Deborah Bright’s esssay was an interesting read, despite having been written over 30 years ago, there are many points still valid today.Her essay looks at cultural meanings in landscape photography.
Bright believes that, irrespective of aesthetic value, “every representation of a landscape is also a record of human values and actions imposed on the land over time” (Bright 1985). She also considers that landscape photographers have played a large part in constructing the way in which landscape images are perceived generally, and what is expected of them. In her essay she calls for a fresh look at the cultural meanings within landscape images and suggests three questions that could be asked to determine the ideologies behind the images:
– In whose interests were the images conceived
– Why we continue to make and consume them
– Why landscape is still seen through a masculine eye
Outlining how the current view of landscape images has developed she believes that the cowboy movie has “succeeded as no other form in masculinising the western landscape”. She continues to describe how the dominant landscape aesthetic developed from the ‘straight photography’ of Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz.
She considers that curators of galleries and exhibitions have determined the current aesthetic by their choices and publications. She describes how John Szarkowski produced a catalogue of images called American Landscapes. Of the 40 photographers represented, only two were women, Laura Gilpin and Dorothea Lange.
She goes on to compare the masculine and feminine views of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant. John Pfahl’s Power Places (John Pfahl – Power Places [s.d.]) contains an image of the Three Mile Island plant https://johnpfahl.com/pages/powerplaceseast/01threemileisland.html. The image is portrayed in such a way that it is not immediately obvious to the viewer that the building is indeed a nuclear plant. The image almost glamourises the building, it seems to be in the style one would normally associate with the Taj Mahal. Very much in the tradition of Carleton Watkins, which Snyder describes as “visual harmony between the land and the new tokens of progress symbolised by the industrialisation of the land itself” (Mitchell 2002 p 187).
Bright contrasts this approach with that of Lisa Lewenz who produced a calendar of a series of views of the same plant, but placing it within its social context. https://oregondigital.org/catalog/oregondigital:df70bt88v shows the same building photographed by Pfahl but which gives a much stronger emphasis on the effect the building has locally. Again one has to look closely to see just what the building is, but taking the photograph from inside a domestic dwelling and framing the plant within a window adds a new dimension to the interpretation of the scene. The viewer is now confronted with the effect the building has on the local landscape rather than interpreting it as a beautiful landscape in it own right.
Bright herself then falls victim to gender stereotyping in her comment “Most ‘landscapes’ used by women – the home, beauty salon, shopping mall etc.”. Perhaps this is an indication of how this issue has changed over the years, today many people would take exception to that list as the sort of ‘landscapes used by women’ – no mention of workplace for example, just the connotation that women would mainly frequent ‘the home, beauty salon, shopping mall’.
This aside, Bright does then make some strong comments on the under representation of women landscape photographers in contemporary literature and at exhibitions.
Bright concludes with the comment that “Landscape imagery has almost always been used to argue for the timeless virtues of a nature that transcends history – which is to say, collective social action”.
She believes that landscape images with a purely aesthetic approach should not be the dominant genre and that landscape photographers should use it to “question the assumptions about nature and culture it has traditionally served”. So whereas the famous ‘Marlboro Man’ advertising images portray a very masculine view of the landscape, one that is aesthetically pleasing but which “symbolizes a natural, clean world that is not polluted by marginalizing white middle-class ideas of modern society with women’s rights, racial equality, etc.” (A Marlboro Man Story 2014)
Many things have changed since Bright first wrote the essay – most notably the law on advertising tobacco. But I suspect not much has changed in what are the major points of Bright’s essay in terms of the curation and selection of exhibitions. Otherwise The Guerrilla Girls would probably not have seen the need to produce this 2016 poster
1984: a view from Three Mile Island | Oregon Digital (s.d.) At: https://oregondigital.org/catalog/oregondigital:df70bt88v (Accessed on 19 June 2018)
A Marlboro Man Story – Tobacco Advertising – K-Message (2014) At: http://www.k-message.com/marlboro-man-story/ (Accessed on 19 June 2018)
Bright, D. (1985) ‘Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men’ At: http://www.deborahbright.net/PDF/Bright-Marlboro.pdf
John Pfahl – Power Places (s.d.) At: https://johnpfahl.com/pages/powerplaceseast/01threemileisland.html (Accessed on 19 June 2018)
Mitchell, W.J.T. (2002) Landscape and Power, Second Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
The Guerilla Girls (2016) At: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55d4aaa8e4b084df273878ef/57140fb240261dc8bae871ac/5afcbde8575d1f528bc69391/1526513191094/2016GuerrillaGirls-WealthPower.jpg (Accessed on 19 June 2018)