Exercise 2.1: Territorial Photography

Snyder talks about the changing market for images “I am suggesting that they were produced to meet the demands of a growing middle-class audience” (p179). He goes on to state that this resulted in a change in photographic practice to in which the suggestiveness of images and the picturesque was replaced by real precision throughout the image. He thought that the photographer through technical ability, sought to “record a sight that is understood to be a natural image of nature” (p183). He believed that the aims of photographers were to produce “honest, scientifically sanctioned pictures of nature that somehow were supposed to escape artifice, personal interest and subjective response” (p185).


He then goes on to discuss the work of Carleton Watkins and how he diverged from the ruling Landscape practice, derived from painting, by showing the views as they would be seen by other people and not as a constructed or idealised setting. Further Snyder (p187) describes how Watkins attempted to “portray a visual harmony between the land and the new tokens of progress symbolized by the industrialization of the land itself”. He talks of a “broader enterprise of harmonising nature and industry” (p188) and describes Watkins’ images as “essentially invitational in character” (p189). These met the demands of an audience that had been led to expect positive images of technical progress and how the natural frontiers were being conquered and fortunes were being made.


Having described Watkins’ images as “invitational” he then considers the works of Timothy O’Sullivan whose work he describes as “contrainvitational” (p189). By this he means that O’Sullivan’s work denies the premise of Watkins’ images in that they portray the wildness and inhospitable nature of the landscape. These are not photographs of technical progress or of a land where man is taming the landscape, rather they show “a bleak, inhospitable land, a godforsaken, anaesthetising landscape” (p191). He summarises the difference between the photographs of Watkins and O’Sullivan as “the difference between the familiar, known, and understood and the alien, unknown and unintelligible” (p199).


For the next part of the exercise I have chosen to study Street View at the Hacienda, New Almaden1863 by Carleton Watkins and Cañon de Chelle. Walls of the Grand Cañon about 1200 Feet in Height by Timothy O’Sullivan.


The Street View at the Hacienda seems typical of the style of work that Snyder attributes to Watkins. The observer’s eye is led into the picture by the road and buildings that start at the bottom left of the frame. The image captures the majestic landscape in the distance, but in a soft and inviting way. The tones lighten as the image recedes into the distance. The development in the front plane is in sharp focus whereas the rolling hills beyond are soft and gradually merge into the sky. The diagonal line of the track suggests movement and action whereas the soft rolling lines of the hills and faint clouds are more calming. The buildings occupy a substantial part of the building and suggest permanency while the hills provide an attractive and welcoming backdrop. This image suggests that man is in control of his environment within an attractive setting. This is one of Watkins’ mining photographs and I think that it illustrates a point made by Snyder (p187) when he commented on the images of the railroad at Cape Horn “The regular tracks drive the eye toward the background , where they disappear into the land, without a trace”. While the railroad tracks in Cape Horn recede directly into the distance, in Street View at the Hacienda the road and buildings merge into the folds and valleys of the landscape. In both cases this suggests the union of development and environment.


Cañon de Chelle. Walls of the Grand Cañon about 1200 Feet in Height by Timothy O’Sullivan is a very different image. The rocks of the Grand Canyon tower over the shallow centre, trees are dwarfed by the scale of the rocks at the edges of the canyon. In the lower left of the picture are three tents, tiny in comparison to their environment. Snyder writes (p194) that figures in O’Sullivan’s images “function most often as indices of a precarious and frightful relationship between explorer and the object of exploration. The rocks of the canyon are in sharp focus in all planes with a clearly marked distinction from the sky. The overall impression is one of wilderness and the inhospitable nature of the canyon, the only human intervention is evidenced by the minute tents and vegetation is sparse. Snyder (p191) notes that O’Sullivan’s images “repeatedly deny what Watkins’ photographs characteristically confirm namely, the possibility of comfortable habitation, of an agreeable relation of humans to the natural landscape”. I think that Snyder’s (p196) comment about O’Sullivan’s work is particularly true of this image, that his representation is “an awed stare into a landscape that is unmarked, unmeasured, and wild, a place in which man is not yet”.