Part 1 of 3
The Landscape, America's Cathedral
As strange as it is to say, the "landscape" is actually an invention. People didn't alway have the idea that there was a landscape. There was simply land that made up the world. It wasn't until a few centuries ago that this concept began to be created. Once more and more people began to live in cities, and those cities became further and further removed from nature, did this idea arise.
There's a wonderful essay by John Brinckerhoff Jackson that goes deeply into this argument if you're interested. It's a very crucial essay to understanding what the landscape genre really is.
The text is not available online in it's entirety but this link includes majority of the chapter I was referring to "Landscape as Theater" - J.B. Jackson
Nicolas Poussin - Et in Arcadia Ego
It wasn't until around the fifteenth century that the landscape genre arose in Western painting. The paintings made during that time were low in the fine art canon. They were cheap and small paintings made to be sold to the general public and they were not taken seriously until many centuries later. In fact the only somewhat serious role that the landscape played in Western art up until about the nineteenth century was that of a stage for the play of the human experience to take part in. This stage that nature displays for our theatre is seen evident in Nicolas Poussin's work and other painters from classical eras. It wasn't until around the time that America was starting to formulate it's identity as a nation that the landscape began to be looked at in art as it's own entity that had merit to be studied and analyzed.
Frederic Edwin - Niagara Falls
America being an infant nation being somewhat overshadowed by it's European founding countries was in dire need of an identity that would set it apart form the rest of the world. Europe had it's enigmatic and monumental Cathedrals to shine as a symbol of their history, power, and wealth. As settlers in America began to move west and explore the new frontier they began to realize the shear vastness of the country's resources and typographical wealth. Artist, such as the Hudson River School, began to grasp this wild expanse as a possible legacy for the American people that would set them apart from the rest of the world.
Caspar David Friedrich - Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog
One of the key players in the development of the landscape as America's cathedral was Ralph Waldo Emerson. With his essays like Self-Reliance SR
and more importantly Nature N
Americans began to see the landscape as their domain, inherited from God. These ideas are reflected in many of the Romantic "landscape" paintings from Europe like the Friedrich shown above, in which the paintings show man exploring the grandeur of nature and how he has power and governance over the wild forces of the Earth. These elements were all coming together around the same time that a man named Louis Daguerre was inventing his Daguerreotype, one of the earliest forms of photography and the building block that would lead to the wet-plate process which allowed America photographers to go into the landscape and take photographs of the American West, thus creating a doorway for a new genre in art that would completely change the way we see the world for generations to follow.
O'Sullivan's portable darkroom that made photographing the landscape possible
The first American landscape photographers were motivated by many reasons to go and photograph the land. Whether it was by commission from the United States government to document and assist in the building of the railroads or by the public demand of the prints of their awe-inspiring landscapes. The photographs taken by these men helped to whip up a frenzy of excitement and expectations from the American people of what the "West" was and could be, thus inspiring droves of people to move to the last frontier. Of course this had it's own drawback. As more and more people moved west the frontier disappeared. Land that did not have the imprint of man was become more and more scarce. This is where the first true giant of landscape photography came into the scene, Ansel Adams. Adams was a strong advocate for the preservation and creation of the National Parks around the nation. He saw what would happen if we did not section these areas of lands away from development. He felt the beauty of the natural world was crucial to mankind and Adams was successful in making sure we still have that land to enjoy today.
Weston shared a similar idea with Adams in that the beauty of the land is a subject worth photographing and exploring. Weston did not photograph the land with such political and social ideas however. He was really focusing on the formal qualities of the land and his photographs border on the abstract end of the spectrum.
All of these beautiful photographs of the wonder and grandiosity of nature would soon see a backlash. A brand new form of landscape photography was about to be born in the 1970's that is going to turn the landscape genre upside down. It will force people to stop and take a hard look at the world and the landscape we are creating. I will be covering this next era of the genre in the 2nd part of the series.
Due to the vastness of landscape photos out there and the distinct time period and aesthetic covered in this article I chose not to include my usual section of selections from DA artist. However, if you have works that relate to this or have favorites from other DA artist you'd like to share, please include them in comments below and keep the discussion going.
Questions for the Reader:
- Have you ever thought of the idea of the landscape being an invention? Do you agree with this theory? If so, why? If you disagree, why?
- Do you think that the landscape in art helped to define America's identity as a new nation?
- How do you feel about photographers like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston's portrayal of the landscape?
For further learning on this subject there's an amazing podcast on iTunes called History of Photography - Ep. The Camera in the Cathedral: A Brief History of Photography of the Natural World