Landscape photography has long been a privileged discipline in the United States, both in amateur and professional photography circles. More common in the United States than in Europe, where it has long since fallen from favor, it is not coincidence that the very mention of landscape photography causes the names of great landscapers such as Ansel ADAMS, Minor WHITE and Brett WESTON spring to minds ; whereas street photographers, with the names of Robert DOISNEAU, Henri CARTIER-BRESSON or Willy RONIS, appear easely when you speak with a french audience. This tropism of the landscape in American photography is the anchor of an entire part of photography and finds its origin in the very roots of this nation.
As historian François BRUNET explains, landscape photography developed with the diffusion of the glass-collodion process in the United States (between 1856 and 1857), in the midst of the expansion of the country’s Western frontier. This long process of colonization had started in the beginning of the 19th century with the Louisiana purchase in 1803, and ended in 1890, with the massacre of Wounded Knee. The period was marked by various historical events: the Gold Rushes (1848-1855 and 1858-1862); the Civil War (1861-1865) and the Battle of the Little Bighorn (1876). These are all elements that, along with the figure of the Cowboy, forged the identity of the United States. The first landscape photographs of the West and the constitution of the American nation intervene simultaneously raising the question of the territory and its limits.
In addition to the conquest of the West, the United States formed a young and dynamic nation that was deeply involved in the various industrial revolutions. During this period the railroad and the telegraph allowed people to connect the most distant territories. In the wake of the railway tracks, photography captures the great American spaces. The democratic values attributed to photography by François ARAGO (1786-1853) in his 1839 defense of the daguerreotype, (see: Anne Mccauley, The Invention of Photography and Politics, 1997) found a formidable echo in the United States. This link between democracy and photography is based on the idea of an art for all and by all. The daguerreotype, and through it photography, was considered by the American thinker Ralph Waldo EMERSON (1803-1882) to be "The true republican painting", which, according to him, brings an aesthetic of everyday life and an ethic of ordinary gaze (see: François BRUNET, La naissance de l’idée de photographie, 2012). So we can observe a triple link between photography, American democracy, and the American west.
In order to understand the special of landscapes in the United States, the exhibition is organized around three major themes. Firstly, its connection with the idea of pioneers and adventure, we can observe it through the establishment of daring expeditions, exploration and exploit meet. Once the space is conquered, it becomes a matter of defending it and preserving it. Landscape photography contributes to ecological awareness and the idea of natural wonders. Finally, above the expanses of the West weighs the sky, interacting with the earth, omnipresent in landscape photography and sometimes becoming a subject.
The photographs of the West of United-States were, initially, the result of scientific expeditions. Photographic equipement was heavy and bulky, it was therefore very difficult to carry across these remote places. Many specialists took part in these expeditions: cartographers, geologists, diverse scientists and explorers. At that time, Photography was intended to record the visited places and was not considered to be an artistic medium. However, the multiple travels to the West offered impressive and unparalleled images of it, later becoming famous works of art. It is this acceptance, given by photographers such as Ansel ADAMS or curators such as Beaumont NEWHALL, that persists today. The 19th century expeditions involved significant risks, documenting these unknown lands was quite an adventure. It is a dimension we can still observe in contemporary photo projects, like that of Mitch DOBROWNER (1956-), in wich he chases storms in order to show the greatness of Nature.
Timothy O’SULLIVAN (1840-1882) was firstly known as a war photographer with photographs taken during the Civil War (1861-1865). From 1867 to 1870 he photographed for the geological survey led by the geologist Clarence KING (1842-1901), along the 40th parallel, between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. Then, from 1871 to 1873, Timothy O’SULLIVAN photographed the American territory in the west of the 100th meridian (meridian located in the center of the United States), in particular during an expedition led by explorer George WHELLER (1842-1905). These expeditions were financed by the army and cover geology, zoology and topography.
Now famous, Timothy O’SULLIVAN’s photographs were originally intended to serve as a survey and illustration of the places explored. However, the power of the subjects he photographed tip his works towards an aesthetic of the romantic landscape, where nature unfolds in all its vastness. While it is unlikely that Timothy O’SULLIVAN had seen any of Caspar David FRIEDRICH’s paintings – to which one may be tempted to compare some of his photographs – the painters of the Hudson river School and the Luminist movement were well known in the United States for their works imbued with European Romanticism. Thus, O’SULLIVAN’s pictures seem to fluctuate between two uses, and historians are still debating whether O’SULLIVAN’s aim was scientific or artistic.
Bradford WASHBURN (1910-2007) is an american photographer, explorer and mountaineer. With his wife Barbara WAHBURN (1914-2014), they explored and mapped Alaska together, especially Denali Park (formerly known as Mount McKinley Park). Not only did he open mountaineering routes and make the first ascents of several mountains in Alaska, he also photographed the breathtaking landscapes he was exploring. Fascinated by the Yukon and Alaska, Bradford WASHBURN was attracted to this new place where everything remained to be discovered. He explored this territory tirelessly between 1930 and 1955.
The photographs of Bradford WASHBURN were, like the ones of Timothy O’SULLIVAN, the small pictures taken beside much more important adventures. WASHBURN had, for example, taken enormous risks by photographing by plane in dangerous conditions. The primary purpose of his photographs was to do topography. WASHBURN is a pioneer in this field, using its large format camera in airplanes whose doors had been removed. He and his equipment were attached by ropes to avoid being sucked out of the vehicle. WASHBURN was a friend of Ansel ADAMS. Its influence can be noted and it is not by chance if the photographs of WASHBURN are more than simple tools. We can easily detect the technical mastery and the subtlety of the compositions. These photographs were discovered worldwide in 1990, when Tony DECANAES exhibited the work of a lifetime at the Panopticon Gallery in Boston.
Extremely modest, Bradford WASHBURN considered his work in science education to be the most exciting: "The top of Mount McKinley was thrilling [...] but there’s nothing on earth more exciting than the eyes of a youngster at the instant of discovery."
Mitch DOBROWNER (1956-) is a contemporary photographer, he has received several important awards for his landscapes where nature occupies a prominent place. Mitch DOBROWNER travels the United States in search of landscapes and tornadoes. The images are so impressive that in 2012, before the publication of the photos by the magazine National Geographic, the publisher asked him to see the original files. Still, not the least photomontage. Mitch DOBROWNER braves the elements to make these great photographs. Each expedition is prepared, and he never goes alone. He travels between 10 and 15 days, about 3 or 4 times a year, awaiting climatic phenomena.
Initiated by famous Storm Hunter Roger HILL, Mitch DOBROWNER is passionate about the visual and scientific aspects of tornadoes, storm super cells and other titanic clouds. "They [the storms] take on so many different aspects, personalities and faces; I’m in awe while watching them. These storms are amazing sights to witness and I’m just happy to be there, shot or no shot" said DOBROWNER.
The importance he gives to the whole process needed to make a photo is just like an adventure for him: "The whole journey of the print is what fascinates me. I’m thinking of going someplace. I drive or get on a plane, land, go to a hotel or camp at a location. I don’t know what I’m going to find. I see something, I take a picture, look at it, grade it—hey, it looks pretty good. I make a print; I make another one that’s a little better. Eventually a gallery sees it and someone buys it for a lot of money and it’s hanging in their house."
The vision of a territory to be explored is embodied in the concept of American Frontier: the limit of the western settlement areas that the settlers are going to constantly exceed. The expansion to the West, sometimes called the Wild West or the Old West, led to have a look on it imprinted with the idea of "Manifest Destiny". In the 19th century, the conquest of the West became more than a mission, but a destiny. This vision is supported by the common conception American’s had of themselves at that time: a virtuous people, with ideal institutions, whose values are to be disseminated throughout the world. The West and its landscapes therefore have a strong symbolism. It is the place where people have to go to achieve something.
Barbara NOVAK, specialist of landscape and United States, explains that it became gradually a moral and political issue. The American West is intimately linked to the landscape and to the notion of territories. Indeed, it is by their exploration and their conquest that the United States will be constituted, both geographically and politically, as we know them nowadays. In the landscape the whole American nation is projected. It designates all alone the many individual destinies, aggregated to each other in the idea of an American "us".
Since the expansion to the West, the approach of "Manifest Destiny" has evolved into a desire for preservation of this nature, in order to let the next generations can project themselves into it. In this approach, landscape photographs will play a major role in raising awareness of US policies. It is partly thanks to them that the American national parks are born. The special place of the West and the prowess of photographers, will make photography a key factor in the emergence of ecological awareness.
Carleton WATKINS (1829-1916) was born in 1829 in Oneonta, a small town in the state of New York. From a modest family, he left for San Francisco in 1851 with his friend Collis HUNTINGTON, in the hope of finding gold. Fate decided otherwise. HUNTINGTON became a successful marketer and invested in the railroad, while WATKINS became a famous landscape photographer. He began working as a photographer in 1854, for Robert VANCE’s Studio.
In July 1861, Carleton WATKINS went to Yosemite Park equipped with two cameras. The first one, a dual lens, allowed stereoscopic views, which allows for the perception of depth. The second was a large photographic chamber that can produce 45 x 53 cm (18 x 21 inch) photographic plates. He realised thirty plates that made his reputation as a landscaper. WATKINS made other images of Yosemite Park in 1864, for a geological mission. All of his work raised the American Congress awareness in favor of preserving the park. His iconic images participated in the advent of ecology.
William Henry JACKSON (1843-1942) left for the West in 1865, after the American Civil War. He began his career as a photographer shortly thereafter. He photographed the Indian tribes and, in 1869, worked for the Union Pacific Railroad to show the advance of the railway line to the west. Between 1870 and 1873, William Henry JACKSON is the photographer of the Hayden geographical mission. Like O’SULLIVAN, William Henry JACKSON transcribes all the power of nature in his photographs.
These photographs helped to unite the American people together, then divided by the Civil War. Thanks to them, the Yellowstone was classified as a national park by Congress in 1872. The work of JACKSON was widely diffused. He is part of the generation of expeditionary photographers to which O’SULLIVAN and Carleton WATKINS also belong. Emeritus painter, he also made paintings of the American West.
Ansel ADAMS (1902-1984) is certainly one of the most famous landscape artists in the world, and probably the most famous American photographer. An avid advocate of ecology, he joined Sierra Club at age 17, a group dedicated to protecting the environment. He was hired as the summer park warden of Yosemite Park, a place he will never stop photographing, making some of the most famous landscape photographs. His artworks made around Yosemite Park have contributed to the expansion of the park.
Ansel ADAMS has also brought a lot to photography. He invented the Zone System, a technique for managing the exposure of negatives. With Edward WESTON, he is also one of the f / 64 group founders. This group was created in 1932 in San Francisco, it promotes an artistic vision of photography and defends the principles of pure photography (Straight Photography), defined by: lack of editing, accurate reproduction of reality and great sharpness of the image.
Landscape photography has to deal with the earth and the sky. Some photographers do not hesitate to give an important place to the clouds, making them as central as mountains or plains in their compositions. To a certain degree, this space out of reach, is just like the West, a space to be explored and conquered. American inventors, especially the WRIGHT brothers (pioneers of aviation), were among the most important contributors to that conquest. This begins with aviation, then, from the 1960s, with the race to space, which the United States emerged victorious. The sky can therefore be transformed into an American landscape, while being, more generally, the natural extension of any landscape. Remember that in the arts, the sky has often been a space of projection. People contemplate it and its compositional elements. It can be clouds in René MAGRITTE (1898-1967) paintings or the Moon for the romantic painters.
Alfred STIEGLITZ (1864-1946) founded in 1902, with Edward STEICHEN (1879-1973), Clarence H. WHITE (1871-1925) and Alvin Langdon COBURN (1882-1966), the Photo Secession, a photographic movement close to pictorialism. One of the main ambitions is to elevate photography to the rank of art. From the 1910s, Alfred STIEGLITZ defended the approach of the Straight Photography, where any manipulation of the negative or the print is proscribed. The emphasis is on a clear, precise and realistic rendering of the photographs. It is these principles that will eventually be erected into rules some time later by Ansel ADAMS and the f/64 group.
In 1923 Alfred STIEGLITZ started one of his most innovative series: "Equivalents". He wants to transcribe his emotions by photographing cloud structures. Photography tends to abstraction, revealing the state of mind of the artist. STIEGLITZ wanted the photos in this series to work like music pieces, without figurative forms and yet able to evoke a range of feelings.
Minor WHITE (1908-1976) is perceived as an heir of Straight Photography, defended by his elders: Edward WESTON and Ansel ADAMS to name a few. However, Minor WHITE evolves in the post-war period. While the previous generation was the wardens of modernism, Minor WHITE was led to develop another approach because the war pushed to "reevaluate the myth of modernity". Behind a certain orthodoxy of the technique, always answering the criteria of the Straight Photography, he explores cross roads.
Minor WHITE, like Alfred STIEGLITZ, believes in the metaphorical dimension of photography and in his ability to convey the interiority of the author. One of the artist’s injunctions was to "look at things to see what they are like". There is in Minor WHITE’s landscapes this quasi-mystical dimension. He uses infrared films to create several landscapes, symbolically illustrating the idea of looking beyond what is represented.
Mitch DOBROWNER also looked up at the sky. He perceives storms as living organisms. For him, storms have characters of their own. He has devoted a specific place to them since 2008. All photographs of Mitch DOBROWNER’s skies are not violent. Some are heavy, we feel all the gravity of the storm, and others are taken towards the end of the phenomenon, to open the image on a sky where the sun’s rays begin to pierce. He does not hesitate to use infrared to restitute to the viewers the impression of awe he felt, just like Minor WHITE, a photographer he quotes among the masters who led him to explore this very medium: photography.