Notes On Landscape
Beauty, Personal Views, Political News

by Rebecca Palmer

Rebecca Palmer, Wandering Branch, silver print, 18"x12", 1997.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti became the official poet laureate of San Francisco in the fall of l998, He now writes a column called Poetry as News for the San Francisco Chronicle. In his first article, Ferlinghetti discussed his longtime complaint that poetry is not printed in newspapers a paper such as the New York Times does not think of poetry as news. Ferlinghetti disagreed with this opinion. He wrote just as architecture reveals the soul of a civilization, poetry gives us news of the soul, news of the passions, news of living and loving and dying. He stated that poetry is always relevant to its times and always has been.

Poem 33, published in Ferlinghettis most recent book A Far Rockaway of the Heart, expresses his personal experience of a glimpsed landscape:

How the light
lay on the leaves
How the light
glinted through them
How the leaves themselves
were light
How all creatures there
were light
were made of light
the warp of light
upon them
In the dawn of the world that year
And they
pulsed with it
with light of earth
as if they
always would be
full of light
made of light
Among the sere and yellow leaves
In the autumn of that year

This poem expresses what I wish to convey visually in many images from my recent series Spring Leaves. I find myself most interested in using the natural world as metaphor, as a way to express my own news of heart and mind. As a photographer, light is my medium and I use the quality of light to bring insight to an emotional truth.

Numerous images in Spring Leaves convey my sense of joy and hope. Glimpses of harmonious beauty can heal and uplift a viewers spirit. However, many of these photographs are not calm or joyful, but rather active and complex twisted shapes of black trunks and branches can suggest a possibility of dynamic movement or evoke a sense of unease. The more active images can also convey an emotional truth, and this kind of honesty is beautiful.

The images for this series were made in places near my home, those yards and gardens of friends and neighbors. The variety of shapes of leaves and branches fascinate me. Infrared film, which is sensitive to a nonvisible as well as to a visible spectrum of light, gives the leaves a more fragile look and thus by implication more vulnerability than my human eye would see.

Most of my photographs have their source in the landscape; that is, in the natural world. Stepping into a landscape can be as simple as stepping outside. Perhaps a tree grows next to a building, or grass and weeds thrust up beside a sidewalk. Weather affects this growth, rain nourishes it. A landscape can be an entire watershed area, a mountain range, or a park; it can also be a smaller part of the big picture such as a tree, a leaf, a shell or a bone. Landscape does not exclude animals or people.

Observing the landscape makes me aware of flux and change. Nature is not in a fixed, immobile state. I continue to discover and rediscover in nature possibilities for growth. If there is a potential for growth and change, then the story or view could continue. Since infrared film has a grainy texture, an enlarged image begins to dissolve. This suggests impermanence to me and suits the transitory, ambiguous aspects of nature.

I worked to make beautiful prints of the images in the Spring Leaves series. The beauty and craft of printing can serve a function; that is, to draw us to the image and call attention to the importance of the metaphor. The clarity of a beautiful finished print seems to be a type of resolution, as if the care and attention to its final polish represents and underscores the importance of the image.

Ferlinghettis poems encompass a wide range. He has drawn inspiration from scenes of natural beauty; in addition, a great number of his poems result from sharp observation of social and political issues: he has written compassionately of homeless people; he has written angrily and sarcastically about the ugliness of pollution and what he sees as the indifference of corporations which caused the pollution. I asked myself if his social concerns would help me address questions about the social role of my own work.

Before I began serious study of art, I worked on environmental issues for several years. I have always felt that my environmental interests have informed and shaped my approach to my work.

An obvious aspect of the natural world is its disappearance. Landscapes that I routinely saw twenty-five years ago in the Santa Clara Valley have disappeared. The enormous growth of industry and population in Silicon Valley means that baylands, orchards, farmlands and hillsides have been paved over and built upon. Beyond my immediate home grounds, extensive residential and commercial development has taken place in the Sierra foothills and such previously isolated mountain areas as the Lake Tahoe basin. (For instance, Interstate 80 had not been built over Donner Summit when I first came to this area). Further away, worldwide economic demands for products have led to environmental problems; the degrading clear cutting being done in the Headwaters Forest area in Humboldt County is one of countless examples.

Many contemporary photographers have worked to document and describe specific problems of environmental degradation. Its possible that images of a shocking mess, such as caused by clear cutting, could inspire action to remedy the mess. A recent show of photographs at the Koch Gallery in San Francisco by Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky included images depicting nickel mining tailings in Eastern Canada. The large scale colored prints showed eerie orange rivers of the toxic mining wastes winding through blackened expanses of fields. Burtynskys images were a hellish vision as well as a graphic description of a specific problem.

A large question for me is: what is the relevance of a hopeful, joyful image of a landscape to any current environmental and social problem? Would an uneasy image have more relevance to these problems?

When a problem is described, the description can also imply a wish for a solution. If my contemplative images do not depict specific problems, they may relate to solutions. Can a beautiful photographic image have any share of a social and political dialogue that would lead towards solutions? Similarly, would a beautiful poem or a beautiful song have a share in such a dialogue?

What does thinking about solutions consist of? The approach to a specific environmental solution, such as preserving a watershed area in Northern California might be informed by a design system such as Permaculture* which proposes a sustainable human culture. Permaculture represents a paradigm shift in thinking and posits the hope of abundance and flourishing life. The Permaculture life ethic is based on biodiversity and states the intrinsic worth of every living being because it is doing its part in nature. It also assumes a harmony with nature rather than a superiority over nature. Permaculture combines a contemporary scientific approach with a deeply humanistic vision. I can support this thinking and I see my images as relevant to such a vision.

In words, I explore what part of a visual image is personal and what part is political. I believe an emotional connection to the landscape is an important part of the answer to political problems. I care about the natural world and feel a connection to it. My personal concern is also a political stance. Why would anyone begin to take political action in favor of the landscape and natural world if they did not care about it?

In another recent poem, Uses of Poetry, Ferlinghetti questions the use of poetry and suggests that in a world of problems such as violence against nature and people

...poetry is made important by its absence
the absence of birds in a summer landscape
the lack of love in a bed a midnight
or lack of light at high noon in high places

My various series of photographs have been a personal arena where I contemplate and explore the wonder and variety of the natural world. I hope that visual art and poetry that speak of the soul, of passion, of living and loving and dying will be see as a relevant part of public life. After all, Ferlinghettis description of poetry is also a description of what it means to be human. "

* For further information on Permaculture, contact the Sonoma County organization, Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, Occidental, California.

Rebecca Palmer is a photographer and writer with an MFA from San José State University.

Artists in Relation to the Landscape

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