Monday, November 14, 2011

Landscape: Topography and Photography


I enjoyed reading about Timothy O’Sullivan’s involvement in the Wheeler survey of the American West because it made me see O’Sullivan’s work in a new light.  I have always viewed his work simply as early landscape photography, but I ignored both the context in which his work was made and its early political implications.  Robin E. Kelsey writes:

Borrowing graphic possibilities from the work of geologists, topographers, and other survey specialists, O’Sullivan devised a specialized pictorial rhetoric to persuade viewers that the survey was securing practical gains in knowledge and that his medium could take part in this effort.


Timothy O'Sullivan: Anasazi ruins (the "White House"), Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, 1873

I am interested that he borrowed techniques from other scientists and had the goal of obtaining mathematical or scientific information from his photographs, which echoes the intent in early uses of police photography as we read last week.  Ultimately, however, O’Sullivan’s images were used primarily as political propaganda to persuade congress to give more and more money to the survey effort.  As explained in the article, there is no real way of obtaining scientific information from photographs, though as part of a larger survey effort they do supply important information.  Kelsey writes:

Wheeler himself expressed uncertainty about the value of photography as a tool of geographic surveying… The camera, in short, failed to measure….  If photography could fix images onto a precisely calibrated grid, it could become a useful tool for mapping, the primary activity of the survey. 

However, in its current state, “[photography] was not yet for [Wheeler] an adequate instrument for surveying the West.”

Though O’Sullivan was clearly very invested in these survey efforts and was given more responsibility and leadership than most photographers, it is also stated that “at times, he struck a skeptical note, making pictures that called into question the capacity of photography to deliver epistemological gain.” 

From the Miriam-Webster dictionary:
Epistemology: the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity.
It is also interesting that a huge amount of money was spent creating photography albums to distribute to members of congress in order to be given more money to continue the effort.  This is one of the earliest examples I have read (and I would assume one of the earliest examples in existence) of photography being used as a propaganda or political tool to further a project or cause, which in turn brings up the issue of photography and truth, and our human instinct to be moved by photographs or believe something more intensely once we see it represented on paper. 

Visually, O’Sullivan sometimes composed his photograph so that the area of interest was centered and included on the side a recognizable object to imply its scale, such as a hat.  He also included a ruler in some of the images, allowing for a sense of scale and blending techniques used for the acquiring of scientific information in his photography.  In Same as it every was: re-reading New Topographics  by Toby Jurovics, Lewis Baltz’s photograph Fluorescent Tube, 1977, is then compared to the ruler photograph taken by O’Sullivan in 1873. 

The way that Wheeler represented facts and objects was archival but incomplete, and therefore gave an illusion of a scientific investigation, but in reality contained very little scientific information.  If you were to look for thoroughness in his work, you would be disappointed, as he seemed to photograph certain objects or rock formations through a scientific lens but ignored others completely.  The way in which he represented Native Americans was also problematic, as the article states that he was encouraged through governmental and military pressure to make it appear as if chaos could break out at any time and that Native Americans were essentially unstable and could present a threat if not constantly monitored and controlled.  In this way, O’Sullivan was creating a fiction regarding an entire group of people in order to raise popular and governmental support for military involvement in the west.  Again, this situation illustrates that the idea of truth in photography is slippery and problematic.

I enjoyed reading the introduction to New Topographics as well as the new take on it by Toby Jurovics. 

Jurovics writes:

One of the challenges with interpreting New Topographics has been the inability to separate the subjects of these photographs from their meaning- what they are of from what they are about.

As an artist, it is somewhat strange to me how strongly the theme of the show seemed to overshadow the individual work or intent of the artists.  While the show was billed as a somewhat distanced approach to image making, Jurovics argues that “the goal of Adams, Gohlke, an Baltz’s photographs was to encourage empathy and concern” by photographing things that had previously been overlooked or perhaps lacked the grandiosity of a landscape painting. 

Jurovics writes:

Given the popular expectation for landscape photographs to resemble Yosemite Valley at its most theatrical, it is unsurprising that the restrained prints of New Topographics and the comparative banality of their subject matter was confusing and off-putting to many viewers. 

I especially enjoyed this quote from Frank Gohlke:

The dignity of grain elevators, the precision, intelligence and grace of their formal language, their majestic presence within the landscape all seem to confirm the faith that, given the right circumstances, we will make visible the best that is within us.

Jurovics continues, “again, he asks us to look beyond the act of identification or cataloguing to discover purpose and meaning.”

This last sentence is especially poignant.  In Gohlke’s pictures, he is asking us to see so much more than a grain elevator.  There is a discrepancy between what the photograph is of and what it is about, which is a fundamental issue in photography and has been at the core of many of our readings this semester. 

Frank Gohlke, Grain Elevator

Abandoned grain elevator, Homewood, Kansas, 1973

Grain elevators, Midway Area, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1972



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