“Landscape is not the ideologically neutral subject many imagine it to be” – Deborah Bright

In her 1985 essay Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men, Deborah Bright asked “Why landscape now?” (p1) but  we continue to interrogate the landscape genre, and our questioning today remains along the same lines as over 30 years ago:

“The sorts of questions we might ask concern what ideologies landscape photographs perpetuate; in whose interests they were conceived; why we still desire to make and consume them; and why the art of landscape photography remains so singularly identified with a masculine eye.” (p2)

In this essay, Bright suggests two constructed views of landscape prevalent at the time of writing,  and still relevant today:

  1. “[…] an antidote to politics, as a pastoral fantasy lulling us back to some primordial sense of our own insignificance.”
  2. “[…] the occasion for aesthetic pleasure in arrangements of material objects in ironic constellations, found “happenings” for the lens whose references to the worlds beyond the frame rivet all attention on the sensibility of the artist.”

It is interesting and useful to consider the above notions as constructs; that we are selecting, framing, designing the landscape and its meanings to suit ourselves. A reminder that ‘landscape’ is a relatively modern concept is also needed from time to time, as it nudges us back into questioning what we are doing and why we are doing it.

To begin to understand landscape photography is difficult without consideration for the development of landscape painting which has moved through various stages of audience expectation, from the fictional and fantastical, to more accurate representations of wild nature, to an era of cultivated and managed environments which “celebrated property ownership: the working water- or windmill, the merchant ship at anchor, the farmer’s field, the burgher’s estate” (pp1-2) – landscapes which politicised in terms of status and wealth.  Even people-less scenes, wild waterfalls and pristine forests, are human indeed, as they are a view shaped; “whatever its aesthetic merits, every representation of landscape is also a record of human values and actions imposed on the land over time.” (p2)

 

Western ideas around the natural environment seemed to shift in the 19th century from that of unpenetrable and uninviting wilderness to the landscape as a place of healthiness, leisure and Godliness, partly due to the new industries of photography, media and transport developing quickly alongside one another.  It was perhaps inevitable for these ‘new’ processes to come together to bring landscape photography and tourism on a wide scale, both of which have continued to grow exponentially.  New technologies in the 19th century permitted the photographer to create views which could be shared on a mass scale, views which “became the established standards against which all future visual records of these landscape-spectacles would be measured. It was these “mechanical reproductions” of the chosen shrines that lured tourists into making the journey to find the Real Thing.” (p4)

“They were not impressed by wilderness itself. They looked instead for the unique, the spectacular, or the sublime, drawing their standards from stereoscopic views, picture postcards, railroad advertising, magazine illustrations, Romantic literature and landscape art. Scenic beauty was an art form, and its inspiration a preconditioned experience.” (Perspective of a Historian in Bright, p3)

 

There is much that could be written about the history of land ownership, the regulation of formerly wild spaces, contrived areas of ‘wild’ parkland, development of transport routes and so on, and the male pervasiveness of landscape photography has been coupled with the predominant male-ness of the above actions over past centuries.  Photographers of the past, working in all genres, were mostly men and there are a number of reasons often given for this, from differences in male and female clothing in the 19th Century to suggested difficulties/inappropriateness in the manual handling of equipment and chemicals by women.  Today, however, still sees fewer women than men known for working in the landscape genre.  The gendered debate in landscape photography often returns to nature itself and our cultural understanding of nature as feminine, of the mother earth.  Bright refers to nature historically as a place for men to use and manipulate, with women neither as users of, nor carers for it, but instead she suggests a perception of a deeper more complex relationship, of women being intrinsically related to the landscape; women being nature.

“Such notions of women’s essentially nurturing nature, linked to their evolutionary and reproductive biological difference from men, have had a problematic history in the history of ideas and social values in our culture. Because women were traditionally seen (by both sexes) as primarily differentiated by their reproductive capacity, it was easy to see them as nature itself. [..]  Men choose to act upon nature and bend it to their will while women simply are nature and cannot separate themselves from it.” (p10)

Of the notion of earth as female other, I wrote in an earlier post:
“At a very basic level, we receive food from the earth which echoes the mother/child relationship at the very beginning of human life.  In cultures across the world, the earth carries parental symbolism as fertile source of of life and growth, as well as receiver of the body at the end of life. It is perhaps understandable that the idea of ‘land as female other’ has emerged from this, but in the western world at least, the idea of the land as that of a revered ‘parent/giver’ seems to have shifted to a more defined engendered debate as ‘female other’ which continues to be discussed in photographic theory.  This idea leads us to consider the most basic elements of nature as something ‘other’ than ourselves, rather than feeling a sense of essentiality of nature to all of humanity, a belonging to the earth in a parent/offspring sense as early cultures perhaps believed.  The landscape as a place for men, or the landscape as seen through a male gaze, reinforces a divided message rather than contributing to a unifying one of shared nature and world.” (Please see separate post on gender and landscape)

 

Bright reminds us ultimately that the landscape and its forms are human-made, and that there is no “antidote to politics”, no “pastoral fantasy”, no “found “happenings” for the lens” within it.  (p2)   Instead, Bright’s constructivist suggestion is that landscape is interpreted by us based upon whatever has filled our experience from birth to now, from the messages we have received and the lessons we have learned; it is shaped by us.  As bright says “there is no “Form” outside of interpretation. Formal orders are human structures and perceptions, not given essences.” (p6)  We could be talking here about landscape or any other subject matter, as, at its root, this essay connects us with ourselves and prompts us to reach philosophically into ideas of reality and existence, of what it is to be human.  Of photography, Bright reminds us that photographers are not working in isolation however remote our location or inwardly personal our ideas, that none of us lives in an impression-less world. Instead we are existing within time and culture and our creations, our visual representations, are unavoidably influenced by that.  “Even formal and personal choices do not emerge sui generis, but instead reflect collective interests and influences, whether philosophical, political, economic, or otherwise.” (p2).

“Landscape is not the ideologically neutral subject many imagine it to be. Rather, it is an historical artifact that can be viewed as a record of the material facts of our social reality and what we have chosen to make of them.” (p11)

Ref.

Bright, D. (1985) Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men: An Inquiry Into the Cultural Meanings of Landscape Photography.  Available at: http://www.deborahbright.net/PDF/Bright-Marlboro.pdf (Accessed 4 March 2019)

 

 

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