Author Archives: Kristin Richards

Wilderness

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In the early days of photography, photographs were seen as an ideal means of conveying information about the wonders of the natural world, especially sublime places. Powerful, awe-inspiring, even frightening landscape features like Niagara Falls were sought out for their emotional charge and became popular destinations for tourists.

With accelerating industrialization and rapid urbanization, by the later nineteenth century the notion of untouched wilderness became increasingly appealing. Photographers presented the American West as a place apart, where humans played only minimal roles. Despite the growing presence of railroads, mines, boom-towns, reservations for Native Americans, and an Asian and Mexican immigrant workforce, the West was pictured in spiritual terms a place of transcendent beauty and geological spectacle.

In 1892 the Sierra Club was founded in San Francisco, headed by wilderness writer, John Muir. Over the next century, the club would become a powerful force for wilderness preservation, especially through books featuring wilderness and nature photography. In his Sierra Club publications, Ansel Adams presented dramatic views of a seemingly untouched Western wilderness that would become the hallmark of his style. Taking a different approach, Eliot Porter focused on intimate views of nature, seen in the SIerra Club book, In Wildness is the Preservation of the World. Unlike Adams’ grand views, Porter’s photographs offered an immersive experience of nature, rather than admiring from afar. “Wildness” was a state of nature that could be found anywhere, especially in the New England woods.

Regardless of whether a photographer pictured wilderness or wildness, the underlying premise was that the natural world should be appreciated on its own terms, apart from human intervention. This approach to nature and landscape would be challenged in the mid-1970s, as a younger generation of photographers called for non-idealized images that reflected the realities of land-use, suburban development, and environmental hazards.

Professor Christopher McGrory Klyza discusses the notion of wilderness:

Atmospheric Perspectives

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In art, “atmospheric perspective” is a technique for creating the illusion of deep space by blurring the horizon and de-saturating and lightening its color. But beyond the illusion of depth, there are also metaphoric aspects of atmospheric perspective, ranging from our appreciation of the beauty of the the natural world to our experience of air quality in urban or rural parts of the world.

The photographs in the Atmospheric Perspectives section of the exhibition feature aspects of the troposphere, the layer of atmosphere directly above the surface of the earth. This is the layer where weather occurs. It is also the layer subject to anthropogenic interference in the form of human-made air pollution.

The primary focus of the photographs in this section is clouds. For photographers Ansel Adams and Brett Weston, clouds are dynamic elements in the landscape, abstract shapes in the sky, and symbols of the capacity of nature to lift our spirits. Contemporary photographer Mitch Dobrowner shows another side of the nature of clouds—the sublime power of storm clouds to fill us with fear and awe.

Human-made clouds are evident in the industrial pollution seen in Jeff Rich’s photograph of the Blue Ridge Paper Mill, while imaginary clouds form the ceiling of a room in Jerry Uelsmann’s photographic fantasy.

Forest: Eden to Apocalypse

Long ago, much of our planet was covered by trees. In distant times, forests were feared as the home of wild beasts and men, the haunt of witches and goblins. As transportation systems improved, forests became sites where nature could be revered in a pure, Edenic state, where village or urban dwellers could find solitude.

Despite our idealization of forests as places of innocent beauty, the reality is that today, in the interest of clearing arable land and producing lumber, the Earth’s forests are being destroyed at record rates. Deforestation has been determined to be a major cause of global climate change.

The photographers included in this exhibition have used their work to comment on these varying views of the forest, from the sylvan idyll pictured a century ago by Arthur Kales to the apocalyptic effects of clear cutting documented by Robert Adams. The bleak elegy of Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison’s Tree Sonata is countered by Jane Fulton Alt’s photographs of controlled burns undertaken by ecologists.

Living in or near the Green Mountain National Forest, Vermonters know well the importance of balancing our need for timber and open land with caring for this disappearing global resource.

Troubled Waters


Water. In Vermont, it’s easy to take it for granted. Even during a dry summer, there seems to be plenty to go around. But on a global scale, water is a troubling element. Rising sea levels are providing devastating evidence of climate change, threatening coastal zones where much of the world’s population lives. Fragile ecosystems are endangered, and food supplies are vulnerable. As photographer Edward Burtynsky has written, “The basic need for fresh water, like air and sunlight, is not a lifestyle choice, it’s a matter of survival.”1

Water is a powerful subject. Dodo Jin Ming draws our attention to the sublime magnificence of the sea in her photographs, while James Balog examines the catastrophic melting of the world’s glaciers with images that are simultaneously beautiful and disturbing.

Water can provide power. In the early 1960s, the damming of the Colorado River that flooded Glen Canyon became a symbol of what could be lost when energy needs are put ahead of natural beauty. Brett Weston’s canyon abstraction and Eliot Porter’s photographic eulogy to the canyon, published by the Sierra Club, demonstrate the aesthetic power of water as both surface and substance.

And humans exert their power over water, draining lakes and polluting rivers to support unsustainable ways of life. In different ways, Emmet Gowin, David Maisel, and Richard Misrach each interpret the theme of toxic waterways, drawing attention to the ambiguous beauty to be found in contaminated sites.

Water may well be the most important topic of our century: a locus of beauty, sustenance, and moral choice.

Fenced, Farmed, Mined

Culture turns space into place. Marking, mapping, fencing, farming, mining—all these actions define power relationships in which human actions shape the appearance and use of the land. Taming and naming the landscape was a central component of the nineteenth-century frontier narrative. As Philip Shabecoff writes, “Manifest Destiny became an irresistible force for altering nature. By clearing a patch in a forest, building a home, plowing a field, driving cattle, constructing a road, using and throwing away farm implements, diverting a stream, building a mill, laying track, digging a mine, the Americans who spread across the continent changed the natural environment, and they did it with breathtaking speed.”2

The photographs in the Fenced, Farmed, Mined section draw attention to the altered landscape, as photographers record the stories and appearance of agriculture and resource extraction. In the process, they also touch on power relationships among humans, as workers, and between humans and the forces of nature. Modern agricultural practices have led to pollution from pesticides and fertilizers, ground water contamination, soil erosion and sedimentation, and the polluting effects of animal waste. Mining has resulted in the creation of toxic landscapes and resource deletion.

Professor Steve Trombulak discusses environmental impacts of agriculture:

 

Power Dynamics

Power Dynamics explores the often uneasy relationship between energy and landscape. As consumers of energy, we bear a responsibility to consider how our nuclear power plants, oil wells, coal mines, wind farms, or solar arrays affect our planet and how we might use our natural resources in a sustainable, even healing, way. Power depends on the assumption of human control over the natural world, a dynamic that was evident in the early years of electricity: in 1910 Ezra Pound responded to the sight of New York’s newly-illuminated skyline by declaring, “Here is our poetry, we have pulled down the stars to our will.”2

Attitudes about power in the landscape have changed over time. In nineteenth-century photographs such as the stereograph by C.E. Lewis, a symbol of power – a sawmill smokestack – was placed in the center of the composition and reflected on the tranquil surface of the river that powered the mill. Casting an ironic eye on the landscape, contemporary photographer John Pfahl mimics this tranquil look in his photograph of a riverside nuclear power plant. As Pfahl observes, “For me, power plants in the natural landscape represent only the most extreme example of man’s willful domination over the wilderness. It is the arena where the needs and ambitions of an ever-expanding population collide most forcefully with the finite resources of nature.”

A dynamic frequently associated with new sources of power is wonder. Documenting atomic bomb tests in the early 1950s, Harold Edgerton produced visual images of the nuclear age, whose energies many hoped would provide limitless, inexpensive power. In their photographs of alternative wind and solar energy solutions, Marilyn Bridges and Jamey Stillings use aerial views to highlight the scale of energy development. On the other hand, photographs by George Osodi and Michael Cherney point to the global complexities of energy production and the uneasy relationship between the natural world and the need for energy to fuel our modern lives.

Given the current crisis of global climate change that we face as a planet, the question of power, both physical and political, is of paramount importance.

The Built Environment


When we consider “the environment,” we often think of so-called wilderness areas of trees, mountains, and unspoiled lakes. However, like many other species, humans alter their environment in a variety of ways. We farm, extract, and above all build on the face of the earth.

The Built Environment focuses on human construction and its relationship to the natural world. Transportation systems – railroads and highways – parks, and buildings comprise aspects of the built environment evident in these photographs.

As the world urbanizes at unprecedented rates, the term “built environment” is often used to include such topics as food access, walkability, open spaces, gardens, and infrastructure in built areas. In the context of this exhibition, however, the emphasis is on the ways in which human construction intersects with the natural landscape.

Listen as History of Art and Architecture professors Andrea Murray and Pieter Broucke discuss the concept of the built environment:

 

 

Cosmos

 

When we think of the environment, we usually focus on where we live, or our continent, or perhaps the oceans, or even the entire planet. But the environment can also include our place among other planets, stars, and astronomical phenomena. Indeed, the first photographs of the earth taken from outer space in the 1960s were astonishing statements about the beauty of the so-called “blue marble” on which we live and its position in a larger galaxy and expanding universe.

Astronomical photography has played an important part in the history of photography, dating back to early daguerreotypes of the moon made by John Adams Whipple and George P. Bond in the 1850s, and more recently in the history of the environmental movement. The links between the Space Race and the rise of the environmental movement in the 1960s suggest complicated connections between space age technology, Cold War ideology, environmental activism, and the notion of the frontier.

Advances in photo technology undergird many photographs of the cosmos. Images compiled using data recorded by the Hubble Space Telescope have offered remarkable visual reconstructions of the deep reaches of space, while contemporary artist Chris McCaw’s photographs are marked with lines actually burned by the sun as it makes its way across the sky.

Lunar, solar, and even images of extraterrestrials have sparked our imaginations about our place in a cosmic environment that includes the moon, the sun, and the stars. As concern for our planet’s future grows and funding for scientific research diminishes, astronomical images encourage us to consider the earth in its broadest of contexts.

In his book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Roy Scranton writes, “Our knowledge of this vast universe remains ridiculously limited. At the same time, that same knowledge is utterly awesome. For a growth of carbon scum on a spinning rock in the backwater of an unremarkable galaxy light years from anywhere to develop the technology to send radio telescopes into space to measure the age of trhe universe is a prodigious achievement. Our primate curiosity and intellectual hubris have inspired breathtaking audacities. Just a few thousand years ago we were learning to make marks on clay. In the blink of an eye, we’ve brushed our fingers against eternity.”2