Nature and Civilization in American Landscape Photography

The tradition of landscape photography has changed, from including human presence as part of the natural order, to picturing a wilderness separate from civilization, to "New Topographics," and now, to showing man's destructive effects on nature.
By Robert Sobieszek
March/April 1990
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Cyanide Leaching Fields,1989. "A terrible beauty" characterizes the work of many contemporary photographers, some of whom—almost like daredevils—look straight into the toxicity enveloping us.

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Since its beginnings in the last century, American photography has had a special relationship with nature. Photographers have documented the country's diverse landscapes with a passion often approaching the spiritual.

During the 19th century, photographers such as William Henry Jackson and Carleton E. Watkins took aim at the landscape and man's place within it. The marks of human presence in the land—railways, bridges, and new towns—were uncritically portrayed as part of the natural order of things. Our advances into the wilderness were accepted as part of this.

Twentieth-century photographers such as Edward Weston and Ansel Adams pictured the "natural" landscape dramatically isolated from the marks of human incursion. Nature was seen as completely separate from civilization and as something to be revered and conserved. Roads, buildings, and even people were excluded as violations of a sublime "otherness."

Both of these photographic traditions celebrated the land in their own way: one, as a garden to be cultivated and harvested; and the other, as a conservatory in dire need of preservation.

A radically different tradition appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the "New Topographics." Here, photographers such as Robert Adams and Stephen Shore showed us the American landscape as essentially "man-altered"—so overbuilt with motels, suburban housing tracts, and the like, that the evidences of nature were rendered invisible.

The classical tradition of Weston and Adams and the later style of the "New Topographics" were, however, paradoxically similar—both tended to focus on the incongruity of human activity among unadulterated wilderness.

In the last two decades, American photographers have turned a more critical and even politically motivated camera eye on the landscape and what effects civilization has wrought upon it. In images of striking beauty and visual power, such photographers as Lewis Baltz, Emmet Gowin, David Hanson, David Maisel, Richard Misrach, and John Pfahl force us to confront the not always pleasant facts of our integration within nature. In an age when the effects of air and water pollution, acid rain, toxic waste dumps, strip-mining, a diminishing ozone layer, and even tourism have put the very notion of "wilderness" at risk, these images clearly remind us that we are not independent of the land but an integral part of nature. "It may become clear," wrote the Museum of Modem Art's John Szarkowski in 1974, "that a generous and accepting attitude toward nature requires that we share the earth not only with ice, dust, mosquitoes, starlings, coyotes, and chicken hawks, but even with other people."

Just two examples of contemporary photographic approaches to these latest concerns are displayed here. While questioning the genuine tensions that exist between the beautiful photograph and the not so attractive reality being recorded, the images nevertheless show us those places in which, as Lewis Baltz has said, "the man-made, the cultural, and the natural are entropically merged." By extension, they suggest the very real consequences of our place within nature and the accompanying social and ecological issues that confront us today.

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