Friday, July 30, 2010

Thinking about the Altered Landscape

Patricia Nelson Limerick’s essay in NMA’s 1999 book The Altered Landscape considers the meaning of the word ‘altered’ as it is used to describe the work of the ‘New Topographics’ artists and their followers. Limerick is an accomplished writer and historian who deals with issues of the American West. About ‘altered’ she writes:

“This flexible and hardworking word supplies three rich meanings for the price of one. After two hundred years of American colonization, the West has indeed been altered, in the sense of changed, made different, modified. In cheerful and positive terms, it has been reshaped and resewn in order to make a better fit for the needs and habits of the humans who have colonized it. And in the glummest of terms, the West has been castrated, neutered, and robbed of its power.”

Limerick looks at the validity of all three definitions and leaves the answers to the viewer. She asks, “Can one celebrate and admire these photographers and still find much of their work irritating? You bet! A photograph can attract and still scrape and scratch at the viewer’s mind.” She points out that this work can irritate us because it doesn’t come with packaged answers. We have to figure it out ourselves – ultimately a satisfying task! And she believes that whatever the passion and convictions a photographer may have, “taking a photograph requires the photographer to calm down, think, plan, and hold still – a discipline, regrettably, forced on few other professions.”

She talks about walls of buildings – “the most easily recognized lines between the human sphere and the natural sphere” – and how the different photographers consider them. She talks about light: “And light, artificial light, just as much as natural light, is a wonder and a miracle, as a number of these photographs remind us. Over the last century, night has been transformed; starlight and moonlight may hold onto a magic that a light bulb will not match, but starlight and moonlight nonetheless dim when they compete with the radiance of electrical light. Lewis Baltz’s photograph of a construction site at night returns us to the familiar slippage of the border between inside and outside and suggests that anything may happen in this luminous place; a prophet might come upon a vision; hope might get a new life; a new life might be conceived and born. Of course, it is a construction site; of course it is an artifact of the despoliation of a more-or-less intact Western landscape; of course it is an imposition of sovereign, arrogant human will on the earth. The house is also quite a beautiful arrangement of line and light.”

“ The West has been altered, adapted to a better fit with human activity, and one element of that adaptation is that the nights are a lot brighter. It is a great deal easier after sunset to read, write, cook, sew, and look at one another than it was a century ago, to spend the evening watching TV or using a computer. Dams, coal-fired plants, and nuclear power plants made this possible. And now some people tap into these omnipresent power lines, turn on their computers, and write impassioned denunciations of the injuries inflicted on the West by the production of cheap electrical power.” But as a counterpoint to that she points out that, “All the exercises of power recorded in these photographs, exercises in earth-moving, dam building, house-constructing, road making, and power distributing have trashed landscapes that someone loved.”

Limerick feels that whether or not we are religious, we do subscribe to the story of the loss of Eden; as if we, through our relentless development, have lots our chance to live in Paradise. “By altering the Western landscape, by neutering it and stripping it of its power, we arranged for our departure from Eden. Americans themselves barred their own way back to Eden, and barred it not with a dramatic flaming sword, but with the sheer prosaic passage of time and the even more prosaic development of business and real estate. We locked the door back to Eden – not with swords, cherubim, and many-headed beasts, but with subdivisions, parking lots, commercial shopping strips, dams, highway interchanges and power lines.”

She speaks of some of the Altered Landscape photographs that depict places where nature truly has been savaged by development. And yet she reminds us that Nineteenth-Century America, with its civil wars, slavery, mistreatment of Native Americans and widespread poverty was not a paradise. “The great consolation of the historian’s life comes in the dozens of reminders that the past holds no golden age. Life today is a mess. Fortunately, life in the past was also a mess...Let me put this gently; those who see in the desecration of Western nature a ratification of the legend of the Fall, those who think that we are now living in desperate and declined times, would find some relief for their terrible sense of loss if they put down the newspaper and read a little history.”

Limerick speaks of two Wests: “ the out-of-doors, wide-open-spaced, dirt-dominated rural West, and the enclosed-spaced, walled-off, indoors, asphalt-covered urban West.” They are “trying, not very successfully, to work out a virtually agreeable zoning code. The loudest voices from the rural West ask for the freedom to make a living from the land; they demand their right to continue to practice ‘traditional’ land uses that are, in fact, barely a century old. The most audible requests from the city, meanwhile, ask for the rural West to be defined primarily as a place for urbanites to drive, hike, ski, ride mountain bikes, camp, romp, stay in bed-and-breakfasts, admire views, and recover from the pressures of life in the city. She points out that so many in the cities never consider where their food comes from, where their lumber comes from, or how it is that heat and light appear in their homes. “There is a chance that these fine-tuned urbanites would starve, or freeze, or spend their evenings in the dark if they succeeded in imposing their standards on rural America.”

Lastly, Limerick writes about aerial photography which shows “the surface of the planet as a canvas marked by geological and biological forces and by acts of the human will. Viewed from the vantage point of the sky, the transformation of the world by patterns of electric light at night leaves one stunned and speechless. Viewed from above, roads become hieroglyphics carved into the earth. In their arbitrariness and cryptic logic the roads become riddles in dirt.”

“The photographs in the Altered Landscape collection permit us to respond to ourselves, and to the messages we have marked into the earth. The photographers themselves do not pose a detached and omniscient group of observers. They admit, instead, to being part of the species that does both the looking and the marking.”

--Kathleen Durham