The American Landscape

I already mentioned an exhibit of contemporary photography, at the Wadsworth Atheneum. But it actually has three landscape art exhibits currently on display: American Splendor, a fine collection of Hudson River School paintings; Eloquent Vistas, a traveling show from the Geogre Eastman House with about 80 photographs from the 19th century; and Shifting Terrain, a collection of contemporary landscape photographs.

As we walked into the gallery with the Bierstadt, Church, and Kensett paintings, Lisa took a deep breath and said, “It’s not real, but that’s okay.” She dislikes that the subjects are not true to life, though they want to be considered as actual views of the landscape; and I suspect she finds them pretty melodramatic, too. I noticed for the first time that the diffuse quality of light shares much with the way high altitude blue light affected orthochromatic film, giving the late afternoon light a gauzy glow. Nor had I ever seen some of them quite so similar to Currier & Ives prints of Americana. Of course, I had noted the morality play aspects — consider Thomas Cole — and the paintings’ links to empire, especially Church’s South American canvases and Bierstadt’s manifest destiny works. And I had read about them as transcendentalist masterworks and reactions to European landscapes, which are suffused with history and the presence of people.

But it wasn’t until Sunday that I started thinking (in the context of American painting) about how photography over the 100+ years since the Hudson River School has at first bolstered and later challenged that notion of the American landscape as ahistorical, timeless, permanent — even edenic. In the Eastman photos, Americans are presented as the first to make an imprint on the West. In tourism photos and survey plates, small figures, survey camps, and new railroads in the vast landscape show that while we may be newcomers, it’s ours. This is Leo Marx’s machine in the garden. By the time that Muybridge and Watkins were making their western photos not long afterward, our claims were secure, the frontier had closed, and humans disappeared from the frame. Viewing these images is an act of empire, too: “Let’s see our land. Let’s visit in our minds a place with us in it as we want it to be.”

The contemporary images show us what we’ve finally come to own and what it cost. But, as always, there are reactionary and romantic images made today that still suggest we yearn for the spirit — and the lies — present in the Hudson School paintings.

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