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Participating With Place and Space

"Learn about a pine tree from a pine tree, and about a bamboo stalk from a bamboo stalk."


The west is no longer so wild. This essay is about the landscape and the attitudes artist's bring to the event of photographing it. I shall seek to examine common assumptions of innocence, perception, and historical consciousness of the genre of landscape photography. Within that endeavor there will be no attempt to posture an objective opinion. Both public and private definitions of landscape as social place and imaginary space will be given due consideration. Finally the thorny task of examining and reconciling the binary oppositions of nature/culture vs. domesticated/wild will be attempted. The spirit of that attempt is uninterested in intellectualizing about landscape photography as an end in itself. Rather, I propose to write in service of the greater goal of making smart yet humble photographs, that take not only the history of the genre into consideration, but also environmental issues. The ancient tradition of the rivers and mountains school of Asian poetry finds a new voice here. Informed by a broader scope of options rooted in a personal interdisciplinary investigation, we can further the ongoing conversation that artist's share when their work is made public. Within that aim, taking the safe path of merely reproducing conventional stereotypes is discouraged. The eye of the west can still be wild.

Wonderment and astonishment imply innocence, which is sometimes wrongly confused with infantilism, or as being incompatible with a mature intelligence. “Art as the capacity to re-experience one’s innocence” as guitarist Robert Fripp put it, is a renewable goal. There is a long history in the Western arts, going back to John Ruskin, through the Bauhaus, and minimalism, which resonates with such an ideal. In the sense that we are always bound by our past actions there can be no tablua rasa, no starting over with a clean slate, yet we can always return to the freshness of the all-accommodating spaciousness of mind. It is simply a shift from the relative to the absolute. Both are the same, just as waves and water are the same, just as a fist and a open hand are the same. The difference is in the focus of our perception, and grace of our gesture. With regard to photography, innocence implies seeing the world with an awareness of nowness, a task intimately related to spaciousness of mind. When I go to a site to take pictures, even if I’m working on a specific project, I still try and open up to what presents itself and simply explore. Within that, I empty my mind of thoughts and agendas, so as to more clearly be present and authentically see, to genuinely participate with the place. The attitude we bring to life, to the landscape, and to the practice of photography determines both how we experience the site and what we generate pictorially to offer others. I wrote a somewhat didactic poem about this:

A Kind Of Commitment
(for Steve Lehmer)

To engage the landscape
Free of elation and alienation

Not for the sake of preserving
or interpreting
(yet perhaps a kind of revealing)

Just working for the day when photography
Simply happens without striving

Not to give up in resignation and frustration
But to exhaust fascination in contribution

Just participating with the place
And moving on
Without really ever having arrived or left

Not to prove anything
Or to take
Or to leave my imprint

Just calculating the exposure
Adjusting the options
Marking with light

Not for the sake of information
or even imagination
(yet perhaps a kind of contemplation)

Just practicing for the day
When it all takes place
Without effort or intention

In resonance with the benefit of the spinning world.

Desert Hot Springs

There are two poles of interest: the world, and our personal engagement with the world. However, the physical environment, our bodies, and minds are truly one in an absolute sense, or better stated “not two”. Oneness wrongly denies multiplicity, yet both depend on each other conceptually. We live in a world rich in diversity, yet from space the earth is unmistakably a whole planet in an evolving cosmic drama. The NASA photograph of the whole earth is the ultimate landscape photograph. If we do not respect how our individual actions effect the planet we are likely to contribute to its damage. To philosophize about the landscape and our place in it is a somewhat unfulfilling practice. It goes on endlessly, whereas to simply be with the landscape, to breath its air, and give that air back; to open up to the waves, the light - this is fully available. It’s almost too easy. As cliché as it may sound, it nevertheless remains a fact that my two-year old daughter needs no training in this. Yet for adults it’s a kind of meditation; an acquired skill, a way of unlearning the need to prove or acquire something, and to accept the world as it is. This is where genuine humility comes from. The monumental landscapes of Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth lack this humility, whereas many of the reticent photographs of Robert Adams, Frank Golke, Geoffrey James, John Divola, James Welling, Simone Nieweg and others exemplify that attitude.

Everyone experiences the same thing somewhat differently. It is said that sentient beings are born human because they share one thing overwhelmingly in common - desire. Needless to say, in this realm of existence we do not always concur on how to channel our desire. We experience the landscape emotionally, yet also according to our sense of utility. An environmentalist sees an unbuilt landscape one way, whereas a housing developer sees it through an entirely different lens. This is by no means an exclusively contemporary issue. In part 12 of the Mountains and Waters Sutra, eleventh century Zen Master Eihei Dogen put it this way:

"All beings do not see mountains and waters in the same way. Some beings see water as a jeweled ornament, but they do not regard jeweled ornaments as water. What in the human realm corresponds to their water? We only see their jeweled ornaments as water.

Some beings see water as wondrous blossoms, but they do not use blossoms as water. Hungry ghosts see water as raging fire or pus and blood. Dragons see water as a palace or a pavilion. Some beings see water as the seven treasures or a wish-granting jewel. Some beings see water as a forest or a wall. Some see it as the dharma nature of pure liberation, the true human body, or as the form of body and essence of mind. Human beings see water as water. Water is seen as dead or alive depending on causes and conditions."

Different disciplines think about the contemporary landscape in a variety of ways. It is interesting to compare and contrast these perspectives so as to come to a somewhat more aerial view, without losing sight of the particulars. Landscape history, human geography, urban planning, landscape architecture, and landscape photography since around 1975 share many common interests, in particular the human use of land.

The historical development of the genre of landscape photography can be broken down into a few distinct phases: early war photography; picturesque landscape photography; exotic realism; old west landscape photography; classic straight landscape; metaphorical landscape; the built landscape; documentation of earthworks; and the colonialized landscape. What do they all have in common? In order to answer this we need to look at the etymological roots of the word “landscape” itself. To paraphrase John Brinckerhoff Jackson from his book Discovering the Vernacular Landscape the word landscape doesn’t simply mean the view of a place, but the picture of a place as interpreted by an artist. This picture of a view was almost always idealized to correspond with current concepts of beauty relying on “basic principles of unity, of repetition, of sequence and balance, of harmony and contrast." These same ideas were adopted by landscape architects such as Frederick Law Olmsted. Nowadays park designers do not typically rely on these principles, but rather deal with balancing environmental concerns and social functions. Today the word landscape implies the aesthetic. Yet we also use the word to refer to any kind of extended literal or metaphorical expanse or space. In response to this redefinition Jackson writes:

"We should not use the word landscape to describe our private world, our private microcosm, and for a simple reason: a landscape is a concrete, three-dimensional shared reality."

Much of the “classic” period of landscape photography from the 1930’s to the early 70’s links the inner and outer landscape. Alfred Steiglitz and Minor White's idea of the "equivalent" is a good example of this. There is even a book by Carl Chiarenza titled Landscapes of the Mind. The “subjectivists”, as they are sometimes called, echo the Japanese haiku poet Basho who was once said: “learn about a pine tree from a pine tree.” We experience a shared reality individually. When we make photographs it is fair to ask ourselves if we want to emphasize the inner or outer pole of being in the world. The result hinges on the success of metaphor; on the capacity and willingness of the viewer to make a leap of the imagination to something not pictured. Is that something real? In The Visionary Landscape of Perception video artist Bill Viola wrote:

When asked what is real most people turn inwards, to their individual experience. They think about hitting their head on a rock, an image of the face of their mother, or losing their job, or whatever. They do not necessarily think of themselves standing there at the moment the question was asked. At that moment, of course, all of these things are memories, mental images. Memory is the residing place of life experience, the collection that reveals and/or fabricates order and meaning. What is real, therefore, is what is psychologically meaningful. At one time in the past, the mythic and symbolic were real. Today physical science has influenced us to believe that the objects of the physical world are real. Yet we surround ourselves with electronic images and transmitted information. Hollis Frampton called the movement in moving images ‘the movement of human consciousness itself. The images carry on our mental lives for us,’ he said, ‘darkly, whether we want them to or not.’ We already are, and always have been, in an imaginary landscape of perception.

To participate with the land we must reconcile inner space and outer place. The inner pole of landscape is consciousness itself , whereas the outer pole comes down to the soil; the surface of the earth. Land is usually thought of as a portion of that surface. Consider the words “England,” “Switzerland,” "Zwaziland," and "Disneyland". These lands are simultaneously geographic, political, and cultural. The word scape means something like shape or a collection of shapes suggesting an organization or system. So a landscape originally meant something like a collection of rural farm spaces and the adjacent surroundings. This is markedly different to today’s notions of landscape as an aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) outdoor place or imaginary expanse. You may or may not agree with J. B. Jackson when he writes:

"the formula landscape as a composition of man-made spaces on the land is more significant than it first appears, for it does not provide us with a definition it throws a revealing light on the origin of the concept. For it says that landscape is not a natural feature of the environment, but a synthetic space, a man-made system of spaces superimposed on the face of the land, functioning and evolving not according to natural laws but to serve a community - for the collective character of the landscape is one thing that all generations and all points of view have agreed upon."

As reasonable and well thought out as this is, it is a view that is also potentially dangerous. The landscape is a repository of history. Both geology and humankind have marked and shaped the land. Natural forces simply work at a slower pace than mankind. If something is possible, it is natural. Yet, even though people are a part of nature in the sense that we are as natural as anything else, we still make a relative conceptual distinction between man and nature. The reason for doing this is that otherwise we might be misled into believing that nature and landscape are purely a social construction, rendering the linguistic distinction between nature and culture useless. This attitude is disastrous for the non-humans living in what is left of the undomesticated as well as the built environment. The idea of human activity as natural allows for and to a certain extent excuses any excessive development of the land without respecting the need to preserve biodiversity through retaining wilderness regions. In his book The Practice of the Wild Gary Snyder pointed out the difference between the natural and wild. Anything alive is natural, even a biological culture genetically manipulated at Monsanto Corporation. Not everything, however, is wild, not even our national parks. The wild is what has been left alone in its rich indigenous local diversity and must be distinguished from that which is domesticated.

When Human Geographers leave the ivory tower of academicism they often do so to work as urban planners. Within that they may encounter resistance from environmental groups and individuals concerned with the last remaining vestiges of wilderness left on our finite planet. Not all, but most environmentalists are politically progressive. However, from the perspective of landscape historians and urban planners environmentalists are often seen as being quite reactionary. It is important to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and strive to understand their position and aims. In Buddhist ethics this is known as "the noble exchange of self and others," and is an integral component of the Bodhisattva ideal. From there empathy may expand into engaged compassion. Any genuine compassion is inseparable from openness and clarity. Many people think of environmentalists as being elite liberal freaks. If we want our message heard we have to present images and facts in support of sound alternatives and compromises that working people can take seriously. There is no recipe for this.

However, if our art should be grounded in history there is some cause for hope. In the introduction to Mountain Home translator David Hinton sums up an ancient attitude that resonates with today's urgent concerns.

"Originating in the early 5th century C.E. and stretching across two millennia, China's tradition of rivers-and-mountains (shan-shui) poetry represents the earliest and most extensive literary engagement with wilderness in human history. Fundamentally different from writing that employs the "natural world" as the stage or materials for human concerns, this poetry articulates a profound and spiritual sense of belonging to a wilderness of truly awesome dimensions. This is not wilderness in the superficial sense of "nature" or "landscape," terms the Western cultural lens has generally applied to this most fundamental aspect of Chinese poetry. "Nature" calls up a false dichotomy between human and nature, and "landscape" suggests a picturesque realm seen from a spectator's distance - but the Chinese wilderness is nothing less than a dynamic cosmology in which humans participate in the most fundamental way."

The poetry of ancient China was based on Chan Buddhism and Taoism, and was fundamentally linked to the practice of meditation. In a sense meditation is like mentally camping for awhile in a cognitive wilderness where our common humanity and vulnerability are shared. It is, on the one hand, to tame the afflictive emotions, and on the other to simply let go and be fully present in the moment. For the photographer this means to participate with place and space, to cut through discursive thinking, and generate a message through one’s work free of self-righteous opinionated aesthetic materialism.

How can you cut discursive thinking? In Tibetan Buddhism and Zen one endeavors to deal with one’s emotions by neither following nor repressing them, but rather looking at and acknowledging the rawness, the pure energy of the emotion or thought. Take, for example, aggression: you simply be with it, as it is, without modification. It’s like body surfing – you don’t fight the wave. You have to participate with the wave, become inseparable from the wave and water, and ride with the timing and skill of surrender. I’d like to be able to make pictures that way, not just of the so-called landscape, but also the ordinary moments and details that usually pass by unnoticed.

Participating With Place and Space, 2001