Back West: Reviewing American Landscape Photography

Article excerpt

"The West to me is where the landscape is," Lee Friedlander writes in his new book of landscape photographs of the Sonora, The Desert Seen.(1) The sentiment is so characteristically American that it is difficult not to take it ironically, coming from this sophisticated street photographer, master of multiple-perspective compositions and found collage. Once he had the impulse to make landscape images, Friedlander implies, the desert seemed the"natural" place to turn. Yet, in the brief personal essay that concludes his book, Friedlander states that the Sonora is, for him, among America's least welcoming landscapes. It is "a pincushion with pins on the outside," a place so bright it makes his eyes sore as if they were stuck full of cactus needles. The photographs he made there over a 10-year period convey this inhospitality to viewers. Glaringly bright and seemingly uncomposed, they aspire to get us lost too, among the phallic saguaro and deciduous trees.

While Friedlander sets out to explain how in mid-life he came to photograph these landscapes, he spends more time in this essay recalling the lush Pacific Northwest of his childhood than explaining what took him to the Southwest - "the place most foreign to me, the opposite of my home Olympics, opposite in every way." He might as well say Olympus, or just plain Eden, when describing his native Washington state. Although he has not lived there for years - years during which his camera focused on what he considers the inherently dislocating subject of cities - it is clearly the landscape by which he still sets his compass.

Finding a second home, a landscape for adulthood, in this country where relocation is almost a given, is in many ways the subject of The Desert Seen. The book begins with an epigraph from Jamaica Kincaid's Autobiography of My Mother (1996), a sentence of Proustian length and musicality, printed large to fill a page. It is the only introduction the unruly photographs receive, and it was obviously chosen with care. With typical aplomb, Friedlander turns to a writer whose recurrent subject is gardens to introduce these pictures of a garden turned inside out, all chaos and thorns. Kincaid writes of the imaginative bonds that tie people to places, the places they are from and the places they may later choose to be from:

A human being, a person, many people, a people, will say that their surroundings, their physical surroundings, form their consciousness, their very being; they will get up every morning and look at green hills, white cliffs, silver mountains, fields of golden grain, rivers of blue-glinting water, and in the beauty of this - and it is beautiful, they cannot help but find it beautiful - they invisibly, magically, conquer the distance that is between them and the beauty they are beholding, and they feel themselves become one with it, they draw strength from it, they are inspired by it to sing songs, to write verse; they invent themselves and reinvent themselves . . .

Precariously, the passage works itself up to the conviction it has been trying to adopt: "you and the place you are from are not a chance encounter; it is something beyond destiny, it is something so meant to be that it is beyond words."(2)

These are curious words to introduce a volume of pictures of a place where the artist emphatically does not feel at home, but to which he is drawn nonetheless. The brilliance of Kincaid's sentence lies not just in the compelling beauty of the sentiment it hits like a crescendo, but also in the seed of doubt it holds - the awareness that, no matter how vital it is for people to feel connected to a landscape, this is a connection they build in the imagination, with songs, poems and pictures, a connection they build unconsciously, inevitably. How else could people feel tied to all manner of landscapes? The sense of place, of home, she gently suggests, may be the ultimate "pathetic fallacy" necessary for people to "conquer the distance that is between them and the beauty they are beholding," to prove the land responds to our need to belong to it. …