In 2016, the George Eastman Museum celebrated the centennial of the U.S. National Park System with “Photography and America's National Parks,” an exhibition organized by associate curator Jamie Allen. Along with Allen’s Picturing America’s National Parks, which Aperture published to coincide with the exhibit, this survey illuminated the role of photography in our imaginings of landscape in an ever-changing cultural, political, and ecological milieu. Millee Tibbs, whose photographic interventions were featured in the exhibit, gathered together curator Allen and fellow photographer Sharon Harper in a roundtable for Nat. Brut. Together, the three women mine the contemporary landscape photography scene and interrogate the potential of curation in illuminating historical limitations. Their conversation is essential reading.
-Abby Sun, Photography Editor, Nat. Brut
Millee Tibbs: One of the things that sparked the idea for a conversation about landscape and gender was the realization that, at the opening for the "Photography and America's National Parks" exhibition, all but one of the living female artists included (there were five women photographers total) came to its opening reception. Sharon and I joked that perhaps it was because we, unlike our male colleagues who had a proportionately lower attendance, don't take being included in a historic landscape photography show for granted. Joking aside, the show made apparent the imbalance of gender representation in the history of landscape photography. As a female curator, what was the experience of curating a survey of a photographic genre that is so exceptionally male-dominated like?
Jamie Allen: This is a very good question, but what's interesting is that I'm not sure I thought about it in that in that same terminology. Every time I make an exhibition, I'm always trying to think about what history shows us and what I can say about that history. In this case, if I stayed true to that history, that's just the way it panned out. That is to say that the majority of women working in national park landscapes were contemporary, which was an interesting fact that hopefully, people recognized when they saw the exhibition. But I also think that we could be having this conversation about other things such as people of color or the fact that there wasn't an American Indian photographer represented in the exhibition. In terms of attending the opening, age was also a factor, as the youngest photographers couldn't afford to come. There are lots of different factors that play into how the selections are made for an exhibition, but also affect the people who are able to attend the opening.
"I SUSPECT THAT ONE OF THE MANY REASONS THAT WOMEN ARE LEFT OUT OF THE NARRATIVE OF LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY IS DUE TO THE HISTORIC GENDERING OF DOMESTIC AND PUBLIC SPACE — WHILE MEN HAD ACCESS TO BOTH, WOMEN WERE EXPECTED TO STAY CLOSE TO HOME AND CARE FOR THE FAMILY. 19TH-CENTURY EXPLORATION AND THE IMAGES THAT IT PRODUCED VALUED CONQUEST AND RUGGED INDIVIDUALISM."
Millee Tibbs. Mountains + Valleys (Yellowstone #1),
Archival Digital Print, 29.5 x 20 inches. Courtesy the artist.
MT: In terms of the works that were included in the exhibition, why do you think it's a genre that is so specifically white and male?
JA: I think it is specifically the historic aspect of it. The majority of photographers working in the American West, where many of the National Parks are, were exploration photographers that were paid by government surveys. It was that manifest destiny era where most of the explorers were white males. I think that is why it became an established profession for a photographer (and for a white male photographer in particular).
Timothy O’Sullivan. Camp at Shoshone Falls, Idaho, 1868. Albumen print,
7 3/4 x 10 5/8 inches. Courtesy of Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO.
MT: I suspect that one of the many reasons that women are left out of the narrative of landscape photography is due to the historic gendering of domestic and public space — while men had access to both, women were expected to stay close to home and care for the family. 19th-century exploration and the images that it produced valued conquest and rugged individualism. Inherent in the practice of photography is travel — you must go to a place to record it photographically — so part of the mythology of these images is the heroicizing of the labor and difficulties the photographer faced in making their images in inhospitable spaces (O'Sullivan and his mule-drawn darkroom, for example, or Muybridge and Watkins and their mammoth plate cameras).
Many contemporary artists who participate in conversations about landscape representation choose instead to pull their images from online image sources ("Landscape Sublime" by Anastasia Samoylova immediately comes to mind or "Mountains, Moving" by Penelope Umbrico). Sharon, how important is it to you to go to the places you photograph and engage with them physically? How does your relationship to place inform your artistic process?
Penelope Umbrico. Moving Mountains (1850-2012): of Aperture Masters of Photography, 2012. 87 digital c-prints, each 4” x 4”, 6” x 8”, 8” x 8”, 8” x 10”, 8” x 12”, overall dimension 55” x 118”. Courtesy the artist.
Sharon Harper: For me, it's critical to go to the place and engage with it physically. The work that I generate is all about how I can engage with the place physically and how that creates images and metaphors for a relationship with that place. When I’m working with something I can't physically reach — like the work that I've done with the night sky — I’m trying to figure out how the camera or technology can create a triad between me and something external to me in order to put us in relationship to that thing. One of the questions I’m working with is: How can the camera create a call and response between us and the movement of the stars or the movement of the waxing and waning of the moon? I’m also wondering how the camera can put me in relation to concepts that cultures other than our own may take for granted.
One of the ways that I think about this relationship is by reading anthropological or spiritual accounts from different cultures. When I was reading about the rite of passage Aboriginals of Australia take called walkabouts, it informed a body of work I was making when I was in graduate school, which I eventually named Walkabout in reference to that practice. It was all about the kinesthetic relationship we have between the mind, the body, and the spirit. When we walk through space our mind and our thoughts move in different directions. The Aboriginals have an expression for this. They have song lines they walk during a walkabout. When they walk, the contours of the earth evoke the songs they sing. Just reading things like that made me think, how do we locate that idea in our culture? For me, I locate it by going out into the landscape and making those leaps of imagination toward a connection with the earth that other cultures embody. I think about if I were born in a different time or place I would have a totally different belief system or relationship to the earth.
JA: You're talking about a spiritual tie to the land, in a way?
SH: I am. I'm talking about a connection to the land that is often spiritual but it also is philosophical and cultural. Certain cultures prioritize a relationship with the land, such as the Native American culture, and everything flows from that relationship. Their whole lifestyle and their whole way of being flows from the way that they connect to the land.
As I was working with the photography, I noticed that different cultures have these different connections to the earth. I would read books like The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The idea of reincarnation and guiding yourself through the stages of energetic death informed my body of work called Moonfall (As Imagined by the Off-Duty Ferryman Charon in Flight Over the River Styx), 2001. The imagery in the work is cloud formations. The idea behind the work takes an imaginary leap toward the idea that energy is never created or destroyed, but is constantly transforming. This is an idea supported by the first law of thermodynamics, but it is also the principal behind reincarnation.
Sharon Harper. Walkabout, 1996. Silver gelatin prints, 20” x 96”, 20”x98”. Courtesy the artist.
JA: I think that's really interesting because where I see women photographers first relating to the landscape is probably during Pictorialism with photographers like Anne Brigman (or even Imogen Cunningham) physically taking their bodies into the space and morphing themselves into the landscape. Maybe that's extended later to somebody like Judy Dater. But also in the postmodernist era, you have somebody like Bea Nettles who is very much tied to her home in the way that Imogen Cunningham becomes tied to her home once she has children. They use photography to create landscapes in their domestic space. I see Imogen Cunningham's photograph of the magnolia blossom very much like a landscape because it reads very similarly to something Ansel Adams or Edward Weston might have been doing at the same time. It's just interesting to think about how a spiritual connection to your work helps you create a subject or to find one in what surrounds you.
SH: Yes, you both started out talking about adventure photography, the adventure of the actual physical journey through the landscape, and how physically demanding the geographic surveys in the West were. I'm trying to take these journeys, these leaps of imagination, in terms of imagining anthropologically or spiritually how another belief system might function — how it might help me form a connection to the earth that would transcend my cultural upbringing. And it does require physical adventure. I wish I could appropriate images. I wrestled with myself for a long time about why wasn't I appropriating images from the Hubble — those images are so beautiful! They're so amazing and there is so much you can do with them. I finally broke down and just bought a telescope without knowing why and made a series called Sun/Moon (Trying to See through a Telescope), 2010. It turned out, when I was physically grappling with the telescope and trying to create a connection with something that we couldn't see without a mediating instrument, I understood that it was the act of trying — the act of creating visual representations of a connection between me trying to see and my perception — interfered with and aided seeing (and the object far beyond). Those connections had to be made visible and physical. And for me, the appropriation (which I love as a practice), I can't do it. I respond to appropriation, but it doesn't satisfy the drive for questions I'm trying to answer. Those questions require me to physically adventure through and connect with the natural world.
MT: That makes a lot of sense. One thing this brings up for me is Tim Creswell's definition of landscape in Place: A Short Introduction. He lays out the premise that you necessarily cannot be in the landscape. It's something outside of yourself. Place is something that you inhabit, but landscape is uninhabitable.
JA: In that sort of sublime way?
MT: I don't know if it's necessarily in terms of the sublime, although that would be an interesting conversation to develop. I think it's more about the fact that when you go to a vista point and you see the land in front of you, it's usually from an inaccessible point. Many of the images that have been prized throughout history have that sort of floating perspective. I mean, think of all the Ansel Adams images. The viewer is never grounded, never in that space, but floating above it. The landscape is presented, but very distant from the body. Sharon, what you're talking about is interesting in relationship to that because you're talking very much about taking the body and placing it somewhere and trying to bridge that gap between the physical and spiritual.
Imogen Cunningham. Triangles Plus One, 1928. Courtesy of Photography West Gallery.
Imogen Cunningham. Agave Design #1, 1920. Courtesy of Photography West Gallery.
"I THINK THAT’S REALLY INTERESTING BECAUSE WHERE I SEE WOMEN PHOTOGRAPHERS FIRST RELATING TO THE LANDSCAPE IS PROBABLY DURING PICTORIALISM WITH PHOTOGRAPHERS LIKE ANNE BRIGMAN (OR EVEN IMOGEN CUNNINGHAM) PHYSICALLY TAKING THEIR BODIES INTO THE SPACE AND MORPHING THEMSELVES INTO THE LANDSCAPE."
MT: How much does feminist discourse play a role in your image making and your curatorial practice, implicitly or explicitly? Is it possible to participate in the production or dissemination of landscape images, given its history, as a woman without it being a political act?
JA: I'd like to think that I'm objective in the sense that I'm trying to stay true to that history inasmuch as I can, but it doesn't mean that when I put together an exhibition like "Photography and America's National Parks" that I don't find some delight in (and I hate to say it this way) selecting female photographers who are working in that genre and bringing them into the conversation. It's a fantastic ability to be able to add that contemporary conversation to the historical conversation and show how the photographic medium is growing. Whether that is a political act or not, just because I happen to be a woman, I don't know. I think it is just my nature to always try to bring as many voices to the table as I possibly can.
SH: Yes. For me, feminist discourse is implicitly in my work and it isn't possible for me to participate in making work in the landscape, or anywhere else, without it being a political act because communication as a social act implies a network between people. Within that network between people are relationships that have embedded in them social and cultural history. Politics of how communication flows is always part of that. My impetus for making work comes from a more existential place of understanding my place in a world broadly. I am not reading feminist discourse and responding to it directly, but it’s implicit in my work. My work is relational. I'm trying to find different ways that the camera as a technology can show and demonstrate relationships that we can't see and we can't verify. That is incredibly political because there is so much power culturally placed on things that we can verify and quantify. Science has more power and more money than existential ideas, like religion and poetry and art. So, I think it's very political. And I think it has consequences. My work comes from a place that embraces feminism fully, but that isn't the only thing that is driving and fueling my interests and what I do.
MT: Much of feminist art is predicated on the body. While body politics may seem far removed from landscape imaging, the terms used to describe land often refer to the (female) body. Unconquered land is referred to as virgin, untouched; toxic and contaminated land is raped; land that cannot be cultivated is barren. What is the framework that you consider when making images of landscape? Do you see any parallels in your work with land to contemporary or historic conversations in body art or feminist discourse? Do you believe that because of this rhetoric, women necessarily relate and respond to landscape differently than men? In what ways do you see contemporary artists responding to the history of landscape photography?
"FEMINIST DISCOURSE IS IMPLICITLY IN MY WORK AND IT ISN’T POSSIBLE FOR ME TO PARTICIPATE IN MAKING WORK IN THE LANDSCAPE, OR ANYWHERE ELSE, WITHOUT IT BEING A POLITICAL ACT BECAUSE COMMUNICATION AS A SOCIAL ACT IMPLIES A NETWORK BETWEEN PEOPLE."
Photograph of MACS J0717.5+3745, about 5.4 billion light-years away from Earth, in the constellation of Auriga (The Charioteer). It is one of the most complex galaxy clusters known; rather than being a single cluster, it is actually the result of four galaxy clusters colliding. Courtesy of NASA, ESA, CXC, NRAO/AUI/NSF, STScI, and R. van Weeren (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics).
SH: I think this idea of landscape photography came about as the “canon” of landscape photography was formed. We had people thinking about who was making photography and those people were putting certain people in museums and in books about the history of photography. It turned out that the geological survey and the idea of New Topographics, which came about in the 1970s, were two extremely influential ideas in terms of landscape and looking at landscape photographically. My framework for looking at and working in the land is completely different from the framework that was shaped by the history of photography. I came to it from outside of the history of photography and the history of how people were looking. I came to it through the questions that we were talking about earlier. For example, David Abram has a book called The Spell of the Sensuous. In this book, he describes some things about Asian culture in relation to the land. He talks about living in a hut that's been infiltrated with ants. The solution to this phenomenon is to put offerings of rice at the corner of the outside of the house so the ants go to the outside of the house. These ideas of working with nature and working with a situation rather than getting out an insecticide and killing the ants are things that sparked my interest. Those aren't the things that were necessarily sparking interest for the people who were part of New Topographics. Even though I have ended up working in the land for years and years, I have always felt uncomfortable when anyone calls me a landscape photographer. I feel put into a box to which I do not want to be confined. I’m trying to grasp our cultural connection with the land and I am trying to imagine alternatives to that relationship that are present in other cultures. Some of what I was doing ends up being parallel to feminist discourse. The impetus behind my work came from feeling the limitations of the genres of photography and feeling the limitations of our cultural understanding of and relationship with the land.
JA: I think to add to that, I classify both of your work in a way that is talking about photography. What is photography capable of? Where has it been and where is it going? I think that's just a general trend in contemporary photography right now. Photography is speaking about photography and how it has been used. Perhaps that's because photography has inundated our lives. We can't get away from it. It's on our phones. It's on our computers. It's everywhere we go. How, as a practicing photographer, do you differentiate what you do from the millions of photographs that are posted on Instagram and Facebook every day? How do you differentiate your voice from the voice of the masses? What you're talking about is the limitations of photography — how to push them forward to speak about them in some way. That's what I see a lot of photographers doing.
As far as speaking about land being referred to as a woman, I was just thinking about Justine Kurland's work, and Judy Dater and Anne Brigman, that idea of physically reclaiming the land by placing yourself in it or placing a nude woman in it. How is that different from Edward Weston's nudes or Bill Brandt's nudes that also become landscapes? I guess there's something there, but maybe I'm not ready to approach it.
"MUCH OF FEMINIST ART IS PREDICATED ON THE BODY. WHILE BODY POLITICS MAY SEEM FAR REMOVED FROM LANDSCAPE IMAGING, THE TERMS USED TO DESCRIBE LAND OFTEN REFER TO THE (FEMALE) BODY. UNCONQUERED LAND IS REFERRED TO AS VIRGIN, UNTOUCHED; TOXIC AND CONTAMINATED LAND IS RAPED; LAND THAT CANNOT BE CULTIVATED IS BARREN."
SH: I think Justine Kurland is interesting in relation to that if you think of her photographs of nudist colonies because that part of the nudist colony, and the way she depicts it, is a back to the land movement. It is looking for a relationship to the land whereas the Edward Weston modernist look at a nude is making that object beautiful.
JA: Pure formalism.
SH: Yes, and I think that Justine is looking at a way of life and a broader connection.
JA: I wonder about the different stereotypes of men and women and how they play out in both of your work? Millee, you called men "rugged individuals" earlier, who could go out into the wilderness and are maybe a little bit unemotional or untied to their spiritual emotions. Women are somehow seen as emotional creatures or are considered to be better tied to their emotions. I wonder if that plays out in your photographs? Is that something you feel you have to respond to in the sense that you're better tied to your emotions than your male colleagues might be? Is that something expected of you?
Stephen Shore. 2nd Street East and South Main Street, Kalispell, Montana, Aug. 22, 1974.
Chromogenic color print, 14” x 18”. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.
MT: I don't think that I've ever had that particular thought about my relationship to my work in landscape, at least overtly, but I think it is something that is on my mind. With my work, I to point the construction of the visual representations of place by pairing two seemingly opposing forces, which would be the romanticized landscape and this other aesthetic system that is more structured or geometric or mathematical. When I think of the shapes that I impose on this landscape, they seem like the opposite of organic. Even though geometry plays itself out in our everyday life all the time, it's still a more man-made construct. I am aware of the opposition in my work between the rational and irrational, in particular, in a series called "Impossible Geometry," where I stitch geometric forms onto the photograph. I use stitching because of its historically stereotypical feminine quality to rupture the perspective that the camera creates by drawing attention both to the surface of the paper and the illusion of three-dimensional perspective on the two-dimensional surface. The shapes I stitch are irresolvable — they could never exist in three dimensions; they can only exist on the two-dimensional plane. They are imaginary. I'm trying to have a conversation about gender and gaze, but maybe not as overtly as referencing those two stereotypes directly.
JA: That's interesting in the sense that you're sort of remaking the land into something it can't possibly be.
MT: Yes, I think that's what photography does. We frame. We fragment. We de-contextualize or beautify, but the land is a very different thing. When we exist in it or partake of it, it becomes this other experience that Sharon referred to earlier.
SH: I'm glad you asked that, Jamie, because it gives us an opportunity to throw out the stereotypes of men and, at the same time, the stereotypes of women. One of the things that I respond to in the work of Mark Klett, Michael Lundgren, or Chris McCaw and their work in the landscape is their emotionalism. It's complicated — we're all complicated and we all have varied reasons for being out there [in the land]. It’s after the fact that these labels and categories come up. We can either bump up against them or build on them to produce a better understanding. For myself, I always relate to the part of the myth of working in the landscape and respond to the adventure of it. I love the idea of being out in the Arctic and photographing, or being in Alaska at three in the morning making pictures under the night sky, or putting myself in an experience where all my senses and perceptions are heightened physically so that I can perceive what's around me. I think what I've been working against in my photography is the primacy and the privilege and the power of a certain kind of photography: Photography that verifies something and that stands outside of something with a distant stance (I think at one time we might have called that objective, but I don't believe that a person can make an objective photograph). New Topographics, for example, is similar to a scientific way of looking and scrutinizing something. This is the kind of photography that is privileged in our culture. Those ways of looking and recording have been accorded with a certain kind of power and a certain kind of legitimacy that has always, for social and cultural reasons that are arbitrary, been given more credence than experimental uses of photography. The reasons for this privilege may not be completely arbitrary, but that privilege could be shifted radically in a different culture and something completely different would be seen as just as legitimate.
Bernd Becher and Hilla Becher. Water Towers, 1972–2009. Courtesy of Estate of Bernd Becher & Hilla Becher.
I've always wanted to explore different ways of looking and different ways of seeing, and try to come up with ways to generate a physical image that talked about parts of our lives that are not verifiable and are not quantifiable. I want to give those parts of our lives as that we cannot verify as much legitimacy and power as science has. I do think there have been divides in terms of men and women making work on either side of that. I also think that, to the extent that labels foster understanding, these labels that I’m pushing up against can be really helpful. Sometimes as an artist it's useful to work against prevailing norms. If you go against that norm, you learn what is antagonizing about it. You learn an alternate definition and come up with a different set of ideas. These ideas have sent me in different directions than the prevailing paradigms in photography.
JA: I like that currently in photography there is an equalizing factor going on and also that many contemporary photographers are really talking about subverting the typical views that we saw. I see that happening particularly in the work of the photographers that I brought to the table in this exhibit. Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe might be returning to those same spaces, but they are also trying to reveal what that whole system might look like. Or that you, Sharon, are trying to reveal what time looks like. There are all these different ways of subverting what we think of as traditional landscape photography.
"WOMEN ARE SOMEHOW SEEN AS EMOTIONAL CREATURES OR ARE CONSIDERED TO BE BETTER TIED TO THEIR EMOTIONS."
SH: Millee came and showed her work at Harvard. I found myself, before she came in to visit my class, using the laser cutter to cut out things in the landscape and do certain things. Millee showed new work in which she is cutting and weaving photographs. Letha Wilson is also cutting her photographs and Theresa Ganz is making all different kinds of shapes rather than the rectangular photographs of the natural world. I wonder why we want to remake these images? We are all getting our hands in there. That might be a liberation of contemporary practice. I'll be interested in looking back five years from now at the kind of work that is being produced right now. There seems to be a lot of intervention in photographs and I'm curious about that.
Justine Kurland. Witch Circle, 2005. C-print, 30” x 40”. Courtesy of Mitchell-Innes & Nash.
MT: I think there's something else that is happening with photography and it probably goes back to what Jamie was saying about self-referentiality, not only as a photograph with constructed rectangle but as an object that lives in the world. Maybe we're trying to draw attention to that.
SH: Yeah, I think that we've been totally liberated in terms of the definitions of photography and the scope of it. When I first started doing the Moon Studies and Star Scratches in 2003, I just got a blank stare when I showed it to people. The first question I got was, why aren't you controlling the composition of this? And the second question was, What's up with the exposure? It wasn't until 2008 that that work was shown publicly, and even then and I think that was a little premature. I think when Kodak went bankrupt it was a liberating moment. Artists working experimentally and in a process-oriented way with materials that were becoming obsolescent were embraced by curators and institutions.
JA: Similarly, we're in this moment kind of like Pictorialism, where suddenly the Kodak snapshot had come onto the scene and anybody could make an image. So photographers returned to making objects. Now digital photography has arrived and anyone can make an image. I think there's been some of that kind of backlash.
Millee, there was something you were talking about, rupturing the objectification of the landscape. And I think earlier you talked about the 19th-century geological surveys. But even there, it was subjective what they were taking. By default, the fact that a photographer has to choose what is in the frame. That's subjectivifying whatever you see. You can't be objective. There's always going to be something left out of the conversation no matter what you do, which is really interesting, but nobody ever thought of it in that way in the 19th century. Now, we're finally coming to terms with it even though people like Ken Josephson have been talking about it for a while.
SH: One of the things that I try to get my students to understand first and foremost in my Introduction to Photography class is the concept of objectivity and subjectivity, and to get them to see where their agency is in the photographic process. I find students still want to believe in objectivity and to believe that the camera somehow has agency. Cameras don’t have agency but artists and photographers do, and they make subjective choices about how to create an image.
JA: Maybe that's the moment that you become what we think of as an artist or artist-photographer: that moment where you realize the gaze that you're putting onto something.
Letha Wilson. Slotted Sunset, 2015. Archival inkjet print, aluminum,
72” x 8.3” x 4.1”. Courtesy the artist.
MT: Jamie, in the introduction to Picturing America's National Parks, you mention the symbiotic relationship between photography and the National Parks, and how the images of the parks were used towards conservationist efforts but also as tourist advertisements that attracted more and more visitors, who then added their photographs to an ever-increasing economy of vernacular images.
On a broader scope, the history of landscape photography and the mythology of the American West developed in tandem with increasing popularity in the late nineteenth century. Photography was used as the first step in the possession of indigenous lands (US geographical surveys) and images of western landscape continue to symbolize American patriotism. As we move deeper into the 21st century, technologies like the internet and social media allow for the unprecedented dissemination of photographic images. At the same time, we face unchecked environmental disaster in these same locations; the politics of land use far exceed the fears of the 19th-century conservationists. How has the relationship between photography and land(scape) changed? What are the directions that you would like to see photography used to explore these issues?
'PHOTOGRAPHY WAS USED AS THE FIRST STEP IN THE POSSESSION OF INDIGENOUS LANDS..."
JA: While I think our ideas of the 19th-century land conservation enter into the conversation with somebody like John Muir, who was writing about what we should be doing for these lands, our idea of conserving land was to make national parks. In the parks, we built roads and cabins and made infrastructure within the landscape. In reality, we've vastly changed those landscapes. Then you have somebody like Ansel Adams entering the conversation and fighting for a purer landscape, which we can't return to. It's interesting that photography, all along, is being used to play sides. In the early exploration photographs, they are used both to preserve the land and to understand what resources might be available for logging or mining. What trees can be torn down? What mineral deposits might be available? Photographs help us to pick and choose what land will be conserved and what land won't be conserved. From the beginning, photography plays this dual purpose of good and evil as far as land conservation is concerned.
"ONE OF THE THINGS THAT I TRY TO GET MY STUDENTS TO UNDERSTAND FIRST AND FOREMOST IN MY INTRODUCTION TO PHOTOGRAPHY CLASS IS THE CONCEPT OF OBJECTIVITY AND SUBJECTIVITY, AND TO GET THEM TO SEE WHERE THEIR AGENCY IS IN THE PHOTOGRAPHIC PROCESS. I FIND STUDENTS STILL WANT TO BELIEVE IN OBJECTIVITY AND TO BELIEVE THAT THE CAMERA."
Now, there is this little track of environmentalism going on in contemporary photography. If you look at Marion Belanger's work in the Everglades or Rachel Sussman's work as she goes along cataloging all the different oldest living things in the world, even Lynn Davis looking at icebergs. There's this track of looking at what it is that we are doing, how we're maybe fighting to preserve those things, or how we use photography to record them before we lose them. I think it is a really interesting issue to approach, photographically speaking.
MT: I think one of the things that photography does more than anything else is to show us the way we desire to see things. In early landscape photography, we photographed spaces in the way we wanted them to exist for us. As our relationship to space changes, so does the way that we image it. I see photography as a mirror for both good and bad. It is a just a medium — a tool. It doesn't have a will of its own, but those who use it do. In that way, it can show us how we see things.
Lynn Davis. Iceberg XXVII, Disko Bay, Greenland, 2007.
JA: I would agree with that. Photography is a tool and people are picking and choosing what they photograph. The same photograph could be used for both sides of the story. Look at this land available for conquest versus what's available for us to preserve and conserve? Look at the beauty that's here in this space versus look at the resources that are here in this space. It is very much a tool that we use to better understand not only our relationship to the space, but also how we want and desire to use it.
"AS OUR RELATIONSHIP TO SPACE CHANGES, SO DOES THE WAY THAT WE IMAGE IT. I SEE PHOTOGRAPHY AS A MIRROR FOR BOTH GOOD AND BAD. IT IS A JUST A MEDIUM — A TOOL. IT DOESN’T HAVE A WILL OF ITS OWN, BUT THOSE WHO USE IT DO. IN THAT WAY, IT CAN SHOW US HOW WE SEE THINGS."
MT: What is most at stake for you in the scholarship, critique, and production of landscape photography?
JA: I feel like there is a challenge in the world to make photographs that have never been made before, resulting in this idea of speaking about photography through photography. How do you re-photograph a site that's been photographed every day of its life in the in the National Parks and give it new meaning? How do we re-photograph these iconic spaces like El Capitan or the Grand Canyon? I would argue that both of you have done that in some way and given it new meaning. But is it sufficient to continue to re-photograph these spaces in the same ways? How do we move that conversation forward?
Chris McCaw. Grandpa’s almond orchard, Manteca, CA, 1997.
Hand coated platinum palladium direct contact prints, 7” x 17”. Courtesy the artist.
Sharon Harper. Moon Studies and Star Scratches, No. 4, June - September 2004, Saratoga Springs, New York; Middlesex, Vermont; Johnson, Vermont; Eden Mills, Vermont; Greensboro, North Carolina. Digital c-print from 8x10 transparency, 40” x 50”.
SH: I've been thinking a lot about what's at stake in terms of working in the landscape. My practice has changed from looking at a relationship to the night sky and deep time for twelve years to spending a year and a half looking at geologic information and how we can read the aftermath of what has gone on in a place where we might be looking at something from a certain phenomenon. What's at stake for me more and more is the Anthropocene, which goes back to a much earlier question in terms of, "Is work political?" and, "Where are the politics in work?" The Anthropocene puts questions about the future of deep time into relief. That has been on the forefront of my mind as I make work. I don't know if that comes out in the forefront of the work itself yet, but there is a real shift for me as people deny the Anthropocene. As we experience more severe storms, more famine, the disruption of agriculture, and receding shorelines; the apocalyptic aspect of the Anthropocene is present while working in landscape. I'm interested in how that will manifest in my practice.
"I THINK ONE OF THE WONDERFUL THINGS ABOUT THE HISTORY OF LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY IS THAT WE CAN SEE THE SHIFTS THAT HAVE BEEN MADE OR ARE HAPPENING IN FRONT OF OUR EYES. THE MORE RAPID CHANGES THAT HAVE BEEN HAPPENING IN THE LAST 20 YEARS ARE DOCUMENTED."
JA: I think one of the wonderful things about the history of landscape photography is that we can see the shifts that have been made or are happening in front of our eyes. The more rapid changes that have been happening in the last 20 years are documented. We can see the glaciers in Glacier National Park disappearing in our lifetime. Photography, whether it is meant to be so, is evidence of what is happening around us and that is something that we have to respond to in some way. It provides evidence, whether that's the intention behind your images or not.
SH: Yes, exactly. I think that's interesting. When Richard Misrach was making Bravo 20 in the 1980s, he was depicting spaces where the atom bombs were tested that very few people visited or saw. Ed Burtynsky was doing early work like that with quarries. Then fast forward 40 years and we have a totally different cultural relationship to those places where, when Richard Misrach started that work, everybody thought of as “nowhere.”
Theresa Ganz. Serpentine Pano, 2016. Watercolor on archival pigment print, 47" x 72”.
You'd have a different conversation about that kind of land now. We think of it as important space even if there is no population there and no apparent use for the land. Whereas before, if the land was uninhabitable, it was not important. It was easy to contaminate lands that were not seen as important. I loved that you brought that up, Jamie, how this becomes evidence of a certain kind of cultural understanding and evidence of physical change.
JA: In a global population where we do have things like the Internet to move images around in the world, it gives us the opportunity to also aestheticize and make apparent things that various communities are doing to better their relationship to the land. Whether that be installing windmills or solar power sources or changing the way we think about landfills, there is that capability of showing and making the things that help us be better stewards of the world more common, more respected, and better understood.
Marion Belanger. Everglades (new), 2015.
Millee Tibbs is an artist and Assistant Professor of Photography at Wayne State University, Detroit. She is interested in surfaces and their relationship to what lies beneath — the discrepancy between what we see and what we know.
Throughout her practice, Sharon Harper has worked at the intersection of technology and perception. She has looked at how technology affords us access to different perceptions of the world around us. Her interests have been in deep time and how we persist through time. She looks to the natural world where that timescale is depicted. She is currently a Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University.
Jamie Allen, who is originally from the American West, is the Associate Curator in the Department of Photography at the George Eastman Museum. She curated "Photography and America's National Parks" (2016) and "In the Garden" (2015), and is the author of Picturing America's National Parks, Aperture 2016.