Picturing Nature

As both art and activism, landscape photography shows how nature changes, and how our perceptions of nature change with it.

Flipping again through the color plates of The Place No One Knew, photographer Eliot Porter’s elegy for Glen Canyon, I cannot help feeling a mix of despair and nostalgia, or “solastalgia,” as this kind of affliction, this grief for places erased, is nowadays called. Too young to have experienced this gem of the Colorado Plateau before it was flooded, yet old enough to have heard river rats talk of its splendors, I about wish these photos did not exist, that they would not evoke the riches squandered. And yet, Glen Canyon Reservoir — better known as “Lake Powell” — draws more amateur and professional photographers than the gorge it submerged ever did, and the “most scenic lake in America” is essential to any Four Corners pictorial.

Landscape photography in the Southwest is riddled with ironies. A second example concerns the iconography established through John Ford’s films, in which terrain shapes story lines rather than merely serving as backdrop. The movies’ settings suggest frontier spirit hitched to rugged individualism — Monument Valley’s buttes and spires defined these traits once and forever for generations of viewers. Today, advertising by tobacco and off-road vehicle brands exploits this legacy.

Photography’s claim to objectively capture reality is as old as the medium itself. From near its beginnings, however, it served numerous purposes. One of these is artistic vision. The focused gaze strives not only for representation, but also for an essence closer to the truth than anything we could hope to detect with the naked eye.

Landscape photography in particular has aimed at unveiling the divine in the material realm, emphasizing the extraordinary over the quotidian, the sublime over the crass. Many photographers continue to work in the tradition of nineteenth-century landscape painters like Albert Bierstadt or Thomas Moran, swayed by romantic biases. Set pieces or waterfalls and bizarre rock formations, of light ricocheting from slot canyon walls, Maynard Dixon-cloud-lined horizons, and portraits of flashy or tawny desert creatures can all be ascribed to this style. Nearly every point of view enchanting readers of a recent Grand Canyon pictorial, its introduction remarks, would lie hundreds of feet underwater had dam building there proceeded. Nonetheless, even today, uranium mining and resort development on adjacent lands threaten those abyssal prospects, as do invasive species, South Rim traffic snarls, beach erosion downstream of Glen Canyon Dam, coal plant emissions, and noise from sightseeing aircraft — realities excised from glossy still lives. Coffee table books almost by definition embrace the biosphere’s Attenborough-ization. Who pays a small fortune to display atrocities in one’s living room? The Grand Canyon, apparently saved, intact, assures us that we care and do so effectively.

“Picturesque,” long en vogue, is a commonly understood attribute. As theatre terms, “scenery” and “scene” share the same root. Equivalents of these and of idioms including “picture-perfect” crop up in several languages. The German bildhübsch (“pretty as a picture”), Russian kak kartina (“like a picture,” referring to somebody’s yard or a landscape), Finnish pittoreski (“picturesque”), and Spanish pintoresco (“scenic” in a painterly manner) tinge the vocabulary of visually oriented, industrial societies.

This lexicon more than just hints at our biological heritage as predators with keen, stereoscopic eyesight; it indicates sensibilities grounded in European history, modernist ways of appreciating beauty indoors, in art galleries, through museums and books. Starting in early childhood, we learn to associate proportion, elegance, balance, and grace — in short, artistry — with creative productions.

Though universal proof is still pending, and so far, a genetic yen for particular landscape types remains questionable, evolutionary psychologists suspect a hardwired love for places resembling Africa’s savanna, where our species left the safety of tree canopies. They cite as evidence English landscape painting traditions that routinely stress vantages, shelter, water sources, and uncluttered vistas, the very same features found in Homo sapiens’ ancestral homelands. Postcard romanticism based on these themes translates handsomely into dollars, especially during troubled times. Choice of subject matter and context (or its absence), focus, angles, and final editing all cater to visual expectations, the promise of wholeness and wholesomeness. And with Photoshop to manipulate raw files or projection equipment to dazzle audiences, the sky is no longer a limit. The Zion Canyon IMAX theatre in Springdale, Utah, represents postmodern spectacle at a high pitch. On a screen whose dimensions rival the park’s sandstone domes, visitors watch facsimiles of the real, rain or shine — crisply lit segments of nature linked by a G-rated plot. Instagram now drives the visitation of hotspots “liked” to death, such as Horseshoe Bend Overlook and Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona, more than guidebooks or chambers of commerce formerly did.

No art form, not even one bound as closely to the world’s objects as landscape photography, exists in a value-free vacuum; it finds its deepest meaning against a specific cultural background. In the early 1970s the linguists Sol Worth and John Adair (inventing the field of visual anthropology) studied cross-cultural perspectives of expression by training Navajo students to use cameras. The results were surprising. Footage and stills their pupils brought back ignored linear Anglo narrative conventions and imagery of place. They concentrated on the students’ home environments, with countless scenes of family members involved in subsistence activities: sheepherding, corn tending, plant and wood gathering. People, buildings, and domesticated animals were integral parts of the land, a familiar perception in tribal and agricultural groups. For communities sustained by forests, oceans, or grasslands throughout millennia, the concept of “wilderness” lacks significance, as does any distinction between humanity and its surroundings.

The western, predominantly urban worldview, conversely, insists on separating nature from culture. Even the sepias of ruins or Navajo horsemen in Canyon de Chelly by photographers Timothy H. O’Sullivan and Edward S. Curtis fit this mold to a degree. In these classics, Indigenous people and their dwellings provide scale or local ambience. Pegged as living closer to nature, Native Americans were considered exotic but destined to vanish and thus added to the romance of brooding landscapes. A society enamored with progress enshrined what it had pledged to leave behind.

In the new millennium we have grown weary of crowds and technology’s blessings. We prefer our landscapes untainted, untrammeled, without signs of intrusion. Perhaps, this craving springs from the hunger for some primal refuge beyond civilization’s pale, for a community older than ours, a reminder of origins. We urge backcountry travelers to take only pictures and leave only footprints. We chase snapshots that prove we’ve “been there,” often with loved ones posing in our compositions, or lately, increasingly, maddeningly, the photographer, touting brands. But lay snappers, let alone professionals, try hard to keep power lines, fences, or dirt roads out of their viewfinders. This slant is “artificial,” artifice in the twofold sense of the word. Author Rebecca Giggs in her meditation on whales points to unfortunate consequences: “The compulsion to create idealized versions of nature shapes nature, where it is encountered, raw and real.” Thus we get mountains with handrails, pest control in the suburbs, groomed, clear-cut ski slopes, fire suppression in national parks, and recreational reservoirs.

Transcendentalists like Henry David Thoreau affected not just the Hudson River School’s landscape painters (and by extension, western artists); they also influenced fellow nature writers. Ever since the Concord schoolteacher penned his essay about civil disobedience, we’ve found ourselves at the interface of art and activism. Greater numbers of nature photographers also are taking an unequivocal stance. As a two-edged blade, the camera can serve advertising and industrial tourism, or else question the exploitation and commercialization of threatened places and lifeways.

“People are surprised,” wrote Ansel Adams, whose glorification of Yosemite Valley singled out a national treasure worth protecting, “when I say that I never intentionally made a creative photograph that related directly to an environmental issue, though I am greatly pleased when a picture I have made becomes useful to an important cause.”

But there are precedents for politics-driven close-ups and panoramas born in the 1950s, peaking in the ‘60s. They supported campaigns to preserve iconic southwestern landscapes, from the illustrated anthology This is Dinosaur, to Philip Hyde’s The Last Redwoods, to Hyde and Ansel Adams’ Time and the River Flowing and Adams student Eliot Porter’s Glen Canyon vignettes, which the Sierra Club published to undermine planned Colorado River concrete plugs. Aware of the camera’s clout, Porter called it “a propaganda device, and a weapon for the defense of the environment.” Without optical rallying points, John Muir’s 1908 jeremiad “The Hetch Hetchy Valley” failed a seldom-seen place where the showcasing of “pristine” settings later succeeded.

Images of nuclear test sites in the desert, of dunes scarred by ATVs, of cyanide leaching fields, drill pads, clearcuts, or open-pit mine sores still largely interest photojournalists rather than artists, yet one vein of new photography explores our impact on the globe aesthetically. David Maisel’s oeuvre comes to mind. His latest series, Desolation Desert, hovers high above Chile’s Atacama, an expanse mine-cratered and tie-dyed with toxins. This “alternative cartography” challenges notions of boundlessness and purity, of drylands as blanks on our maps — envisioned terra incognita — not actual part of a worldwide “fabric of urbanization.” The artist himself sees his aerial inventory of spurned lands as “psychologically demanding as well as visually exhilarating.”

Though photographed from afar, Maisel’s abstract canvases don’t allow viewers to dissociate from the raped Earth. Our response unfolds in a quick, visceral one-two punch. Initially, we feel attracted to textures, to contrasts. Colors! They tickle the right side of our brain. Then, left-hemisphere synapses fire. The realization that what existed before in these places might have been much more beautiful — the appeal of a landscape’s integrity — settles in as a searing weight. We feel ashamed, as if these splendid wounds could broadcast our mismanagement of the planet to outer space visitors. Shapes and colors that at first glance comply with the canon’s harmony trick us until text tells us that that which we contemplate and enjoy in fact harms our blue marble. Similarly, quite a few photos need captions to identify the strange things or patterns beheld.

For the Canadian Edward Burtynsky, impressed early on by his hometown’s General Motors plant, “What this civilization leaves in the wake of its progress may be the opened and emptied earth, but in performing these incursions we also participate in the unwitting creation of gigantic monuments to our way of life.” And as he reminds us, “We partake of their output on a daily basis.” A Trojan horse in that respect, green technology too invades open spaces, a cost that huge solar arrays and wind farm-spiked hillcrests spell out.

Iberia Quarries #2. Marmorose EFA Co., Bencatel, Portugal, 2006. © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy of Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

Burtynsky and Maisel’s work reflects our desire to drastically alter Earth’s face while it probes our responses to being confronted with consequences. A giant’s quarry deconstruction kit. A Hadean waste of mine tailings with whose seepage glows like lava or molten metal. Moab’s potash evaporation ponds, dragonfly-hues among redrock. The Colorado, a capillary, jade maze no longer reaching its sea. The clash between curvy, asymmetrical, quasi-organic contours on one hand and flawless crop irrigation circles and grids on the other is shocking; straights occur in sediment strata, nowhere else in nature, which abhors perfectly geometrical forms. How can we explain the allure of these images?

There’s an aspect of train-wreck ogling in our admiration.

While this niche of landscape photography, and the genre in general, has been the domain of men — the “male gaze” trained on what male engineering or nature has wrought — women are making inroads. Camille Seaman’s climate-crisis portfolio Melting Away tackles human industry’s debris in the Arctic signaling quasi-colonial attitudes: oil drums and rusting British tractors in Antarctica; whalers’ bone fields; Russian mining settlements in Svalbard. Such images put to rest ideas of unspoiled refuges beyond our grasp.

Photographers of a different bent examine time’s fingerprints on the land. Collections of repeat photography (for example, Mary Meagher and Douglas Houston’s Yellowstone archives or Robert Webb’s from the Grand Canyon) replicate historical landscape shots from the same camera position, to show subtle or harsh transmutations. These may be anthropogenic, the effects of global heating on glaciers or coastlines, or else the results of erosion, wildfires, or volcanism. More and more often, the changes observed imply feedback loops betraying both agents. Repeat photography conducted by the Glen Canyon Institute reveals nature’s restorative powers: During past drought years flash floods scoured reservoir sediment from tributaries in the lower Escalante watershed, and the infamous “bathtub ring” marking previous water levels is fading from cliff faces.

It seems then that photography, and especially landscape photography, has returned to its roots as a means of documentation — with an invigorated agenda.

A few weeks ago, I was lingering over a set of repeat photos depicting a rockscape somewhere in canyon country. Except for the quality of photographic lenses and film stock, the passing of fifty-some years had made little difference. My eyes snagged on a juniper gnarled like an arthritic hand, hunched in the foreground. The tree looked so fragile. Barely hanging on in a parched topography, it had stayed virtually unchanged. It inspired humility, awe. It stirred me to help it survive those photos of it.

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