Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Marks on the Land: An Exhibition of The Altered Landscape, the Carol Franc Buck Collection Tour Blueprint

December 16, 2007-May 4, 2008


Edward Burtynksy, Nickel Tailings #36, Sudbury, Ontario (1996)

This survey of The Altered Landscape, the Carol Franc Buck Collection consists of fourteen photographic prints depicting different kinds of human marks on the land. From the impermanent conceptual marks made by Jim Sanborn in his landscape-scale light projections, to the far more insidious and permanent scars on the land made by mining operations depicted in Terry Evans’ and Edward Burtynsky’s photographs, each of the eight artists in this survey grapples with ideas about how and why people make land-marks—and what effects the marks have on our perception, understanding, and relationship to the land.

The exhibition lends itself to discussions of landscape history (à la Jennifer Bethke’s recent Museum School class), how people treat different kinds of landscapes, and how we learn to understand landscapes and identify ourselves in relation to them.

This exhibition is presented as part of the NMA Art + Environment exhibition series, an initiative that brings community, artists, and scholars together to explore the interaction between people and their environments

The Altered Landscape, the Carol Franc Buck Collection

As you know, The Altered Landscape Collection is the largest collection within the museum—numbering more than 600 pieces—and is made up almost exclusively of contemporary photography, beginning with The New Topographics, and more contemporary work that has grown out of that movement. Historically important twentieth-century photography—that of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, in particular—has been added to the collection to contextualize the work within the collection, as well as within the history of twentieth-century photography in general.

If the NMA is known nationally for its collections, it is known for The Altered Landscape Collection specifically. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the museum began acquiring photography for a new signature focus collection. The museum’s motivation was to gather landscape works that would address audiences across cultural boundaries and, over time, to position the Museum as a unique visual and intellectual resource. The NMA sought to highlight environmental issues, already emphasized in other areas of the Museum’s collection, and provide a forum for the study and appreciation of land, environment, and environmental thought in art. The NMA’s goal was to recognize the tremendous contribution that photographers have made to our understanding of place and environment, while building its collection in a new direction.

The Altered Landscape is, at its core, about the American west, especially the Great Basin. As the eastern landscapes depicted by the Hudson River School painters gradually disappeared through conversion to human settlement, the west assumed a greater role as the representative of the idea of “wilderness.” For generations, photographers such as William Henry Jackson, Timothy O’Sullivan, Carleton E. Watkins, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Ansel Adams, and Eliot Porter played a leading role in how the landscape was perceived. Their imagery projected and reinforced a romanticized view of the environment in which landscape is an expression of a beautiful and sublime ‘nature.’

By the mid-1970s, however, a small group of photographers, including Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Bernd and Hilla Becher, and Frank Gohlke began to challenge this traditional view. In the influential exhibition at George Eastman House in 1975 titled “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape,” these photographers focused on contemporary industrial culture—land transformed by human presence. Collectively, they rejected the approach of viewing landscape as beauty, for the “sake of art,” isolated from the context of culture. For the New Topographics photographers, as they came to be known, landscape photography needed to reveal a new artistic viewpoint in response to the specific content of the images. For them, and those that followed, landscape photography needed to challenge traditional notions about land and landscape, beauty, and the nature and purposes of photography. It is in this context that we find the newest exhibition of works from this collection.

The current exhibition’s images depict landscapes in the American West and elsewhere that have been marked in some way—physically, conceptually, artistically, irrevocably— documented by photographers such as Richard Misrach and Terry Evans. The critical edge to some of the works in the exhibition is very clear: Robert Dawson and Edward Burtynsky subtly characterize marks on the land caused by dams and mining operations, for example. Others, such as Jim Sanborn and John Pfahl, photograph other kinds of marks: impermanent light projections of which the only record is the photograph, and more physical, yet still temporary, marks made on the land in the conceptual photographs of John Pfahl.


You’ll find the exhibition hung in the Altered Landscape Gallery. The east and north walls feature photographs of much more physical marks on the land: Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of nickel tailings in the surface water in Ontario, Canada, for example. On the south and west walls are photographs of marks that are more conceptual in nature: John Pfahl’s photographs of temporary but still physical lines on the side of a shed, images of Christo’s monumentally-sized landscape installations, or Jim Sanborn’s photos of light projections on geologic formations in the west.


Silver Gelatin print
Photograph on paper or plasticized paper coated with an emulsion of light-sensitive silver salts suspended in gelatin, printed out or developed out, and fixed. Came into general use in the 1880s; the developed variety remains the standard black-and-white photographic process.

Dye Transfer print (e.g. Polaroid).
Self-developing color photograph. The complex process, first described by Edwin Land in 1947, has been popular among amateurs and artists since the early 1960s.

Chromogenic print (also chromogenic dye coupler or C-Type print)
The most common type of color photograph, printed from a chromogenic color negative; consists of dyes within gelatin layers on a plastic-coated paper base. Subject to fading and color shifts in dark storage and on exhibition. Developed in the 1940s as an outgrowth of chromogenic color transparencies (Kodachrome, invented in 1935). Used by amateurs and artists alike. (Also called "C-print" or referred to by various brand names.)

Tour Framework

  • Explain that the Altered Landscape, Carol Franc Buck Collection is the largest collection in the NMA permanent collection, and that it contains almost 700 photographs that depict landscapes changed at the hands of humans, primarily from the second half of the twentieth century forward.
  • Ask guests what they see in Robert Dawson’s photograph “Spillway, Lake Berryessa, California.”
  • Explain that Robert Dawson is a San Francisco-based photographer whose work deals primarily with altered landscapes of the west. This photograph depicts a dam on the Putah Creek in Solano/Napa Counties in California.
  • Ask guests what kind of message(s) Dawson’s photograph conveys about the spillway.
  • Invite guests to look at James Turrell’s photograph “Roden Crater Low Aerial Oblique Looking Toward N.E.”
  • Ask guests what they think they are seeing in the photograph. Does anyone know where the Roden Crater is located, or why it exists?
  • Explain that Roden Crater is a volcanic crater located at the edge of the Painted Desert near Flagstaff, Arizona. James Turrell is primarily a sculptor and installation artist, who has a mining claim on the Roden Crater. He has spent more than twenty years opening caverns in the interior of the crater, creating an open air observatory for viewing stars without the aid of a telescope.
  • Ask guests to compare the Turrell image and the Dawson image. What are the differences between the human-made marks on the land in the images?
  • Explain that Richard Misrach’s photograph “Battleground Point #21” is an image of a part of the Carson Sink, northeast of Fallon, Nevada.
Richard Misrach, Battleground Point #21, 1999.
  • Ask guests to consider Terry Evans’ photograph before they look at or learn its title. What do guests think they are seeing in the image?
  • Explain that the image depicts a gravel pit north of Kanopolis, Kansas. In her artwork, Terry Evans has photographed sites all over the Midwest, particularly in and around Chicago.
  • Ask guests what kinds of things the artist might be choosing to emphasize by taking an aerial photograph of a landscape instead of a “traditional” landscape photograph?
  • Ask guests to consider Edward Burtynsky’s photographs before their perceptions are directed by the wall labels and the works’ titles. What do the images appear to be of? Do they look anything like, say, the Yellowstone National Park mud springs or something similar?
  • Explain that the images are Burtynsky’s depictions of the effects on the landscape of dangerous nickel tailings near Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. The tailings have polluted both the ground and surface water of this area near Lake Huron in the Great Lakes region.
  • Ask guests to compare the marks on the land in Evans’ and Burtynsky’s photographs. In what ways are they similar? In what ways are they different?
  • Ask guests if they thought of the photographs as beautiful initially. Why? Does the information about the subject of the photographs affect their beauty? Why or why not?
  • Ask guests to consider how the photographs by Burtynsky, Evans, Dawson, Turrell, and Misrach are different from the photographs of Sanborn, Pfahl, and Volz. How are the marks made on the land different between and among them?
  • Explain that one of the ways the marks are different has to do with documenting the relationships people have to land. For example, Burtynsky and Dawson document mining and hydroelectric marks made on the land, whereas Pfahl, Sanborn, and Volz document temporary or ephemeral marks made for a very different artistic purpose. Why? What are the artistic purposes or intents of the different photographs?
  • Ask guests to look carefully at the grid of John Pfahl photographs on the west wall of the gallery. What does Pfahl focus the viewers’ attention upon in the image? How can you tell? Why would he choose this as a subject?

Pfahl explains the images this way: “The added elements suggest numerous mark-making devices associated with photographs, maps, plans an diagrams. On different occasions, they may pointedly repeat a strong formal element in the landscape…; they may fill in information suggested by the scen….; they may depend upon information external to the photograph itself…; or, finally, they may be only arbitrarily related to the scene….”

  • Explain to guests that Pfahl photographs scenes in which he, the artist, has inserted temporary visual aids to create his photographs: string, tape, or wire, for example, that heighten the visual characteristics of the photographs.
  • Explain that Jim Sanborn is a sculptor and photographer who is very interested in conceptual understanding in art, as well as physics, light, and landscape.

Sanborn explains: “My original intention was to recreate in some way the work of the nineteenth-century cartographers and photographers who were hired to map and photograph the monumental western landscape.[…] Dennis Oppenheim, Robert Smithson, James Turrell, and other artists were doing large-scale installations in the natural environment. Those projects affected the land tremendously, and not always with a pleasing effect on the environment. Bulldozers were brought onto the land, and the land itself was manipulated. I decided to counteract that in some way and still do very large outdoor installations. I had completed several in the early 1970s in which I placed objects in the environment, and the end result was photographs of the outdoor installations.

  • Explain that Sanborn built his own large-scale projectors to project light onto geologic landforms. He then photographed the projections, leaving no trace of the large-scale artwork that he had created; the only record of the work is the photograph.
  • Ask guests to consider the Wolgang Volz photographs of Christo and Jean-Claude’s “Running Fence” and “Valley Curtain” projects. In what ways are these photographs different from others in the exhibition? What kinds of marks on the land do the photographs document?
  • Ask guests to consider the multi-layering of artistic decisions in the photographs. Not only does the photographer-as-artist decide how to frame and compose his image of the subject, but Christo and Jean-Claude have also made artistic decisions regarding the placement and purpose of their installation of cloth and anchors in the landscape.


Art facilitates learning by engaging the senses, bypassing conditioned patterns of thinking and allowing other ways of knowing to come forward, sometimes subtly, and sometimes forcefully. All of the photographers in this exhibition engage our senses—but for very different reasons and purposes. Whether the works focus on natural, cultural, or political aspects of the environment, artists have always been sensitive to environments and responsive to our relationship to environments.