Disappearing 'Landscape'

BY PRIYA BALI
Daily Arts Writer
Published September 22, 2008

"The Infinite Landscape: Master Photographers from the UMMA Collection"
Through January 9, 2009
At UMMA Off/Site

There’s no way of knowing when early morning mist may settle over Mount Baker in Washington in just the right way or when the Pacific waves will crash against the shore so the light reflects just so. The visibility of these natural occurrences may sometimes depend on the season and weather, but it always depends on the timing and the position of the viewer. For the photographer, visual memory is recorded within seconds. And sometimes, the immediacy of this form of art can yield an image even more breathtaking than the actual view itself. These images are on display at the University’s Museum of Art Off/Site location in the exhibit “The Infinite Landscape: Master Photographers from the UMMA Collection.” This will be the last exhibit at the Off/Site before the renovated museum on State Street reopens in the new year.

Fifty-five photos — by artists who are all recognized as masters at their craft — create a comprehensive presentation of 19th and 20th century landscapes on the gallery walls. Some of the photographs date back to the 1840s, when the earliest photographic processes were being invented. Ansel Adams, Paul Caponigro, Brett Weston and Minor White are among the featured artists whose photographs portray domestic and wilderness landscapes. There are specific photographs of places like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite National Park and Niagara Falls, as well as photographs of broader rural settings including fields, lakes and homes from states such as West Virginia and Alabama.

“The nature of landscape in terms of art, science and the boundless quality of the physical world can feel infinite,” said Carole McNamara, Senior Curator of Western Art at UMMA.

Ultimately, the exhibit questions how man relates to his natural environment. Man is illustrated as a force in search of reconciliation with the natural world and when he is juxtaposed against the expansive backdrops of oceans and cliffs, his image is barely visible, small as a grain of salt, but still undeniably present.

And though almost all the photographs are absent of people, this still affects the way the artists perceive their surroundings.

“Contemplation of the landscape in a kind of surrogate form allows you reflection that you may not always have in the presence of other people,” McNamara said. “Landscape provides a kind of relief and potential for introspection that I think is very valuable.”

People’s influence on nature is perhaps more evident in Michael Kenna’s photographs of sculpted bushes and tamed garden arrangements and Walker Evans’s domestic scenes of a school and a cluster of houses by a graveyard. While people may not appear in the photographs, signs of human life still exist.

When the photographer engages with natural surroundings, he begins to understand where he may fit into this immense world. One can only wonder how awe-struck Ansel Adams felt as he stood watching the skinny white Aspens towering over him in Northern New Mexico, or how chilled Edward Jean Steichen must have felt as he captured the eerie 4 a.m. moonlight hitting a sculpture of Balzac, a 19th century French writer.

The temporality of not only the landscapes, but of the characteristics of places, is especially highlighted in the exhibit. The movement of water falling rapidly down the Gallatin River in Montana, although shown as continuous in William Jackson’s photograph, is also illustrated as unpredictable in where it will flow. After a shadow is cast upon the sand of Franco Fontana’s “Paessaggio Baia Delle Zagare,” deep greens and blues erupt over the entire body of water. The depiction of color is a reminder of how such scenes are always being repainted according to the movement of time.

The act of photographing natural habitats may serve to preserve the places we inhabit, as well as protecting our environment in an artistic sense. Because many of these landscapes are prone to physical changes, there is a sense of urgency in capturing them behind a lens. Such photographs make us aware that we may never see a rising tide or falling sun in the same way again.