Prior to the later decades of the 20th century, land was property by which one could pursue and attain fortune. But with the balance of population shifting from the rural to the urban, which took place more than a century ago, the possession of land has slowly changed to become, for many, a signifier of wealth rather than a means to attain it. And the drift of American urbanites back into the countryside, a trend that began 50 years ago, further enforces the notion of change in the function of land in relation to ownership and economic class.
Through the desire to live away from cities, and the mindset that allows for the acceptance of “imperfection,” today we embrace a landscape more tangible than what Adams conjured for us in the ’50s, yet not so amorphous as what Gossage brought us just 25 years later. So it’s within this premise that I find the continued need for an expanded, social, landscape aesthetic.
While the notion of celebrating form without function is long gone, the alternate philosophy bolstering the opposite is trending out, as well (as Terrance Reimer said, “that’s so ’80s, man!”). If our purpose as photographers is to communicate, then we need to consider that while the message of pure form says virtually nothing, the text of pure function—that being content embodied within listless form—is blandly antiseptic. If we are to forward ourselves and our work, a new movement melding the characteristics of the previous two must be actively forged.
The key to forward movement lies in image making—through the creation of photographs that are based in form yet possess the potential for conceptual interpretation. And above all else, this new work must be tangible for a larger part of our populace than it has been in recent decades: as academics, appointing ourselves to be our own primary audience seems feudally nepotistic…
While the national parks tally hundreds of millions of visits each year, their repeatedly photographed facades become progressively worn and overly familiar; the prospect of discovering some new vista in these places slipped away decades ago. More important, though, is the fact that the picture postcards from our most celebrated parks represent little of the land where most of us live, work, and consider the daily questions that occupy our minds. While photos from Yosemite hold astonishing beauty, they’re marked; it’s a wonderful place but it’s the centerfold of the American landscape—nice to look at, but it can never be yours.
So landscape photography has finally moved beyond the majesty of inaccessible wilderness. We’ve expounded upon that for decades. But the broader function of this genre has always been to explore and define places where not everyone may go, to offer aesthetic visualizations of the land, its people, and even the technology of modern culture. While modernism brought drama to the land, and postmodernism showed us that the Tetons are a minuscule part of our world, neomodernism will bring us to understand that life below the snowline not only has meaning but possesses beauty, as well.
Through interpretive imagery of an accessible landscape our neighbors may finally assemble their feelings for the land about them. Because as much as any other, this art form gives us the vehicle to explore our inner selves through stilled moments of our world, providing a glimpse at the ever-evolving compromise between the places we call home and the beauty of a land we have unquestionably tainted, yet are unable to quell.