Wednesday, December 28, 2011

To Include or not to include? That is the question.

Canyon near Medicine Bow, Wyoming.  May 2008.

Canyon near Medicine Bow, Wyoming, with mattress.  May 2008.

Many of us who become obsessed with photography begin with a love of landscapes.  This is especially true when you live in a place like Wyoming, which is rich in them. I once heard the musician David Bromberg, while playing at the Wort Hotel in Jackson, lament that "too much of Wyoming is out of doors."

We're all aware of famous landscape photographers; Ansel Adams immediately comes to mind and of course there are many others.  Classical landscape photographers and painters studiously omitted any sign of human disturbance, and this tradition continues today among a subset of photographers even as it becomes increasingly difficult to frame a photograph without SOME evidence of humans--either on the ground or in the sky (contrails are almost unavoidable). 

Of course many contemporary landscape photographers have embraced human impacts. Tomorrow I'm going to Denver to see the Robert Adams' photos at the Denver Art Museum. Adams photographed extensively in the West and masterfully depicted the impact of man on landscapes.  In a description of an exhibition of his work at the Getty Museum in L.A., the writers say:

"His work is inspired both by his joy in the inherent beauty of the landscape, and his dismay at its exploitation and degradation for residential and commercial development.

In his images of main streets, tract houses, trees, and waterways, Adams records two kinds of landscapes, one damaged by people and the other somehow beyond their power to harm. He asks us, through his photographs, to consider where we live and how we relate to our environment
Closer to home, the photographer Martin Stupich explored the interaction of man with Wyoming's Red Desert. Some of his photographs show untouched landscapes, which can still be found there, while others emphasize human activity--primarily but not exclusively related to oil and gas extraction. 

I just read the excellent The History of Photography by Beaumont Newhall, in which he elegantly traces the evolution of photographers scientifically and artistically from the first experiments with camera obscuras to modern color prints.  He describes the realization that photography has the special power to capture the world as it is, with no embellishment and quotes Oliver Wendall Holmes, speaking in the context of graphic photographs of the American Civil War:
"The very things which an artist would leave out, or render imperfectly, the photograph takes infinite care with, and so renders its illusions perfect."
How many times have I struggled to artificially crop the effects of humans from landscapes, when including them would be both more honest and when their inclusion would make a better photograph?  (Answer: Lots.)  Neither of the photographs at the beginning of this post are spectacular, but which is more interesting?

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