I have just started my MA Photography (Falmouth University, online). In this first week, I was was quite taken with the ‘required reading’ chapter on Territorial Photography by Joel Snyder, in the book Landscape and Power by WJT Mitchell (University of Chicago Press, 1994). Landscape is not really the centre of my photography, though I am always attracted to the genre, which probably goes back to my painting days, and studying art in the 1960s.
The header above, JMW Turner‘s (1775-1851) Fighting Temeraire (1839), was always a painting that inspired me, as did all of Turner’s work. Most of his later paintings can be considered “sublime”, and in many ways I consider his art a precursor of expressionism.
One of his works, Rain, Steam and Speed (1844) goes far in its abstraction, whilst seemingly true to the shape of the landscape.
Rain, Steam and Speed (1844), National Gallery/Wikimedia
Edmund Burke (1729-1797) in A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757 ) said
“The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature is astonishment, and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. The mind is so entirely filled with its object that it cannot entertain any other, nor reason on that object which fills it. Astonishment is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree … No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its power of acting and reasoning as terror; and whatever is terrible with regard to sight, is sublime”. (Part II, Section I),
By contrast, John Constable‘s (1776-1837) equally famous Haywain is, in my opinion, a superb exemplar of Beautiful-Picturesque painting. Constable made several open air sketches of the scene, and then created the painting in his London studio. To me, his work appears to be an Impressionist antecedent.
Turner and Constable were of course ‘artistic rivals’, battling for honours at the Royal Academy.
An early theorist, Sir Uvedale Price (1747-1829) placed the picturesque between the serenely beautiful and the awe-inspiring sublime (from An Essay on the Picturesque: As Compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful, Robson, 1796).
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in the Critique of Judgment (Part I, Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, 1790) took Burke’s concept further. He noted that the viewer projects beauty onto natural objects, and that experiences of beauty create universal feelings of delight. Beautiful objects need no underlying concept.
Kant wrote that “the beautiful and the sublime agree on the point of pleasing on their own account. Further they agree in not presupposing either a judgement of sense or one logically determinant, but one of reflection”. However, he went on to say that the beautiful is “a presentation of an indeterminate concept of understanding.” By contrast, the sublime is found even in an object without form. The sublime is a “presentation of an indeterminate concept of reason“.
First Part, Section I, Book II Analytic of the Sublime, #23.
Mitchell, in Landscape and Power noted that “Landscapes need to be decoded, they don’t merely signify or symbolise power relations; it is an instrument of cultural power. Landscape is a dynamic medium, in which we live and move and have our being, but also a medium that is itself in motion from one place of time to another. Landscape circulates as a medium of exchange, a site of visual appropriation, a focus for the formation of identity.” (pg 5)
Liz Wells, in Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity (2011) also commented that “The content of images may seem natural. But representational and interpretative processes are cultural in that they are anchored in aesthetic conventions. Photographs substitute for direct encounter; they act as surrogates, mediating that which was seen through the camera viewfinder”. (pg 45)
Culture and context thus create considerable impact on the way the photographer views the scene and creates the image.
Snyder’s chapter in Mitchell’s book discusses Carleton Watkins (1829-1916). Watkins was a very early example of a photographer working to explore the capabilities of the still new plate technology, to document the landscape of the American West in essentially a picturesque vein.
Cathedral Rock, Yosemite (1861), Wikimedia
Snyder makes reference to Watkins’ work as ‘picturesque-sublime’. It strikes me that whilst the American landscape Watkins portrayed is beautiful, the term ‘sublime’ does not strictly apply – as Watkins was capturing ‘what is’ rather than ‘what could be’.
Recall that Turner changed the angle of the sunset in the Temeraire to portray the scene as he imagined it, not exactly as it was. Turner interpreted his scenes, often never even seeing them first hand. Constable painted essentially what was in front of him, albeit with his own interpretation of light, colour and composition. Both men delivered beautiful paintings, yet Turner seems to me to be appealing more to the concept and ideas behind the scene, even when depicting an actually existing landscape (a la Kant).
In the essay, Snyder also references Timothy O’Sullivan (1840-1882), O’Sullivan worked as a teenager for Matthew Brady (1822-1896) in recording the American Civil War. O’Sullivan then went out on his own to provide his interpretation of the American landscape, which, in Snyder’s words “.. were made for the first modern surveys of the American interior, the first surveys managed and directed by civilians working for the government” (pg 198).
O’Sullivan remains in the ‘picturesque’ camp, although Snyder also places him as ‘picturesque-sublime’. O’Sullivan actually ‘arranged’ the buggy in the image below by dragging it into position to his liking, to create a scene which is both documentary and of compositional interest. By placing humans in the scene, O’Sullivan creates images of wildness and desolation.
Sand Dunes, Carson Desert, Nevada (1867), Google Arts & Culture
I view O’Sullivan rather like Roger Fenton (1819-1869), who reportedly arranging the cannonballs in the Valley of Death (1855), to document the impact of war. After all, it was rather hard with the technology of that time to capture the actual battle. No embedded reporters with high speed cameras. Brady dealt with this by portraying the aftermath, the dead. Fenton showed the desolation.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855), Library of Congress
A photographer that is not as well acknowledged, though one of my favourites, is Adam Clark Vroman (1856-1916). In 1895, Vroman started work on a series of California missions, and for the next ten years he photographed the American Southwest. His work was documentary in intent, capturing the landscape but as lived in by native America Indian Tribes. Unlike much other photography of that time which either glamourised or (unfortunately) trivialised the people, Vroman set out to record their lifestyle and habitat with precision and, to his best ability, objectivity.
Arguably ‘picturesque’, in some ways he is a forefather of the New Topographic Movement, reflecting human impact on the landscape, depicted with a lack of emotion.
Walpi (Moki Town) 1895, Smithsonian American Art Museum
I should note that Vroman’s dignified yet honest portrayal of the people of the Tribes and their habitat very much influences my own documentary work. Looking forward to exploring that in the MA program.
Indian Mother with Her Child (1900), Wikimedia
As noted, landscape is not a principal focus of my photographic practice, though landscape can teach so much about photography. I look forward to learning a great deal more.
Snyder, J. (1994) Territorial Photography, in W.J.T Mitchell Landscape and Power. University of Chicago Press.
Wells, L. (2011) Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity. I.B. Tauris.