Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Print the Legend of the Western Landscape

In Processed Views, we draw attention to America's changing landscape brought about by industrial farming and food production. We choose to highlight and be guided by the work of 19th c. photographer, Carleton Watkins, photographer of both Yosemite Valley and the mining, lumber and railroad industries.

A peripheral conversation arising from our 19th century mimicry is the evolving nature of all of American landscape photography. In her history of western landscape photography, Print The Legend, Martha Sandweiss illuminates the way photography both stops time, exists in time and it's ability to create myth, legend and identity. 

"During the nineteenth century, photographers and photographic publisher worked hard to transform their intrinsically fragmentary images of the western landscape into complex visual narratives, relying on printed captions and the elaborate sequencing of serial views to created stories of temporal change. But wrenched from these original publications contexts, nineteenth century western photographs are indeed ill-suited to speaking to "progressions" of the "relations between things." They necessarily represent a kind of discontinuous history in which neither the shape nor the cause of change is easily discerned and if they cannot mimic the flow of history, neither can they easily mimic the shape of popular literature, for change is a hallmark of popular literary representations of the nineteenth-century West. The wilderness is subdued, the deserts bloom, heroes grow in moral stature, and more modest narratives of self-improvement play out again and again across the frontier. Photographs can serve such narratives of change and can, indeed , evoke deep-felt memories of such cultural myths. But particularly when wrenched from their original publication contexts, they can rarely depict or explain such change themselves; products of history , they cannot always serve history well. They resemble what Pierre Nora calls Ilieux de memoire, sites of memory: "moments of history torn away from the movement of history, then returned; no longer quite life, not yet death, like shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded." Artifacts of the past, they can still evoke the past, but always in negotiated and contingent ways. 

When we read nineteenth-century photographs in history, when we try to reinsert them into the rich economic and cultural world of their production we can indeed learn much about the world from which they come. But, of course, we cannot truly do so without also reading the photograph through history and approaching them with questions and concerns of our own. Photographs are stable objects, but they have unstable meaning. If the meaning and messages of nineteenth-century photographs are constantly shifting and being invented anew, despite all the seeming specificity of their subject matter, the pictures nonetheless remain remarkably rich and useful to all those who would study the national past. For ultimately, their greatest value lies not in the physical information they convey—about the appearance of a place, the shape of an object, the sense, photographs stop time, but they remain paradoxically dynamic artifacts.” p. 342


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