Since I’ve been doing Scholarship Tuesday for a while, you’re just going to have to jump in where I am. There’s not really a methodology to how I choose what I want to learn about. It’s not chronological, and often one thing leads to another. I go through books I bought for this purpose. I also write down names of photographers as I hear of them - some I already know things about but want to get a more complete picture, and others are new to me.
Right now I’m part-way through the Susan Bright book, Art Photography Now. The book is divided into thematic sections with an intro to that genre, followed by short examples of contemporary photographers of note (some familiar, others more obscure - to me, at least) that work in that genre. The second section is about landscape, and at first I was going to skip the intro, because I feel I have a good grasp on what landscape is about. But then I decided to read it anyway, and it was really interesting.
Susan talked about how photography emerged as a medium during a period of expanding exploration and travel. It was used as a way to document these new places, but with a certain bent that coincided with the “picturesque” period in British painting where the goal was to shape the landscape into a frame that represented a rural idyll, so people taking photographs were likely trying to do the same - creating “picture perfect” representations of the landscape. Also, in addition to taking their Western visual tastes with them, traveling Europeans also had imperial anxieties, so while the photos were exotic, they were stripped of much of their foreignness to make them safe for Victorian viewers.
Over in America, the scale of the land and its extreme nature made depicting it in a genteel, quaint way impossible. Photographers like Timothy O’Sullivan, William Henry Jackson and, to a certain extent, Carlton Watkins used photography to supplement geological surveys and document man-made developments. Then came Alfred Stieglitz and the group f/64 folks.
Here’s a great paragraph:
“Alfred Stieglitz, and then later Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, took American landscape photography to its formal conclusions. Technically outstanding, the modernist works of Adams and more specifically Weston are self-consciously photographic and self-assuredly declare themselves as art. They dazzle and seduce with technical and sensual qualities that aesthetically idealize the landscape.”
By the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, many artists were uncomfortable with this straightforward objectification of the land and started exploring and representing the human presence and its impact on the land. Hello, New Topographics. (So I’ve already studied this, but in case you haven’t - this was a west coast movement that signaled a new approach - clinical, conceptual - to the landscape, a paradigm shift. William Jenkins, the curator at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography, created an exhibition in 1975 of this type of work and called it “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” and thus coined the term for the photographic style.)
Another great paragraph from Susan Bright:
“Work by artists such as Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz and Stephen Shore flattened out the landscape so that the viewer was invited to see how changes were not necessarily for the good and that it was now impossible to look at landscape in a romantic and subjective way that did not engage critically with postmodern concerns and critiques.”
And there you have it. I learned something. You feel good?