Back West: Reviewing American Landscape Photography
Afterimage, Sept-Oct, 1997 by Stephen Longmire
“The West to me is where the landscape is,” Lee Friedlander writes in his new book of landscape photographs of the Sonora, The Desert Seen.(1) The sentiment is so characteristically American that it is difficult not to take it ironically, coming from this sophisticated street photographer, master of multiple-perspective compositions and found collage. Once he had the impulse to make landscape images, Friedlander implies, the desert seemed the”natural” place to turn. Yet, in the brief personal essay that concludes his book, Friedlander states that the Sonora is, for him, among America’s least welcoming landscapes. It is “a pincushion with pins on the outside,” a place so bright it makes his eyes sore as if they were stuck full of cactus needles. The photographs he made there over a 10-year period convey this inhospitality to viewers. Glaringly bright and seemingly uncomposed, they aspire to get us lost too, among the phallic saguaro and deciduous trees.
While Friedlander sets out to explain how in mid-life he came to photograph these landscapes, he spends more time in this essay recalling the lush Pacific Northwest of his childhood than explaining what took him to the Southwest – “the place most foreign to me, the opposite of my home Olympics, opposite in every way.” He might as well say Olympus, or just plain Eden, when describing his native Washington state. Although he has not lived there for years – years during which his camera focused on what he considers the inherently dislocating subject of cities – it is clearly the landscape by which he still sets his compass.
Finding a second home, a landscape for adulthood, in this country where relocation is almost a given, is in many ways the subject of The Desert Seen. The book begins with an epigraph from Jamaica Kincaid’s Autobiography of My Mother (1996), a sentence of Proustian length and musicality, printed large to fill a page. It is the only introduction the unruly photographs receive, and it was obviously chosen with care. With typical aplomb, Friedlander turns to a writer whose recurrent subject is gardens to introduce these pictures of a garden turned inside out, all chaos and thorns. Kincaid writes of the imaginative bonds that tie people to places, the places they are from and the places they may later choose to be from:
A human being, a person, many people, a people, will say that their surroundings, their physical surroundings, form their consciousness, their very being; they will get up every morning and look at green hills, white cliffs, silver mountains, fields of golden grain, rivers of blue-glinting water, and in the beauty of this – and it is beautiful, they cannot help but find it beautiful – they invisibly, magically, conquer the distance that is between them and the beauty they are beholding, and they feel themselves become one with it, they draw strength from it, they are inspired by it to sing songs, to write verse; they invent themselves and reinvent themselves . . .
Precariously, the passage works itself up to the conviction it has been trying to adopt: “you and the place you are from are not a chance encounter; it is something beyond destiny, it is something so meant to be that it is beyond words.”(2)
These are curious words to introduce a volume of pictures of a place where the artist emphatically does not feel at home, but to which he is drawn nonetheless. The brilliance of Kincaid’s sentence lies not just in the compelling beauty of the sentiment it hits like a crescendo, but also in the seed of doubt it holds – the awareness that, no matter how vital it is for people to feel connected to a landscape, this is a connection they build in the imagination, with songs, poems and pictures, a connection they build unconsciously, inevitably. How else could people feel tied to all manner of landscapes? The sense of place, of home, she gently suggests, may be the ultimate “pathetic fallacy” necessary for people to “conquer the distance that is between them and the beauty they are beholding,” to prove the land responds to our need to belong to it.
A quote also begins Friedlander’s own essay, the other bookend to his carefully constructed volume. An exchange from W. C. Fields’s movie, My Little Chickadee (1940, by Edward Cline), it concerns the photographer’s god, chance: “A cowboy sits down to a game of cards with W. C. Fields and says, ‘Is this a game of chance?’ W. C. Fields responds,’No Sir, not the way I play it.’” Photographers rely on chance, no matter how adept their attempts to master it. Friedlander implies that he has left as little as possible to chance in his search for a home away from home. Yet it is in Arizona, not Washington state, that he finds the place he must put into pictures, forcing Kincaid’s unsettling question: is our connection to the places of our lives a matter of chance? Could we build emotional bonds anywhere? Why do we leave the places we know, and how do we find the places we must love? To find out, Friedlander set for himself the project of photographing the place that is not natural for him – the desert, which to non-desert dwellers can seem an absence of place, no place at all.
Friedlander’s desert pictures owe little to the monumentalizing tradition of Ansel Adams that remains synonymous with the West, but quite a bit to recent landscape photographs by Ray Metzker, in their use of the neglected square format, blown-out highlights and a depth of field so shallow that focus comes as a surprise.(3) These are landscapes in the first person, not the usual third, about one person’s encounter with a place and a truculent encounter at that. Typically, Friedlander is lost in the undergrowth – Metzker’s favorite haunt. Friedlander’s Sonora is almost all undergrowth, with few long vistas or horizons. Seen through a wide-angle lens, foregrounds surge forward in blur, while horizons, which usually dominate landscape imagery, are skewed or entirely left out. In the darkroom Friedlander has hit upon a palette that is all black and white, with next to no middle tones, just as there is rarely a middle distance in this place of extremes. But from a distance, the prints (and their excellent reproductions) look all silver and light. They seem parched, almost vaporized. In a self-portrait that is the last of the book’s ninety-three images, Friedlander stands pinned within a prickly bush, as it has become part of his state of mind.
Friedlander’s intuition, that the search lot”native” landscapes leads to unexpected places which command unanticipated affection, seems a parable of “the American experience” with its serial, historically westward displacements of “home.” In the context of American history, the landscapes of the arid, largely desert West have been the nation’s second home, scarcely imaginable at its birth. (How different, perhaps impossible, American history would be had the country been settled from west to east.) Americans knew their defining landscapes lay to the west throughout the nineteenth century, and the perception lingers. Those landscapes early became associated with the young nation’s idea of its future. Henry David Thoreau, who restricted his travels to New England, wrote that if he went farther, he would rather see Oregon, then the frontier, than go “backwards” to Europe.(4) The landscapes of the West have become characteristic American places – a situation for which landscape photographs are as responsible as “western” movies. “The West is America, only more so,” according to historian Clyde Milner, making it, by some accounts, civilization’s western-most frontier.(5) Friedlander’s personal photographic journey, from the green Northwest – a second New England, with its small towns close together – to the Southwestern desert where he struggles in vain to find a human scale and reenacts America’s fascination with the desert West in autobiographical terms. For him the desert is the uneasy site of maturity – his own and the country’s – the arena of vision and blindness, the place of displacement. It goes without saying that a native of that landscape might see it differently.
In terms of the history of photography, it is of course significant that the Southwest is the last stronghold of Adams’s legacy of transcendent landscape photography, a modernist continuation of the nineteenth-century romantic tradition of Western landscape painting established by Hudson River School painters like Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Cole, who were among the first to represent the country’s newly opened interior. Much as this tradition is in disrepute among “serious” landscape photographers, who for the last 20 years have typically taken their bearings from nineteenth-century landscape documentarians like William Henry Jackson and Timothy O’Sullivan (who sometimes worked alongside painters of the Hudson River School), Adams’s legacy cannot be underestimated. To this day landscape photographers are widely assumed to use large-format cameras and work in black and white in the West and quite a few, though hardly all, still do. In showing the difficulty of the place he is not from and the distance he must cross to make the prickly Sonora his own in pictures, Friedlander also dramatizes his distance from the classic style of American landscape photography, a style long practiced in this place. He offers an odd but fitting coda to a century and a half of American landscape photography of the West, a place of strangeness that had to be naturalized for America to transform itself from a colony into a continental power. Many would argue, with historian Bernard DeVoto, that the West was America’s first colony – hence the popularity of its exotic image in reproduction.(6)
This spring’s exhibition of Friedlander’s Sonora pictures at Tucson’s Center for Creative Photography is the most elliptical of several curatorial reappraisals of the tradition of Western landscape photography this past year. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s “Crossing the Frontier: Photographs of the Developing West, 1849 to the Present,” which revises the history of Western landscape photography to highlight the politics of land use, was certainly the boldest. (The show is completing its American tour in Phoenix this September before traveling to Japan.) To the museum’s Curator of Photography Sandra Phillips, the subject of landscape photography is the land, and the dramatic, quite possibly tragic, reshaping of the West by Americans in the last century and a half is inseparable from the documentary photographs she uses to tell this story. Her scholarly catalog essay, “To Subdue the Continent: Photographs of the Developing West,” is a concise history of the exploration and exploitation of the western empire that America hastily acquired in the years of the California Gold Rush. (A shorter catalog essay by Eldridge Moores titled “Geology and Topography of the American West: Its Impact on Development,” makes this a fact-filled volume.)
The annexation of Texas in 1845 resulted in the Mexican War, which won California and the Great Basin (New Mexico and Utah Territories) for America in 1850. Oregon Territory was acquired by a treaty with Britain in 1848, with Washington Territory to follow in 1853. All together, the new country gained some 870 million acres – most of it desert – including Texas and all the land from the Pacific to the Rockies, in just eight years. The century that followed was one of rapid industrialization, which Phillips chronicles in a bittersweet account of what was once proudly called “manifest destiny.” From this vantage it seems a destiny of environmental disaster. She ruefully observes, “Using the land with impunity, if not abandon – mining its resources, overgrazing its hillsides, overlogging, endangering water supplies and the health of its natural habitat and the human beings who live there – seems to have occurred more frequently in the West than in other American regions.”(7) With poet Theodore Roethke, Phillips sees America as “a country that has not lived up to its geography.” Her show might be called, “How the West Was Lost.”
Echoing Friedlander, Phillips remarks how the vast grandeur of America’s new spaces impressed their first explorers, “so different from the human-scaled ones of the Northeast or South.”(8) Of course, as Kincaid reminds us, the scale is no more human one place than another; all of America’s newfound “wilderness” was inhabited. What is the edge of the world to some is the center to others. The West is not so much inhuman as non-European in scale – the source of both its attraction and its rebuke. Entrepreneurial European Americans could not stay away, nor could they feel at home without considerably altering their new environment. First came the extermination or relocation of the native peoples. The new Americans saw the West as a source of raw materials (precious minerals, lumber, grass, water, romance) and were seldom willing to leave it “unimproved.” The preservation of what became the first national parks – now a set of holy relics – testifies to the depredation already threatening sites of natural beauty by the 1860s. Yosemite was set aside from development by presidential order in 1864, and Yellowstone – with help from a volume of William Henry Jackson’s photographs presented to its members – by Congress in 1872.
The parks served the new business of tourism, created by the railroads that linked western industries to their eastern markets. Early photographs of the West, including those made for the federal government on the Geological Survey’s mapping expeditions, often played a promotional role. In 1880 the young photographer Frank Jay Haynes suggested to an official of the Union Pacific Railroad a mutually profitable liaison:
You know as well as I do that the people back East are still describing this part of the country as the great American desert. My pictures are going all over the country; they are even going all over the world, and what I am doing is to show people that this is no desert, but a rich wonderland for tourists to marvel at, and for settlers to make their living in. If you will make me your official photographer, it will give me a standard that I don’t now have. I can sell more pictures. You can do more business.(9)
Haynes became Yellowstone’s official photographer, as Union Pacific ran the park’s concessions.
“Photography was invented at the same moment as the economic development of the West,” Phillips points out.(10) This makes the camera a fitting witness, if at times a complicit one, equally useful for preservation and promotion. Much hangs on the unanswerable question of where certain early western photographers placed their environmental sympathies. Phillips is eager to demonstrate that San Francisco’s own Carleton Watkins, whose pictures of Yosemite became popular in the 1860s, was as ambivalent about land development as Adams was 70 years later, though neither ceased working for the industrialists who were their regular employers.(11) She posits that the acquisition of the West reunified America after the Civil War (on whose battlefields many early Western photographers learned their trade), making “wilderness” the nation’s greatest commodity.
Rich as the catalog Crossing the Frontier is with information for its photographs to illustrate, the text is presumably designed to “illustrate” the photographs; that is, the history is tailored to help viewers see the photographs as the curator did. Some may wonder if this is a book of art or history. This is a distinction Phillips questions, along with the one between “vernacular” and “art” photography. She states her mission at the outset:
There is a well-known tradition of western landscape photography, seen in the work, for instance, of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, that looks to the land as a source of aesthetic, transcendent subject matter. The photography of land use, on the other hand, evokes a largely unacknowledged tradition, one closer to documentary photography in spirit and more likely to be found in anonymous works, in pictures by journeymen photographers, and in the lesser-known pictures of certain established artists. To reclaim this documentary tradition, we have consulted local historical societies and state university libraries, to begin to reintegrate the vernacular tradition with photographs already residing in art museums.(12)
Scanning the “vernacular” photographic record for forgotten gems to redirect contemporary photographic art is an approach often associated with the curatorial practice of John Szarkowski, recently retired Curator of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, with whom Phillips has collaborated on previous shows.(13) In redefining what is meant by landscape photography, Phillips acknowledges that photographs have both aesthetic and historical interest. But her expansion of the category of photographs of interest to the art museum does not, in the end, dissolve the distinction that separates it from the local history museums that lent her vernacular works. The nineteenth-century agricultural advertisements, commercial portraits of homesteaders, miners and sawyers, and early twentieth-century tourists’ snapshots included in this show are treated as found objects, their artistic pedigrees based on the curator’s discernment. The number of photographs in “Crossing the Frontier” signed “Unknown” declines dramatically after the 1930s, in time for the recent vernacular art photographers who will be the show’s heroes to come into their own.
“Crossing the Frontier” provides an historical background for the work of contemporary landscape photographers of the New Topographics group, so named for the influential 1975 exhibition at Rochester’s George Eastman House which first publicized their deadpan landscape documentary style. Phillips champions these artists – notably Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal and Frank Golke – for their synthesis of the documentary concerns of nineteenth-century western landscape photography with the self-consciousness of modernist art photography. The result is a high art of the documentary, also practiced by Lois Connor, Terry Evans and John Pfahl (among others), who likewise take as their subject the marks people make on land. Like the Earthworks artists who were the New Topographers’ early contemporaries, this generation of photographers approaches the land itself as the primary document of interest, and the photograph as a secondary, if heightened, record of it. The West has remained a favorite, though not exclusive, subject for them in part because its skeletal deserts retain the scars of land use more clearly than other landscapes (and also because of their interest, which Friedlander shares, in deflating the grand style of western landscape photography that they inherited). Whereas many Earthworks artists working in the West, notably Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, enjoyed mimicking industry in their alteration of land forms, New Topographics photographers have usually been reverentially environmental and skeptical of the fruits of industrialization. At its best, it is ambivalent about the project of “landscaping” to the point of surrealism, as in Robert Adams’s ’70s images of new tract homes near the Denver suburb where he lives. The minimalist elegance of the structures is stark, as is their complete inadequacy for human habitation.
“The intellectual control of the land, our mastery of it, appears to be coming apart at the seams,” Phillips summarizes in closing, echoing the pessimism of Robert Adams’s own recent essays on photography and land use:
The idealization of individualism and of corporate enterprise, so vividly optimistic in nineteenth-century photographs and so important even to the work of Ansel Adams, has become despairing, and reveals a flawed and damaged landscape that is only occasionally brightened by an appreciation of the fragile beauty of what remains. The optimism that energized Dorothea Lange and her colleagues to rally for change has been transformed into a weary acceptance of what exists and what we have done.(14)
These are the lessons of the photographers of what Phillips names the “new documentary landscape,” as if they had revised the landscape itself.(15) Perhaps inadvertently, her phrase credits New Topographers with creating the desolate landscapes they represent, almost as Friedlander shaped his. However unemotive they may be, photographers cannot help depicting their feelings for places as well as the places themselves. The reminder is oddly refreshing, as is the discovery that both these shows which obliquely mark the death of landscape photography end up carrying it forward.
Just days before “Crossing the Frontier” opened in San Francisco last fall, New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art concluded its exhibition “Perpetual Mirage: Photographic Narratives of the Desert West.” The catalog offers an experience worthy of the show, which concentrated on the important role photographic books have played in the representation of the West. As much a history of the photographic book as of the image of the West, the catalog is a welcome addition to the field. Its many short essays by various contributors highlight little known photographers and projects. There are detailed discussions of publications of the nineteenth-century land surveys; turn-of-the-century anthropological studies of newly rediscovered Anasazi ruins like Norwegian Gustaf Nordenskiold’s striking 1893 book Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde; classic and forgotten books by modernist photographers like Ansel Adams, Laura Gilpin and Edward Weston; and a closing section on books by contemporary landscape photographers, many of whom also appear in “Crossing the Frontier.”
Again, museological practice is an important sub text to this show.”Perpetual Mirage” is a fitting response to a criticism art historian Rosalind Krauss leveled in the ’80s at New York’s Museum of Modern Art – the first American museum to collect photographs as art. She maintained that nineteenth-century documentary photographs, or landscape “views,” such as those O’Sullivan made in the West for the United States Geological Survey in the 1860s and ’70s, do not belong in museums of contemporary art.(16) Inducting such historic documentary photographs into the art museum, Krauss objected, means removing them from their original “discursive spaces” to which, in her view, their meaning is inextricably bound. In O’Sullivan’s case, these would be the lavish albums of survey reports into which his original albumen prints were tipped, and the stereo cards sold to a popular audience of potential homesteaders and tourists. Krauss insists the art world’s belated canonization of nineteenth-century survey photographs not only deprives them of context and meaning, but also is a politically repressive act. In Krauss’s view, the museum replaces the federal government’s imperialist agenda of land development with the seemingly benign one of connoisseurship, mistakenly tying up the loose ends that make the survey pictures interesting. The extreme extension of her argument is that nothing belongs in an art museum except work created for “the space of exhibition” – which does not leave much that is not modern, since the museum is a comparatively recent innovation. Krauss might object to the historiography of “Crossing the Frontier,” with its construction of a previously unacknowledged tradition to support the work of contemporary photographers, though her political goals are largely consistent with its curator’s.
May Castleberry, the Whitney’s librarian and organizer of “Perpetual Mirage,” deftly finesses Krauss’s too narrow distinction by exhibiting books, including the survey reports to which O’Sullivan contributed, in addition to framed prints. The catalog to “Perpetual Mirage” even reproduces side-by-side the exact pair of “O’Sullivan’s” on which Krauss’s argument is based: his celebrated 1868 photograph, Pyramid and Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake, Nevada and the photolithograph of it that Clarence King, O’Sullivan’s supervisor on the Explorations of the 40th Parallel, included in his 1878 classic, Systematic Geology.(17) As if in response to Krauss’s influential critique, Castleberry states in her introduction to the catalog, “visual images in books can function simultaneously as art objects and artifacts. This awareness broadens, rather than circumscribes, our appreciation of photography and the book.”(18) This position is elaborated by photography historian Martha Sandweiss in the catalog’s other extended essay, “Dry Light: Photographic Books and the Arid West.” “Photography has always been a subjective medium,” she asserts, “despite its documentary roots.”(19) In other words, the discursive spaces we have learned to distinguish as “art” and “documentation” are never fully distinct. No doubt Phillips would agree. On other points these two historians hold interesting differences.
To Sandweiss, nineteenth-century survey photographs show a fantasy of the West’s industrialized future, since one purpose of these images was to promote tourism and settlement.(20) Between 1862 and 1934 the Homestead Act gave unoccupied government land in the West in parcels of 160 acres to anyone who could farm it successfully – a challenge that many failed. These same survey photographs which Sandweiss sees as an advertisement for the West’s future, photographer Robert Adams considers largely a window into its past, a view that “Crossing the Frontier” reiterates. To Adams the photographs allow a glimpse of the West before Americans arrived. They are the blank slate on which the tragic drama of the West’s hasty development will be inscribed.(21) Forever silent, the photographs seem to mirror what each viewer brings to them.
Dorothea Lange is not, for Sandweiss, the hopeful beacon of Roosevelt’s New Deal that Phillips recalls, but the great refuter of America’s myth of a perpetually abundant frontier to the West. The 1939 photographic book on which she collaborated with her husband, sociologist Paul Schuster Taylor, An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion, chronicles the migration to California of tenant farmers forced off their land by the soil erosion of the Dust Bowl. Of it Sandweiss remarks, “[t]he road west leads not to hope but to continued despair. And the heartbreak is all the worse because the immigrants trudging westward carry with them impossibly high expectations fueled by the enduring visual icons and literary myths of the west as a land of possibilities.”(22) The cover to American Exodus shows a pioneer wagon with the undercutting caption “Covered Wagon – 1939 Style.”
Though it shares the skepticism about Western development with “Crossing the Frontier,” “Perpetual Mirage” makes clear there are points of interest in the history of western landscape photography that both the history of hand use and the modernist history it supplants neglect. Many of them are indeed to be found outside the traditional purview of the art museum, in books, which unite photography’s dual purposes to illustrate and illuminate.
Probably no photographer has made better creative use of the wealth of subjective documentary imagery created in the West in recent decades, and of the uncertain malaise much of it communicates, than Richard Misrach. His current traveling retrospective, “Crimes and Splendors: the Desert Cantos of Richard Misrach,” assembles a selection of Misrach’s first 18 Desert Cantos, providing the first extensive overview of this mammoth project that has occupied the California photographer since 1980. The show was curated by Anne Wilkes Tucker at The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and concludes its run at The Contemporary Museum in Honolulu in the spring of 1998. The subjects of different cantos within the series range broadly, from a preoccupation with the sinister military presence in remote desert sites to his current interest in the desert sky at night. Like a New Topographer, Misrach maintains that his overarching subject is human alteration of the Western landscape. The alterations he depicts tend to be extreme: unnatural floods and fires, shuttle landings and high speed vehicle tests, an illegal Navy bombing range and the sunken hangar that housed the Enola Gay bomber before it took off for Hiroshima. The current exhibition makes clear that Misrach is first and foremost a storyteller, recombining “facts” like found objects to make up stories that resemble the “truth” in his vast semi-fictional universe of interrelated cantos. It is as if he were assembling the photographic equivalent of Honore Balzac’s multi-volume Paris in the post-atomic, post-modern West. “The Desert Cantos” destabilizes any hope of locating political truth in Misrach’s whirlwind of polemic. They attack the very basis of the documentary conventions that he mimics more playfully than any of his contemporaries.
“All my photographs are about finding metaphors in the land,” Misrach remarked in a talk he gave when his show opened at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art this spring. Nearly all the terms he uses to describe his project derive from literary models, and the inclusion of text, from series titles to the brief introductions he writes for certain cantos, are essential to the ambiguous meanings he constructs. Misrach makes “cantos” of “metaphors” to construct an “epic” of the desert West. His is an epic of the unmaking of America, which reenacts the undermining of freedom long associated with the West’s open space by a democratic government’s covert imperialism. Presumably the hero is the land, which manages to survive. Misrach freely adopts the emotional reserve of nineteenth-century documentary photography to provide historical context, credibility and emotional resonance to his images, but the stories he tells are entirely his own, as is the lavish color be uses to upstage the images of the past. They are fragments of stories, the fallout from narrative, as if in this nuclear age the stories people tell about the land on which they live no longer cohere, as if the threat of total annihilation – the desert’s most recent legacy – has exploded their sense of place.
Among Misrach’s metaphoric stories is that of Bravo 20, the bombing range on Nevada “public” land which the Navy used illegally to test ammunition decades after its World War II permit expired. Misrach photographed this desert of relics in the mid-’80s to make his “Canto V: The War,” which includes such classic images as the school bus, identified as a camouflaged army personnel carrier, with its engine burnt away. This image of children going to school among the bombs evokes the civilians with were American military targets in Vietnam, and – Misrach would suggest – on the home front too. Such hyperbole does not need to convince. Misrach uses polemic the way playwright Sam Shepard uses argument, to create his own language of artistic truth. Bravo 20 was the subject of a book (featured in “Perpetual Mirage”) on which Misrach collaborated with his wife, journalist Myriam Weisang Misrach, that suggests converting this damaged site into a museum of Western land use.(23)
Early desert cantos establish the landscape of studied vacancy where Misrach’s imaginary drama occur. Recently he has added a prologue comparing the American West to the historic landscapes of Egypt and Israel. The many Western places named after the Biblical Holy Land indicate that the West was envisioned as an arena for reenacting the Old Testament long before Hollywood got the idea. To Mormons this fancy was acutely real. To nineteenth-century American industrialists, the West represented a “Promised Land” of renewed resources as economic opportunities in the East thinned out. Modern analogies between the West and the Middle East abound, but are equally loose. America and Israel were both founded as sanctuaries of freedom. Both are exceptionally militaristic in defense – perhaps in defiance – of these values. Israel has been a primary recipient of weapons tested in America’s deserts. These political connections are suggested, but not elaborated, by Misrach’s pairing of the two physically similar landscapes. A true minimalist, he does not overdetermine his metaphoric suggestions. In the end, politics and geography do not add up, and the land is left alone with itself. (Unlike the nineteenth-century landscape photographs that are frequently his models, Misrach’s pictures seldom show people on the land.)
Certainly the most controversial of Misrach’s military cantos is “Canto VI: The Pit,” a gruesome study of dead horses and cattle in an unexplained dump site in northern Nevada. The text he wrote to accompany these images in the gallery and the exhibition’s catalog suggests a relationship to the Bulloch brothers’ sheep, among the first known victims of downwind fallout from nuclear testing in this part of the country in the early ’50s. The connection only exists at the level of the viewer’s sense of peril, and is scandalously vague for traditional documentary practice, but Misrach seems unalarmed. He courts the sensational, but more persistently he is interested in the way disquieting political realities have displaced fear onto the apparently empty Western land. When he photographs the site of past violence, like the hangar of the Enola Gay featured in “Canto IX: The Secret (Project W-47),” it is seldom what occurred on the site that he asks viewers to imagine. History has forgotten Wendover, Utah, with its sunken chamber for loading the massive bomb into the plane’s belly and its satirical graffiti – a mushroom cloud, like a cartoon thought-bubble, taunts, “Eat My fallout.” Nothing happened here. But in photographing this remarkably evocative site, Misrach conjures up the carcass of Hiroshima, “The Pit” is similarly a metaphor for the violence concealed beneath the desert landscape, a memorial mass grave for all the victims of mock warfare. Again the metaphor is frustratingly vague; this could as easily be a commentary on the violence of ranching. These cantos forcibly ask, how one can visualize and how one can document, in images, what is so insistently kept secret. They manage, but also undermine the credibility of photographic documentation, leaving viewers in a land of perilous invention.
Two copies of Playboy Misrach found at the Nevada Test Site in 1988 provide him with a rich metaphor already in visual terms. The magazines were used for target practice, their visions of misogyny and machismo fiddled with bullet holes. Typically extreme, Misrach asserts “All aspects of American culture, as reflected in the magazine, were riddled with violence.” First Misrach placed the magazines in a gallery display, but finding they did not elicit the strong reaction he desired, he rephotographed individual pages to make “Canto XI: The Playboys.” These copy photographs introduce the cast of characters and attitudes that fill “The Desert Cantos,” as do the paintings from Western museums Misrach cropped and rephotographed to make “Canto XVI: The Paintings.” Whether his source is high culture or low, Misrach singles out for comment the values of domination, making the “playboy” ethic symbolic of the conquest of the West. He treats the images he reuses – like all his subjects – as evidence he need only re-present, unmasking the complicity of art with politics. At least his own pictures are blunt about their politics, he seems to counter, though they are much more.
Recent cantos turn away from politics, and focus on the magnificence of desert skies. The sublime is Misrach’s ongoing subject; now he turns from fear to awe as his emotion of choice. “Canto XII: The Clouds (Non-Equivalents)” attempts a rebuttal of Alfred Stieglitz’s transcendental sense that cloud forms, and the photographs he made of them late in life, mirrored his emotions. Misrach points out that many of the rich colors he photographes, borrowed straight from Joseph M. W. Turner, come from pollution. But these pictures do not unsettle with that message as Pfahl’s ’80s studies of factory smokestacks did; the moral seems secondary.”Canto VXIII: The Skies” goes further into the realm of abstraction. These vast prints, reminiscent of Mark Rothko’s canvases, simply show the colors of sky above a certain place at a certain time. In editions of one, the 48 x 60 [inches] prints insist the moments they have just duplicated will recur only once.
Since the organization of this retrospective, Misrach has made long exposures of the stars spinning in the heavens by night. (“Canto XXI: Heavenly Bodies” was previewed in Aperture this spring.) These magical pictures show the very powers of the universe at work in a way that seems pastoral after the atom bomb. If these relate to his earlier cantos, it is by way of acceptance. Nature remains nature whatever mortals do; even the atom bomb is a wonder of nature. The celestial calendar diminishes the scale of human folly. Rather than suggesting the conquest of the skies, as the Misrach of the ’80s might well have done, these new pictures celebrate the end of the Cold War, which gave him his subject, and humanity’s unexpected survival. Beneath the skies of the much photographed American West, Misrach has made a world full of unrest and beauty. He sits back to watch it spin.
No doubt the West will remain an important subject for American landscape photographers, but it is no longer the expected one. As it did for the California modernists of Group f64, the arid West has provided the necessary space for various contemporary landscape photographers to enact their vision. The watershed in photographic representation of the West in recent decades has now been assimilated into the art museum and the art history text. A preoccupation with the special status of the documentary, midway between science and art, may be giving way to an interest in fictional narratives, like those Misrach constructs, among landscape photographers in the public eye. A new photographic regionalism seems to be intensifying in the South, around the evocatively narrative work of artists like Keith Carter, Sally Mann and Andrea Modica. All use people, often in cryptic circumstances, to depict place.
In her most recent work (previewed this winter in Blind Spot), Mann has left the people out, as she also did in her contribution to the Corcoran Gallery’s 1996 project, “Hospice: A Photographic Inquiry,” showing that landscape themes have been her subject at least as long as childhood. The link between these seemingly disparate bodies of work lies in the fact that she is always working in the landscape of her own childhood, even when she photographs her children. Now she strives to depict the image of her native Virginia she holds in her mind, making as clear as ever her debt to nineteenth-century vernacular photographers. The new pictures show all the aberrations of the antique lens she employs. Often the circular boundary of the lens shows, skewed and distorted in parts, as if these were snapshots from the retinal wall of her consciousness. Her portrait of the South is as much a response to the photographs of the Civil War attributed to Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardener (many of them made by O’Sullivan) as they are background to Mann’s celebrated large format family snapshots. Like Friedlander and Misrach, her goal is to use the literal medium of photography to represent the idea of the South, which lies within the observable “facts” of the land. Such sweeping, subjective regionalism would not be available to contemporary landscape photographers without a history of preoccupation, so vital to their medium, with the hopeful, haunting ideas of the West.
The Desert Seen by Lee Friedlander New York: Distributed Art Publishers (D.A.P.), 1996 106 pp./$75.00 (hb)
Lee Friedlander: The Sonoran Desert Center for Creative Photography, Tucson April 20-July 6, 1997
Crossing the Frontier: Photographs of the Developing West, 1849 to the Present by Sandra S. Phillips, Richard Rodriguez, Aaron Betsky and Eldridge M. Moores San Francisco and New York: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Chronicle Books, 1996 196 pp./$29.95 (sb)
Crossing the Frontier: Photographs of the Developing West, 1849 to the Present San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, September 26, 1996-January 28, 1997 Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, April 11-June 8, 1997 Phoenix Art Museum, July 12-September 27, 1997 Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, February 11-April 3, 1998
Perpetual Mirage: Photographic Narratives of the Desert West by May Castelberry, Martha Sandweiss, et al. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art and Abrams, 1996 240 pp./$50.00 (hb), $35.00 (sb)
Perpetual Mirage: Photographic Narratives of the Desert West Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, June 27-September 22, 1996
Crimes and Splendors: The Desert Cantos of Richard Misrach Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, June 2-August 25, 1996 Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, September-December 1996 Tacoma Art Museum, January-March 1997 Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, April-June 1997 The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, April-July 1998
Crimes and Splendors: The Desert Cantos of Richard Misrach Anne Wilkes Tucker with Rebecca Solnit Houston and New York: The Museum of Fine Arts and Bullfinch, 1996 192 pp./$60.00 (hb), $40.00 (sb)
1. Lee Friedlander, “An Excess of Fact,” in The Desert Seen, (New York: Distributed Art Publishers (D.A.P.), 1996), p. 105. All Friedlander quotes are from this essay.
2. Jamaica Kincaid, The Autobiography of My Mother, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996), quoted in Friedlander, The Desert Seen.
3. Ray Metzker, Earthly Delights, (New York: Lawrence Miller Gallery, 1988).
4. Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” in Great Short Works of Henry David Thoreau, (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), p. 304.
5. Clyde Milner, “Introduction,” Clyde A. Milner, Carol A. O’Connor and Martha A. Sandweiss, The Oxford History of the American West, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 3. Milner enlarges upon a remark of Wallace Stegner’s about California.
6. Bernard DeVoto, “The West: A Plundered Province,” Harper’s Monthly Magazine (August 1934).
7. Sandra S. Phillips, “To Subdue the Continent: Photographs of the Developing West,” in Sandra S. Phillips, Richard Rodriguez, Aaron Betsky & Eldridge M. Moores, Crossing the Frontier: Photographs of the Developing West, 1849 to the Present, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996), p. 14.
8. Phillips, et al., p. 14.
9. Phillips et al., p. 28. As quoted in Freeman Tilden, Following the Frontier With F. Jay Haynes, Pioneer Photographer of the Old West, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), pp. 11-12.
10. Phillips, et al., p. 13.
11. Phillips, et al., pp. 20-21, 36-37. After the bankruptcy of 1874-75 in which his negatives were sold, Watkins returned to Yosemite to repeat the work he did there in the 1860s. Phillips’s argument hinges on the difference between Watkins’s first Yosemite series and the second, in which she finds the beginnings of an environmental conscience. It is a tempting argument, but in the absence of written documentation an impossible one to prove.
12. Phillips, et al., p. 13.
13. Sandra S. Phillips with John Szarkowski, Wright Morris: Origin of a Species, (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1992).
14. Phillips, et al., pp. 45-46.
15. Phillips, et al., p. 44.
16. Rosalind Krauss, “Photography’s Discursive Spaces,” reprinted in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985).
17. May Castleberry, Martha Sandweiss et al., Perpetual Mirage: Photographic Narratives of the Desert West, (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art & Abrams), pp. 56-57. Prior to the adoption of the half-tone process in the 1890s, photographs had to be converted into photolithographs for mass reproduction, unless they were to be tipped directly into books, at an expense which would severely limit production runs. Photolithography involved what was effectively heavy retouching of the negative by hand. To Krauss (and to many twentieth-century viewers) this represents the conversion of “the mysterious beauty of the [photographic] image” into “an object of insistent visual banality. Everything mysterious in the photograph has been explained with supplemental, chatty detail.” Krauss, p. 91.
18. May Castleberry, “Introduction, “Castleberry, Sandweiss et al., p. 19.
19. Martha A. Sandweiss, “Dry Light: Photographic Books and the Arid West,” in Castleberry, Sandweiss et al., p. 22.
20. Castleberry, Sandweiss, et al., pp. 22-24.
21. Robert Adams, “In the Nineteenth Century West,” in Why People Photograph, (New York: Aperture, 1994)
22. Castleberry, Sandweiss, et al., p. 27.
23. Richard Misrach and Myriam Weisang Misrach, Bravo 20: The
STEPHEN LONGMIRE is a landscape photographer and a writer on photography. He teaches in the Photography Department at Columbia College in Chicago.