On a Grand Scale: Landscape Photography

by Teresa Hauge Giovanzana

John Pfahl, Toxic Waste Reclamation, Niagara Falls, NY, 1996. Courtesy NMS.


Since photographys inception in 1839, photographers have turned to the land to make images.

Much of the early experimentation with this new medium was an attempt to imitate the then current style of painting: romanticism. The romantic movement embodied an ideological attitude which held the individual important, whether it be his or her inward nature or role in the outside world. But the movement also gave credence to something greater than ourselves: a supreme being which was often represented in art through the landscape. Prior to this artistic period, the landscape was primarily relegated to background material. With this movement, artists could explore a wider range of subject matter including nature for inspiration. The landscape had finally earned its rightful place in the art world as it had been held all along in the human heart and spirit.1

With these new ideas, photographers took their cameras out into the world where they believed that photography would perform a dual function. The photographer could record the subject both accurately and artistically while avoiding the inherent distortions introduced by the traditional means of illustration by hand.

In these early years, demand for photographers of natural phenomena primarily came from the sciences where they needed studies of previously undocumented specimens and locations. Due to photography, scientific knowledge of the natural world greatly increased. Images published in periodicals of far away places, historical sites, and natural wonders were exotic and fascinating, and began to gain appreciation by the general public. But it wasnt until the U.S. Government-sponsored western expeditions that photographers gained a viable means for their profession in landscape photography. 2

In the years 1867 and 1871, the government sponsored four expeditions, referred to as the Great Surveys, covering territory from Nebraska to the Northwest Territories and the canyons of the Colorado River. The mission was to obtain a comprehensive geologic and natural history record, to assess mineral resources, create topographic maps, locate future civilian settlements, collect samples of plants, animals, and fossils, and take portraits of Native Americans. Not only were geologists, zoologists, botanists, paleontologists, mining engineers, and topographers included as necessary professionals, but also illustrators and photographers who played a vital role in the success of the expeditions.3 Over this period, several pioneer photographers created notable bodies of work, such as T.H. OSullivan and W.J. Jackson.

Although the nature of the missions was scientific, the expedition leaders gave the photographers artistic freedom. Timothy OSullivan in particular possessed a great understanding of geology. His photographs captured the technical details with great accuracy, but surpassed scientific documentation with their esthetic quality. OSullivans images are sublime works of art which capture the lands vastness and silence with great sensitivity for composition and lighting. The beauty and timelessness of his work are more revered today than by his contemporaries.

William Henry Jackson was employed for eight years by various surveys. He was fortunate to accompany expeditions to the Uintas Mountains, the Grand Canyon, and the Yellowstone River. Jackson worked closely with two of the illustrators, and their combined expertise shaped the surveys pictorial expectations.4 He and Thomas Moran often scouted sites together and discussed art, helping Jackson refine his vision for his own work.

W. H. Jackson, Teton Range & Jackson Lake, Lincoln County, Wyoming, 1872. Courtesy USGS.

Aside from the Civil War, 5 the surveys were the first efforts by the government to utilize photography on a grand scale to accomplish an important mission. The usage of photography during the surveys was pivotal for the sciences, social studies, American history, as well as photography, and continue to affect our society today. Through these images, we catch our first glimpses of Native Americans and the land as it was in the 19th century. In their own time, the photographers provided documentation on land issues which aided Congress in passing homestead, farming, and irrigation regulations, as well as fostered the creation of our National Parks.

Sixty years passed before another major government sponsored photographic mission would be assigned. During the 1930s, the country was faced with a great economic and social catastrophe: the Great Depression. Under Roosevelts New Deal program, the federal government wanted to provide farm-aid, resettlement loans to farmers, and work programs for the urban unemployed. To justify federal expenditures for these relief projects, the federal government sponsored a massive photographic project to document the calamities people were suffering.

More specifically, farmers in the southern plains were plagued with an agricultural disaster. Starting in 1931, a ten-year drought wrenched the lives of farmers: crops withered and died, animals starved and disease spread. Farmers and their families were destitute, and many farms were abandoned (pg. 18) At the turn of the century this region experienced an influx of farmers who had heard that the plains were &lush with shrubs, grasses, and soil so rich it looked like chocolate.6 The farmers enjoyed great harvests and quickly tilled every inch of the plains into profit. In doing so, they over-plowed and used farming practices which proved detrimental to the land. What these farmers didnt know was that the plains notoriously experience severe cyclical droughts. Once the drought had started and the winds began, immense dust storms carried millions of tons of dirt across the plains. Topsoil that had taken a thousand years per inch to build suddenly blew away in only minutes.7

In 1935, the Farms Security Administration (FSA) appointed economist Roy Stryker as director of the photographic project. Stryker hired eleven documentary photographers and sent them on assignments across the U.S. He gave them specific direction but also gave them artistic freedom. Quickly, the photographers began to send their film to Washington DC for processing and printing. The results were overwhelming. Relief expenditures were released immediately.

In 1936, the Dust Bowl farmers saw their first federal aid. An agricultural expert named Hugh Bennett was sent out from Washington DC. Bennett had persuaded Congress to approve a program that would pay farmers to use new farming techniques. Bennetts program paid out one dollar per acre to farmers employing planting and plowing methods aimed at conserving the soil. For some farmers this was their only income. By 1937, the soil conservation campaign was in full swing. By the next year the soil loss had been reduced by 65%.8

In all, a remarkable 270,000 photographs were printed from the large body of images taken. The majority of the images are heart wrenching and utterly captivating to view. Many are true works of art. As stated in A World History of Photography, Ultimately, the project demonstrated that the New Deal recognized the powerful role that photographs played in creating a visual analogue of the humanistic social outlook voiced in the novels, dramas, and folk music of the period.9

Another forty years passed until government-sponsored documentary photography experienced a brief revival in the 1970s. The idea of a bicentennial photography project was proposed and approved by Congress, although funding for it was never authorized. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) decided to embrace the project on its own. The NEA took inspiration from the FSA photographic project, as well as from a past NEA-supported photographic survey of Kansas, and created a grant category called Photography Surveys.10 As stated in the Endowments 1977 Annual Report, the goals for the program were: to encourage and assist in the creation of state and regional photography surveys; to bring the resulting bodies of work before the public in the form of exhibitions and/or publications; preserve resulting visual records in appropriate institutions; commission photographers to document aspects of contemporary life and culture; reveal, through existing photographs, aspects of the history; and combine newly commissioned, contemporary and historical photographs in one project.

The NEA awarded seventy photographic projects to either individuals or groups from 1976 until 1981 when the category was canceled due to budgetary cuts. Although the creation of the category took inspiration from the FSA project, the NEA did not want another comprehensive and objective photographic record. They wanted to see the subjective and artistic visions of place or history from the photographers.11 Many of these projects have been exhibited and published.

One of these surveys that has achieved lasting recognition is the Rephotographic Survey Project of Ellen Manchester, Mark Klett, and JoAnn Verburg published as Second View: The Rephotographic Survey Project, which is widely regarded as an important and ground-breaking undertaking. The Rephotographic Survey Project (RSP) was the coming together of three individuals with a common but independent goal of rephotographing selected sites from the Great Surveys of the nineteenth century. The RSP team was curious about how the land had changed in the past 100 years and wanted to retrace the footsteps of the pioneer photographers.

One rewarding achievement of the RSP was the very successful collaboration of a number of talented individuals. During the 1970s, as Manchester told me, documentary photographers possessed a myth about them as the lone man or woman out in the world with their camera. This project was unique in that it brought photographers to work together who, in turn, collaborated with cultural geologists, botanists, and geologists. The US Geological Survey was also involved by providing access to their photographic library and their maps. In addition, national park and forestry rangers assisted the RSP photographers in locating sites. One collaborator, geologist and amateur photographer, Harold E. Malde, wrote about the method he developed to &repeat photographs in a way that would correlate them precisely to the exacting measurements of landforms usually made with a transit.12 In this process the vantage point of the original photograph could be re-established, a critical necessity for the success of the project.

Arthur Rothstein, Oneida County, Idaho, 1936. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Between the years 1977 and 1979, the RSP rephotographed over 120 sites of 19th century vintage photographs. When viewing the photographic pairs, at first many of the images seem identical until you discover there are subtle changes. But there are other images that capture substantial change. When RSP research provides the context, the photographic pairs tell an amazing tale of transformation. For example, in one vintage photograph of Pyramid Lake (pg. 19), the entire image is water with large erect rock formations. The rephotograph shows a dramatic drop in the water level due to water diversion for urban and agricultural use combined with several years of drought. Because of the low water level, the Paiute Indians, who live on the lakes shores, can no longer make a living from fishing and birds nesting on the islands have been subject to predators. Another vintage photograph of a mine in Nevada shows a quartz mill with many buildings and roads. In the rephotograph, all evidence of the mine has disappeared and the land has returned to its natural state marked only by a small dirt road, in an ironic reversal of expected results. RSP research discovered that the mine had been disassembled and relocated, as the lack of building materials in this region made it essential to recycle. The RSP findings do not show predictable results but provide a greater understanding and appreciation for the complexities of environmental issues through landscape work of this nature.

As artists, we find ourselves at the end of an astonishing century of change. At this point it is quite natural and very fitting to reflect upon and take personal inventory of who we are, and what we have become. And here again, the NEA has managed to co-sponsor, with private foundations, another photographic and writing project called the National Millennium Survey (NMS). The NMS is the creation of James Enyeart, who is the director of the Marion Center for Photographic Arts at the College of Santa Fe. Funding for the project has been provided by the John S. Knight and the Harold and Ester Edgerton Foundations.

The goal of the NMS is to record and reveal life, culture, and spirit in the U.S. between 1998 and the end of the year 2000. This time, thirty-five photographers and fifteen writers, both recognized and emerging, have been appointed to produce photographic works, essays, poems, and narratives. The artists have been asked, when selecting a subject, to think about such aspects as ethnic diversity, family, tradition and ritual, community, immigration, consumerism, the aged, and spiritual continuity. The goal of the project is to convey our geographic, social, and cultural breadth. In the Fall of 2001, when the project comes together, there shall be a premiere exhibition at a major museum which will then tour the United States, Europe, and Asia through the year 2003. A series of books will accompany the exhibition based on selected photographs and writings, and the entire collection shall be digitally archived for future public access.

Some NMS photographers are directly dealing with the landscape for this project. But our contemporary times force us to look at the landscape with great concern at how our culture interacts with, and ultimately, affects the landscape. NMS photographers are approaching the landscape with this in mind.

(left) Timothy O'Sullivan, Rock Formations, Pyramid Lake, NV, 1867. Courtesy Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
(right) Mark Klett, Pyramid Isle, Pyramid Lake, NV, 1979. Courtesy of the Rephotographic Survey Project.

One photographer, Joan Myers, from Tesuque, New Mexico, has chosen to photograph power plants in the landscape throughout the western states (pg. 20). These power plants are fueled by uranium, oil or gas, coal, water, solar, wind, and geothermal energy. The work examines how power is generated and distributed, a phenomena which most of us pay little attention to and take for granted. The work also aspires to address the stark discrepancy between the considerable funding for extracted resources and the minimal attention given to renewable resources. The work poses the question: If we believe that the technology we depend on should be available to future millennia, how are we to obtain the necessary energy to sustain it?

Terry Evans, a Chicago-based photographer, found a small farm town called Matfield Green in her home state of Kansas. Matfield Green sits in the rolling hills of the prairies and numbers 100 residents. The majority of them are farmers and small business owners. Much of the town has been abandoned - left behind to decay and be reclaimed by undergrowth. In a conversation Evans stated, The work has a sense of great loss and abandonment to it, yet it reveals an immense resilience in the people. The work is a narrative which also speaks of ecology, history, and memory.

John Pfahl, a Buffalo, New York photographer, has always had great admiration for the mountains, which has been reflected in his landscape photography throughout his career. Pfahls NMS project is called Piles. In it he photographs piles of old refrigerators, engine blocks, used tires, etc., which he found at recycling plants. There are also piles of natural material, such as snow, and piles from quarries, such as lime. When photographing these piles, he eliminates all urban clues to give them the appearance that they are in nature. Pfahl is making a visual connection between traditional mountains and our cultures man-made landscape. He photographs the piles just as beautifully as any other natural landscape, which ironically gives a sublime feel to them. I asked Pfahl, Why did you choose to take a beautiful approach to the environmental question? He answered, I like the tension that it creates - what it means - and the equal balance between the two. Its sinister.

Joan Myers, Hoover Dam, Nevada, Western Power, 1999.
Courtesy of the National Millennium Survey, Marion Center for Photographic Arts. College Of Santa Fe.

There have been literally thousands of photographic essays on the land and our collective culture which have greatly contributed to the annals of our history. This article has only addressed government-sponsored photographic projects. The cumulative effect has made a great contribution to this country, both in appreciation and in understanding its use of resources. Moreover, photography received the support of the federal government which outwardly endorsed photography as a fine art while the art community was fervently debating the issue. The art world finally ceded photography a position as a fine art in the 1970s, 130 years after its inception.13

Regardless of sponsorship, landscape photographers still grapple with the same timeless question, Who are we that walk upon the great landmass which we call America? We may never have the answer to this question. Therefore, we shall continue to go to the land for inspiration. The land is where we are from, it is how we identify who we are, it is as instinctual as identifying with ones clan. And when we stare out into the vastness of the land, we not only see the reflection of ourselves, but something greater, something so good, that we must preserve it. "

[Authors Note: The Great Surveys and FSA photographs are in the public domain and are considered national treasures. The majority of the images reside at the Library of Congress, U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library, or the National Archives and Records Administration and may be viewed via their websites.]

1Denise Hooker, History of Western Art, Barnes & Noble Inc., 1994.
2Naomi Rosenblum, A World History of Photography, Abbeville Press Publishers, 1984.
3Mary C. Rabbitt, Minerals, Lands and Geology for the Common Defense and General Welfare, Vol. 1, before 1879, United States Geological Survey, US Government Printing Office, 1980.
4Rosenblum, A World History of Photography.
5The Civil War photographs from Mathew Brady's Studio where purchased by the government after the war. The photographic project was an independent project for Mathew Brady. Timothy O'Sullivan was one of the photographers hired by Brady.
6Surviving the Dust Bowl, The American Experience, PBS.
9Rosenblum, A World History of Photography.
10Mark Rice, Making History While Making Art: The NEA Photography Survey Projects, George Eastman House. www.arts.
12Mark Klett, Ellen Manchester, and JoAnn Vergurg, Second View: The Rephotographic Project, The University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1984.
13Mark Rice, personal correspondence.

Teresa Hauge Giovanzana is a nationally exhibiting fine art photographer and writer living in San José, California.


Artists in Relation to the Landscape

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