Surveying the Terrain at the RISD Museum’s “American View: Landscape Photography 1865 to Now”

A visually compelling, conceptually provocative consideration of the photographic medium, American View:  Landscape Photography 1865 to Now is anything but the kind of straightforward overview such a title suggests.  Showcasing works drawn primarily from the Rhode Island School of Design’s rich photography collection, American View shifts deftly between and among periods and styles and, in so doing, illuminates the ever-evolving relationship between landscape and photographic image.

Joe Deal, Kite, Chino Hills, California, 1984, from the portfolio Subdividing the Inland Basin. Gift of the artist. © The Estate of Joe Deal, courtesy Robert Mann Gallery. Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design, Providence.

Upon entering the first gallery, the viewer is immediately enmeshed in a web of contemporary imagery whose formal and conceptual diversity offers a heady, concentrated sense of the exhibit’s open and adventurous ethos.  Just inside the entryway hang Millee Tibbs’ Self-Portrait in the Fog (2009) and Henry Wessel’s Night Walk #28 (1995).  The moody austerity of Tibbs’ image, a serene yet unsettling evocation of air and atmosphere, suggests a kind of minimalist, abstract refraction of Wessel’s image.  The latter, meanwhile, calls to mind the detached, de-peopled style of the New Topographics photographers in its stark image of a suburban house.  Yet this darkened house and its eerily illuminated, square-frame doorway yield a haunting sense of loneliness, even alienation. While the geometric precision and angular composition of Wessel’s photograph contrasts the intangible haze of Tibbs’ Self-Portrait, together, the two images exude a shared existential intensity.

Millee Tibbs, Self-Portrait in the Fog, 2009. Gift of the artist in honor of Joe Deal. © Millee Tibbs. Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design, Providence.

Moving deeper into the first gallery, one encounters Catherine Opie’s chromogenic print Football Landscape #12 (2008), a vivid, wide-angle view of a Texas high school game in progress and a telling glimpse of regional American culture. Further on, Gregory Crewdson’s alluring, large-scale ink jet Untitled (Cement Canal) (2007) conjures a mysterious world of post-industrial decay and moral isolation, while across the gallery, Doug Rickard’s #82.948842, Detroit, MI, 2009 (2010) appropriates a Google Street View image in an implicit exposé of urban poverty that serves, equally, as an indictment of societal indifference.

These images underscore what is among the show’s prevailing themes; namely, that the American landscape represents a stage for the enactment of all manner of personal and social drama, whether real or imagined. They also point to what co-curator Jan Howard, in the show’s insightful catalogue, identifies as the re-introduction of the human figure into the photographic landscape.[1] Among the exhibition’s accomplishments is its rich and nuanced illumination of the stylistic breadth and conceptual expansiveness of landscape as a genre.  As Douglas Nickel, another curator, writes, “[T]here is nothing natural or inevitable about the photographic landscape, and if we scratch the surface of the history and aesthetics leading up to it, an abundance of complexities emerges.”[2]

Lee Friedlander, Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1971. Museum purchase with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts. © Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco. Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design, Providence.

American View effectively delineates these complexities and, in so doing, reveals striking contrasts and surprising affinities between galleries and images.  In a juxtaposition typical of the exhibit’s fresh-eyed, dynamic approach, Opie and Crewdson’s quasi-narrative works are hung adjacent to Uta Barth’s hypnotically blurred abstraction Field #14 (1996).  Similarly provocative is the concept of landscape as stage that links such disparate works as Pictorialist Anne Brigam’s warm-hued self-portrait Soul of the Blasted Pine (1908) and contemporary photographer Laura McPhee’s Judy Tracking Radio-Collared Wolves from Her Yard (2004).  When seen in this formally and conceptually broad context, even the most omnipresent of images by Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, and Lee Friedlander acquire a renewed sense of immediacy and impact.

Laura McPhee, Judy Tracking Radio-Collared Wolves From Her Yard, Summer Range, H-Hook Ranch, Custer County, Idaho, 2004. Purchased with funds donated by Donald Stanon and Helen M. Danforth Acquisition Fund. © Laura McPhee. Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design, Providence.

Among the engaging displays on view is a fascinating series of post-Civil War photographs, images that not only contextualize subsequent photographic tendencies but also incarnate the interweaving of personal vision, professional intent, and social impact that recurs in much 20th century imagery.  Often in the employ of the federal government, early photographers like William Bell and Timothy O’Sullivan set out with the practical mission of producing photographs for mapping and surveying purposes.  However, their richly-toned albumen prints frequently reveal a nuanced attunement to light, line, and form that transcend the images’ functional status.

The show cogently reveals parallels between these early and ostensibly objective images of nature and the 1970s suburban visions produced by Stephen Shore, Frank Gohlke, and other New Topographics photographers.  In the manner of their 19th century predecessors, the New Topographics worked from a position of purported neutrality, though their photographs also bear the subtle imprint of personal vision and aesthetic intent.  Thus, in depicting not a rugged wilderness but a rapidly suburbanizing Western landscape, photographers like Lewis Baltz in Model Home, Shadow Mountain (1977), and Joe Deal in his conceptual series The Fault Zone (1981), produced images whose formal clarity and deliberate framing hint at pervasive social tensions and ambient cultural shifts.

Lewis Baltz, Model Home, Shadow Mountain, 1977, from the portfolio Nevada. Gift from the Collection of Joe Deal and Betsy Ruppa. © Lewis Baltz. Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design, Providence.

In spite—or perhaps because—of the exhibition’s thoughtful juxtapositions and provocative insights, photography’s power as a creative medium retains an indefinable, ineffable mystery.  Interestingly, over three decades ago, Roland Barthes described photography as “an uncertain art.”[3]  As this fascinating show makes clear, Barthes’ characterization was—and remains—a profoundly apt one.

American View:  Landscape Photography 1865 to Now is on view at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design through January 13, 2013.

[1] Howard, Jan.  “Landscape as Stage” p. 60, America in View:  Landscape Photography 1865 to Now.  Rhode Island School of Design:  Providence, Rhode Island, 2012

[2] Nickel, Douglas.  “Photography, Perception, and the Landscape” p. 15, America in View:  Landscape Photography 1865 to Now.

[3] Barthes, Roland.  Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography.  Trans. Richard Howard.  New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981.