Synder’s essay starts at the beginning where photography was just starting to climb to its feet in a very opinionated world, kind of like starting at a school one week late when everyone already has their friends; photography was pushed out of every genre it tried to settle in. Artists had set ideas about what photography was. It was mechanical and therefore there was nothing human about it, it couldn’t evoke emotion, the photographer played no artistic part in it, therefore, it could not possibly be considered art. As every detail was captured there was nothing left for the imagination (where they believed art resides) For them photography was a harbinger of doom, photography was a cheat, like tracing a picture. Science also argued that whilst a mechanical creation it had no place with Science either.
There was a great deal of confusion as to where photography belonged so naturally if you’re different, you don’t belong and photography drifted in a void, an entire level of its own. Photography was also seen as a symbolism of industrialisation. People such as Charles Baudelaire saw photography as almost an alien species, they could see it taking over, shifting the limelight! Did they see photography brainwashing the world!
What confuses me is why photography went along with it. Instead of fighting back and arguing that “Actually, we are something different and that’s ok, essentially we are creating magic.” They accepted their fate and ensured their images went along with the stereotypical view, mechanical. They strove hard to create fine definition and machine looking photos despite offering something the art industry couldn’t. I suppose just like in wildlife conservation, you don’t fight against the farmers you work with them so they are inspired to help your cause. The prejudice against photographers is slightly ironic as, mechanically, it took a great deal more skill then than now where the digital camera provides us with the perfect blueprint for photography. Anyone can click a camera shutter but not every photo is a good photo.
Landscape photography was targeted and perhaps artists felt most threatened by nature and landscape was a common subject.
Despite negative associations of it today, tourism guided Landscape photography to the place it occupies today. Scenic photos were sold at Publishing houses which bought photos from other thus spreading photos of the world available in all locations. Photographic supply houses started to ship out to other countries around the world. They had created their own market.
The ongoing debate of where photography stood continued. A photography was essentially a self-portrait in that it ‘implicates the maker…expresses his or her sensibility…how a scene was experienced” Franco Fontane described this too! But Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, wrote how photography was a mechanical process, therefore, had no human aspect. She believed it failed to show experience and therefore could not be considered as an art. It must have been so frustrating to the photographers being met by this wall of criticism. It astonishes me that everyone can be so snobby about it when only a few years ago the thought of photography could have been seen as impossible as seeing a dragon! Charles Baudelaire wrote, “It has ruined whatever might remind of the divine in the French Mind.”
However, there was a new generation of photographers. They knew what Landscape composition was but they were bound by no conventions, they were “free to record what they saw” As they adapted to creating exact depictions they, in turn, appealed to the market. The photos themselves were disinterested. And surprisingly, arts blatant opinions began to change. The photographers stepped back and created scenes true to reality yet were admired ‘artistically’ for the skill and technique of the photographer. People had their own opinions of photography and the photographer had to be careful to ensure they met that criteria, reality, factual. They had to be different from expected, avoid any landscape conventions so they could not be compared, employ fact to appraise skill both in a technical and factual way. Be attractive and scientific.
Enter, Carleton Watkins a San Francisco photographer. His images were beautiful of sublime views. Even Ansel Adams emulated his works. His images of Yosemite reflected in the water drew the ugly heads of the prejudiced art industry once more. It was argued that (whilst beautiful) the image was not art as it was something that anyone could see were they standing there. Yet, of course, it is art, because it is the artistic vision! Photography created one reality of another reality. Artists began to use their photos as references for their art. Photography had become a doorway for artists.
The art industry welcomed it and photographers were congratulated for creating scientific and detached images with features found in paintings and other media. Images of far off landscapes were being brought to the masses through Watkins photographs in images that were familiar yet sublime.
His images were not appraising nature though. In a dark twist for the environment, he became almost like a travel rep, he saw the landscape as a real estate and edited the ragged landscape and man-made structures to appear almost harmonious. That man was meant to be there and had a right to plunder, maim and destroy. This was a lie and almost like cloning out bruises on someone’s face to conceal the truth. The scenes pleased the eye, yet unbeknown to the viewers, the actual landscape was not their stereotypical view of beauty. He edited it to suit his idea and mislead those drawn in by his illusion, his illusion of an American Eden. Photography had only been accepted when it captured reality, but this was no longer a reality.
He ignored all former land owners and thought only of his vision. Charles Baudelaire had seen photography disillusioning the public yet now this was exactly what was happening. American Eden. Watkins was the leader and the viewers his loyal followers, brainwashed by lies. Fed the American dream idea which appealed to their romantic nature.
His vista of a new world would be created by slaughtering the present. Creating unspoilt innocence by destroying innocence, therefore, leaving nothing innocent. Train tracks were created across the area connecting places yet causing the slaughter of thousands of bison and animals. (Ironically, photography may have given rise to this but it also gave rise to conservation as photos captured the brutality behind the scenes and brought it to a halt.
Before the military had mapped the Western land yet now it was argued they didn’t have the scientific training to do this justice. Onto the scene came Clarence King and Geologist, “”Driven by a desire first to understand the vast contents of American and then to put whatever knowledge he gained into the hands of those who could best use it 0 scientists, land management experts and mining company engineers.”
Timothy O Sullivan, a war photographer was hired to join one such expedition. Synder asks why did they hire photographers like O’Sullivan if the images weren’t used in the official reports, they weren’t of a scientific nature, you couldn’t make accurate readings from them. He was asked merely to provide ‘generally descriptive photographs” to “give a sense of the area.” His images didn’t disillusion people like Watkins, he didn’t depict the land as habitable, theirs for the plunger, instead he used light and scale to depict the true enormity and brutality of this “magnificent desolation (as Buzz Aldrin described the Moon) He realised this place was heartless and cruel and that humankind was as diminutive as the grains of sand that ravaged the skin hurled by the bitter wind. He showed viewers the sublime with the message, we are not as powerful as we might think. He rarely included people in landscapes merely the echoes of humanity, footprints in the sand, a waggon on a desolate plain. While the images show the truth, they are also slightly manipulated yet only in the sense of moving the waggon to the best position. Yet at the end of the day photography is not about science, nowadays photos see a lot of their beauty being created in post processing so I think Watkin’s can be ‘forgiven’ for creating his own composition. It is, after all, Ansel Adams himself saw them and they were published in in the histories of Beamont Hewahll, a curator of photography at the New York, Museum of Modern Art.
His use of extreme contrasts of light from the blinding open spaces to the dark impenetrable shadows remind me of Plato;s analogy of the Cave, where the prisoner escapes the darkness then is faced with the blinding light and the dark is now painful.
Such images would have shocked the viewers and perhaps put an end to the illusion of Watkin’s photos. His images feel uncanny, they are known in terms of a landscape but they are unknown, and as they are only faintly known they become uncanny beyond uncanny.