ANN ARBOR, MI.- How do we contend with the immensity of the physical world? We are so small and seemingly insignificant within this larger world we occupy; what is our relationship to nature and how do we organize that relationship to an external environment that seems to be infinite? Since the earliest totemic depictions of hunting scenes in cave paintings, people have long tried to impose order within a structure too large to grasp in its entirety until modern technologies such as air and space travel brought the planet within our intellectual and physical comprehension. Artists have found ways to depict the natural world that evoke the terrors and pleasures of the sublime features of the Earth—mountains, crevasses, and oceans where the furies of nature seem to find full release—as well as quiet scenes that represent a settled landscape. As man’s relationship to the natural world began to include a shaping hand on the land, traces of human habitation began to take a stronger role in depictions of nature.
Featuring works from UMMA’s collections, this exhibition explores the responses of photographers to the infinite variation and daunting scope of the natural world. How an artist portrays landscape speaks to that artist’s most basic assumptions of our place within the world. For painters, a landscape drawn from the imagination can readily express feelings of awe, delight, grandeur, and other sensations evoked by nature. For photographers, whose work begins with a specific view as a point of departure and interpretation, creating a landscape that captures the essence of the photographer’s inner view of nature may be more difficult to achieve.
As the variability of landscapes can appear boundless, so can artists’ responses to the vagaries of landscape seem infinite—even given the constraints of the medium of photography. The soaring heights of mountains and vast expanses of oceans in works by Ansel Adams, Harry Callahan, and Minor White emphasize the scale of natural features, with the implication of our own minute status within that colossal sweep of wilderness. Edward Sheriff Curtis’s depiction of the Canyon de Chelly includes a small band of men on horseback—what could give greater potency to the notion of our own insignificance that those tiny figures passing in front of gigantic rock cliffs? Other photographers portrayed landscapes in which man has already had an impact; Eugène Atget’s groomed French parks and Michael Kenna’s interpretations of similar sites come to mind. The formal gardens they depict were already shaped by a landscape architect, providing Kenna and Atget the volumes and lines embedded in those landscapes for them to exploit in their photographs. And photographers use cropping and framing to extend that shaping hand from the landscape into the image itself.
Much of the beauty of Kenna’s and Atget’s garden images comes from the subtle geometry of the sites they explored; Franco Fontana, Ralph Gibson and Brett Weston’s images also engage the viewer with a satisfying sense of geometry, but theirs is created not from the site, but from the way they envision the landscape before their lens. In such images, the landscape is celebrated but the artist’s role in the landscape is as that of creator as well as interpreter. William Garnett’s interpretation of the sinuous curves of the Mississippi wending its way towards the sea and André Kertész’s evocation of the landscape of his youth (reminiscent of Bedrich Smetana’s musical depiction of the Moldau) remind us that the landscape, so rich in personal memory and visual beauty, is a common thread in our endeavor to make sense of our place in the world, wherever we are.
In addition to iconic views of nature’s vast topography or an intimate view of a personal and familiar landscape, a very new concept of landscape views—views of the earth taken from space—contributed to a fresh understanding of our planet as a fragile oasis, balancing delicate global and local ecosystems. Rarely has the landscape seemed so small or so in need of stewardship. Whether portraying majestic mountain ranges or the domestic views of someone’s yard, photographers have overcome the limits of their medium that ground the image in an existing view to convey the richness of this splendidly finite and vastly infinite world we inhabit.
Senior Curator of Western Art