overlook are at the Carmen Wiedenhoeft Gallery through October 18th.

Posted in Reviews

Seeing in Passing: Photographs by Chuck Forsman

Seeing in Passing: Photographs by Chuck Forsman, the current photography exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, once again demonstrates Curator of Photography Eric Paddock’s willingness to show lesser known photographers, so long as their work manifests the essence of the art: elements of formal beauty coupled with a narrative that relates to some universal human emotion or concern. Forsman, an artist better known for his landscape paintings, clearly has the right stuff.

Chuck Forsman, Home Stretch, Central Wyoming

Chuck Forsman, Home Stretch, Central Wyoming

The exhibit is fairly large (over 50 prints), and is presented in two distinct, but related, sets of work—Western Rider, photographs taken through the car window while Forsman drives the highways and byways of the West, and  Walking Magpie, photographs taken while Forsman walks his dog Magpie around Boulder and in the hills and dales of the West. The linkage between the two sets of work is precisely Forsman talent in capturing something special in otherwise common fleeting scenes to which most of us would not give a second thought. This is not an exhibition of a deeply conceptual body of work. However, by freezing these uncomplicated, commonplace scenes, Forsman asks us to reconsider what we are missing as we rush through life, most often completely unaware of the special little moments occurring all around us.

Chuck Forsman, Double Take, Central Utah.1994-98

Chuck Forsman, Double Take, Central Utah,1994-98

Most of the Western Rider images are bordered by the frame of the car; often the rear view or side view mirrors intrude into the picture plane.  This creates a setting that we are all familiar with. We understand the context. Ever been on the open road, with no one else around, seemingly forever? Recall that feeling? That is Home Stretch in a nutshell.  Ever spotted a side road off to somewhere unknown, and wondered where it goes, what would happen if you … ? That is the feeling evoked by Double Take. And so it goes with most of the thirty-odd Western Rider images.

From a formal perspective, Forsman often uses the car body or other elements of the car as framing elements, or as counterweights, or to establish the familiar context of the car cockpit. In Home Stretch, a portion of the rearview mirror intrudes in the upper right quadrant of the image and breaks up the otherwise dulling symmetry of the scene. In Double Take, the car’s frame and a windshield wiper form a visual notch to focus our eyes on the driver’s decision ahead: continue on the main road to the planned destination, or take the side road to unknown adventure. The fact that Forsman understands composition so well can be attributed to his painter’s background. The fact that he is able to compose the photographs so well despite the dynamic context in which they are captured (many of the photographs clearly are taken while Forsman is barreling down the highway) speaks to skills usually attributed to war, street, or sports photographers.

Not all of the Western Rider images are special— not surprising for an exhibit with so many images. Caffeine Medley, a subset of Rider, consists of nine similar images arranged on a small exhibit wall.  Each photograph was taken at night, while Forsman apparently is moving at highway speeds. The result is that each photograph is a variation on the theme of stretched and wiggly lines and lights. Caffeine Medley does evoke the sense of the classic, coffee-powered ‘all-nighter on the open road’, but the repetition of similar imagery was overkill. One or two of the better images would have made the point. Moreover, some of the Medley photographs are sloppily matted, and the mounting of so many photographs in a tight space resulted in poor lighting on some of them. Overall though, the Western Rider images evoke a sense of shared experience, a feeling of “You know, I’ve seen something like that”; and “I’ve felt that way on long road trips too.” Riding shotgun on Western Rider is an enjoyable journey.

Chuck Forsman, Near Tooele, Utah, 2000

Chuck Forsman, Near Tooele, Utah, 2000

The real treat of this exhibit, however, are the twenty or so Walking Magpie images. I was thoroughly charmed by the images of Magpie, wandering around her world, a study—to paraphrase Paddock’s wall text—in the acceptance of her world as it is, and the insatiable desire to explore it. Do you remember the first time you came upon a really big bug? If you don’t, then spend a little time with Near Tooele, Utah.  Don’t recall the fun of rolling around on a grassy slope? Near Denver, Colorado will cure that. At the risk of overstating this, Magpie represents the lost freedom of childhood.

Chuck Forsman, Near Denver, Colorado, 2003

Chuck Forsman, Near Denver, Colorado, 2003

Again, Seeing in Passing is not an exhibit where you have to strain to dig out the deep, conceptual meaning of the work. Instead, it readily offers its meaning in its easily recognizable, gentle reminders of little moments of our lives that sometimes pass us by without notice. Those reminders make Seeing in Passing worth seeing.

Seeing in Passing: Photographs by Chuck Forsman is on exhibit at the Denver Art Museum through May 25, 2014.

Posted in Reviews

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.

Posted in Essays

Fairyland – a Whispered Warning

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

Yang Yongliang, Fairyland, 2007

Introduction

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.

Conclusion

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 http://www.yangyongliang.com/Bio.html]

[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–, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/lafr/hd_lafr.htm (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–, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cnat/hd_cnat.htm (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, http://www2.liu.edu/cwis/cwp/but06/hillwood/chinese/essays/no_essay_02.html (accessed September 16, 2013)

[16] Malcolm Goodman, “Kite History of China”, The Kiteman, United Kingdom, http://www.kiteman.co.uk/CHINESE%20KITE%20HISTORY.htm (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),  http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/09/13/china-smog/2809669/, (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: http://www.yangyongliang.com/Bio.htm

[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, https://www.frankmercadophotography.com/2011/10/robert-adams-retrospective-almost-too-much-of-a-good-thing/ (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), http://www.ibtimes.com/environmental-photographer-year-2013-winning-shots-1182339, (accessed October 9, 2013)

Posted in Essays

Dimensions in Texture: Photographs by Robert Schenkein

Dawns_Early_Light, Robert Schenkein 2000

Dawn’s Early Light, Robert Schenkein, 2000

Having recently posted an essay on art photography’s trend away from the dominance of photons to the dominance of pixels (see my essay Of Comets and Pixels ) I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to see an exhibit so thoroughly given over to pixelography as was Dimensions in Texture.  But I was.

The exhibit’s venue, Evan Anderman’s Journey Through Landscape gallery, generally features artists who, like Anderman himself, specialize in nature and travel photography. As a lot, N&T artists generally use Photoshop merely to touch up their photon-based images; they don’t usually use Photoshop to add pixels that co-star in the final image.  For most of his multi-decade art career, Robert Schenkein has been an N&T photographer who has relied primarily on the skillful capture of photons by a light sensitive medium to create his art. So, yes, I was a bit surprised by Dimensions in Texture. Still, virtually no fine art photographer completely ignores digital technology these days, and ‘straight photography’ is now more a measure of the degree—rather than the religious abstention—of pixel mashing. In any case, my quibble with pixelography is not the art; it’s that the art is called ‘photography’. Regardless of the label I’d prefer to see attached to it, I think the art in this exhibit is lovely.

Dimensions in Texture consists of sixteen color inkjet prints, each approximately 16 inches on the long dimension and 12 inches on the short, framed in simple complimentary white frames.  The tie that binds these prints is not so much the subject matter; the subjects fall in either the nature or travel category.  Rather the common denominator, for all prints except one, is that the images have been ‘texturized’ by the digital blending-in of textured backgrounds. But the mere blending-in of textured backgrounds is not what makes this art so visually arresting. Like the Pictorialists of an earlier age of photography, Schenkein shows a fine gift for knowing which of his original photographs will work in this blended context. This is usually an image with an isolated subject as, generally, a busy scene relies on sharp detail to carry the image’s interest, and texturing tends to soften the details. Also like the Pictorialists of old, Schenkein displays a painter’s touch for image and color alterations that enhance the ethereal feeling that textured images can evoke. Of course, unlike the Pictorialists, who realized their art through physical manipulation of the negative and the colored gum bichromate print, Schenkein achieves his art by masterful Photoshop layering and color alteration.

Halong Bay Junk, Robert Schenkein, 2004

Halong Bay Junk, Robert Schenkein, 2004

The successful images in this exhibit—and most of them are—combine the ethereal effect of texturing with a scene that suggests a timeless narrative. The few images that didn’t have both elements working together can evoke bit of cognitive dissonance. For example, Halong Bay Junk, an otherwise otherworldly image of a Chinese junk afloat in waters surrounded by ancient limestone pillars, loses a bit of its charm because the junk is actually a tour boat, and its English name, Valentine, is clearly visible on its main sail.  The timelessness of the image is lost in non-translation. Another image, Venice Clotheslines, is less successful because it was not textured like the other images in the exhibit. It is merely a photo (albeit of a visually interesting scene) of clothes hanging on a line to which the Photoshop watercolor filter has been applied. Hence the image does not achieve the sensual painterly look of the other fifteen images in the exhibit. Clotheslines is … dare I say it … hung out to dry, by itself. Since it really doesn’t fit in with the rest, the exhibit would be a bit more cohesive had Anderman and Schenkein not included it.

However, the less successful images are few; the majority of the images are a visual treat. I was particularly taken by Dawn’s Early Light. To capture the original photo on which the image is based Schenkein waited patiently in a pre-dawn fog bank for the sun to rise. When the sun rose across the water and the fog lifted a bit his patience was rewarded with a magical and timeless scene, a heron standing by the water’s edge. Schenkein’s deft touch with composition, texture blending, as well as with yellow, magenta, and cyan color alterations, results in a truly stunning image.

Call it pixelography, call it modern-day Pictorialism, or call it fine art photography. However it is labeled, Dimensions in Texture is very much worth seeing. Dimensions in Texture is at the Journey Through Landscape gallery through August 24, 2013.

Posted in Reviews

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.

Posted in Essays