Research: Book – The Contest of Meaning: Richard Bolton

Within this post, I intend focus upon a particular essay within the book, The Contest of Meaning by Richard Bolton.

The essay is by Deborah Bright – ‘Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men: An inquiry into the cultural meanings of landscape photography’. 

This essay first caught my attention through my dissertation research and left a strong impact upon me as a critical overview of the origins and development of landscape imagery, shaped by the visual language of literature and fine art paintings, offering only a bourgeoisie view of nature and of the sublime, the picturesque and the beautiful.

In this, I can only offer an overview of the ideas and historical contexts she discusses for fear of future self plagiarism, as much of this will form my introduction. However, I still felt it was worth considering in regards to achieving my PDP’s fifth objective.

According to Bright, landscape photography is undergoing a resurgence during recent years. In 1984 alone, we had publication such as landscape as photograph, Edward Weston’s California Landscapes, the essential landscape, Second view and an America Field guide.

From this, she discusses the traditional format of landscape photography as

an upbeat and wholesome sort of subject’

This appealed beyond politics and ideology and represented that of ‘timeless values’. These landscapes are used to represent a romanticised, mythological American ideal.

However, landscape imagery is not purely intended as a representation of political statements or as nostalgic re-imaginings of material objects

the loci of our modernist pleasure

Landscape itself in principle and definition is a subject of representation only a modern context. The term landscape is founded in western art history. This involved the tradition of painterly and pastoral idealism, following that of noble actions.

With the rise of the merchant bourgeoisie in Holland, we saw a seemingly more natural landscape. These painting acted as recording and glorification of property ownership, which was soon following by the English landscape in the Eighteenth century, which started to prioritise technological and scientific pursuits, representing the transition in the cultural priorities.

Whether noble, picturesque, sublime or mundane, the landscape image bears the imprint of its cultural pedigree

This cultural imprint influenced the transition into photography. This representation of the ruling class point of view influenced the origins of landscape photography.

Every representation of landscape is also a record of human values and actions imposed upon the land at the time

From this, Bright concerns herself with questions such as

 What ideologies landscape photography perpetuate?

In those interest are they conceived?

Why do we still desire to make and consume them?

Why the art of landscape photographs remain so singularly identified with a masculine eye?

The first aspect of discussion is how religion influenced much of American landscape imagery during the late nineteenth century. A desire to fulfil the spiritual, nature experience.

The increase of urbanisation and disenchantment with city environments resulted in a desire to reconnect with natural spaces.

God’s gift to the American people

With the intention to present timeless landscapes for future generations, travel photography became almost ceremonial, as though showing a sign of devotion through the capture of snapshots of the conventional icons of nature. A photograph is seen to act as a visual icon of original experience. Often tourist would show little interest in the true wilderness and instead seek out the sublime attributes we define as aesthetically appropriate and thereby photographically significant.

Many of these visual cues were based upon romantic literature and landscape art. Culturally defined, predetermined and preconditioned views of natural beauty. These view became the established standard against which all future documentations of landscape ‘spectacles’ would be judged. This also crossed over into the origins of film with the associate of mankind’s conquering  of nature. This exploration of the dangerous, sublime and wild American natural parks became a subject of huge public interest.

During this time and arguably for some time after, photography and general art practice were dominated by a masculine point of view. Western tourist landscapes also became a marketing strategy for commercialism, whether this was selling cigarettes or presidents. Nature had been designed to match a particular market and audience.

Like Philip Morris’s Marlboro Man, today a white hatted Reagan rides his horse or chops up wood for the camera on his Santa Barbara ranch, a rugged individualist draw up to specs by Central Casting

However, for some nature represented a position of vulnerability and fragility amongst the oppression of human development. For ‘liberal conservations’ the landscape was a place of purity, wild, untamed and undisturbed by the surroundings of technology and consumerism.

the romantic dream of a pure, unsullied wilderness where communion with nature can transpire without technological meditation, a dream that has been effectively engineered out of most modern experience.

It is the modernist position, that creates a western cultural predisposition towards the idea that nature only holds value to us if it benefits us economically (exhausting resources, construction) or if we find some greater enrichment from it (spiritual connection, nostalgia).

For some, nature is an opportunity to free themselves of the burden of the rules and regulations of urban social constraints.

A place where social Darwinism and free enterprise can operate untrammelled, where tract houses can sprout in the waterless desert.

Bright also mentioned a ‘pundit’ who summarises this point rather succinctly

For Americans, true freedom is not the choice at the ballot box but the opportunity to create a new world out of nothing: a Beverly Hills, a Disneyland, a Dallas, a Tranquillity Base.

The suggestion of modernity implies that we can reshape and redefine what we associate with social normality, this includes what we perceive as nature, beauty and the photographic image.

Through the conventions of landscape photography and Hollywood cinema, the landscape itself is neither defined by aesthetics or geological categories, it shaped by culture and social authority which in itself in an ever changing state of flux.

Beauty, preservation, development, exploitation, regulation: these are historical matters in flux, not essential conditions of landscape

From this point, Bright leads on to discuss various broadening changes within photographic definition of landscape, much of which I will discuss within my dissertation.

In this, I feel have summarises the intentions of Bright’s essay as well as some of the new concepts I have started to think about and consider within my own approach to natural subjects.


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