The Photographer and the American Landscape

The Photographer and the American Landscape

The Photographer and the American Landscape

The Photographer and the American Landscape


After the Civil War, Americans turned again to the exploration of their continent, especially of the exciting and littleknown West. One of the tools of their exploration was photography, which was still new.

The photographer-as-explorer was a new kind of picture maker: part scientist, part reporter, and part artist. He was challenged by a wild and incredible landscape, inaccessible to the anthropocentric tradition of landscape painting, and by a difficult and refractory craft. He was protected from academic theories and artistic postures by his isolation, and by the difficulty of his labors. Simultaneously exploring a new subject and a new medium, he made new pictures, which were objective, non-anecdotal, and radically photographic.

This work was the beginning of a continuing, inventive, indigenous tradition, a tradition motivated by the desire to explore and understand the natural site.

The nineteenth century believed -- as perhaps at bottom we still believe -- that the photograph did not lie. The photographers themselves, struggling to overcome the inherent distortions of their medium, knew that the claim, strictly speaking, was false; yet, with skill and patience and some luck the camera could be made to tell the truth, a kind of truth that seemed -- rightly or not -- to transcend personal opinion.

What was new in the work of the frontier photographers grew in part from this faith that what a good photograph said was true, and that what was true was both relevant and interesting. It is difficult to imagine a painter of the period being satisfied with a picture quite so starkly simple in concept and image as Timothy O'Sullivan Soda Lake. But we are convinced that this is the way the place was. Sharing O'Sullivan faith in the magic of the camera, we find the picture's emptiness eloquent; this minimal image hints of a new sense of scale between man and the earth. Mark Twain had crossed the same country six years earlier, in 1861, and he saw a similar picture: ". . . there is not a sound -- not a sigh -- not a whisper -- not a buzz, or a whir of wings, or a distant pipe of bird -- not even a sob from the lost souls that doubtless people that dead air."

Of the half-dozen photographers who worked with the . . .

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