Territorial Photography – Joel Snyder.
There are 25 pages of this book that we are asked to read and pull the main points from.
- The chapter begins by explaining the attitudes of photography as a mechanical operation. Snyder notes that images captured on a camera were not thought to be ‘spiritual’ in their production in the same way as painting etc. Photography was different and transcended debates beyond historic discourse of landscape.
- The very nature of the mechanical aspect to the production of a photograph meant that the viewer believed that the photograph was a true depiction of the landscape. O’Sullivan’s work is later on explained as subverting this belief when he moves away from the pictorial norms.
- The aim of Synder’s writing is to provide discourse on why landscape photography came to look the way it does in context to the US pioneering landscape photography. He speaks about this within the wider topic of how photography was being placed as a genre and who the customer bases and audiences were.
- Snyder observes the era that photography was evolving in. Broadly, the middle classes were all for the industrial advancements and they prized photography. This fact may have influenced photographers in being content with the notion that photography wasn’t art and enjoyed producing highly manufactured and glossy prints. Travels undertaken to far away lands by the middle classes opened up a market for commercial postcards of iconic locations. They simply wanted to have an accurate depiction of where they had been and what they had seen.
- Between 1860 – 1880, there was little critical discourse about the ‘function’ of photography and landscape genre was left to evolve. Prior to the commercialisation of landscape photography, audiences had been very small as the means to distribute and display work was largely difficult and unfeasible. The working classes were even less educated in the nuances of art and were impressed with the precision of a photograph.
- Photographers were largely from privileged backgrounds. They had been educated in art and were not willing to let go of the pictorial aesthetics. Also Snyder believed that their belief in naturalism undermined the first generation of landscape photographers. This approach caused scathing attacks from Lady Eastlake who wrote extensively about the lack of artistic merit of landscape photography.
Late 1850’s photography was conceptually separated from other depictive art
– Painting and graphics being imaginative, cognitive and ideal.
– Photography; depending on interests of writer, the factual, the material and physically real.
- Baudelaire and Holmes came to agree that the value of photograph. It was transparent and true to material, visible and superficial. So, photographs were not subject to imagination or convention of illustration.
- In the 1860’s there were difficult rhetorical questions facing landscape photographers but Carleton Watkins resolved these questions. Watkins merged the technical with the picturesque, and sublime modes of landscape depiction on20x 24-inch negatives highly finished, unrelenting detailed views of US parks. He successfully merged the science and aesthetics.
Pictorial issues were incoherent at this time.
His achievements were two fold
1. Craft – technical
2. Standards of perfection that would be an exact replication of what we would see if we ourselves had come to stand at that point and at that time.
- Watkins viewed his job as a recorder of the actual and not the idealised.
- He enjoyed highly approving reviews of Watkins Yosemite peaks and paved the way for Ansel Adams.
- Watkins undertook commissions for surveys of mining, lumbar and railroad projects in the pioneering days of USA. He portrayed harmony between the land and depictions of progress that symbolised by the industrialisation of the regions. He mastered controlling ‘the ugly’ by means of totality – smooth rendering of mid tones. Views of land and rail were also harmonised.
- His work wasn’t political as far as he was concerned. Made for use of potential of the regions – committing his audience to a belief in the western American Eden. He represents it in a way that encourages the audience to see it as a scene of potential exploitation and development. He won international praise for his topographical work.
- The chapter goes on to talk about the work O’Sullivan. He had started life as a battlefield photographer.
- O’Sullivan was asked to photograph frontiers but in a scientifically disinterested way – the idea was that the leader wanted to understand the far corners of the country and place the knowledge on the hands of scientists, land management experts and mining company engineers. The project leader King, employed Sullivan from ’1867 – 1874 to ‘record the feel of the place’. Nevada, Arizona, Utah New Mexico were explored. O’Sullivan presented a bleak and inhospitable terrain that was antithesis of Watkins work. O’Sullivan wasn’t worried about print selling or science and had freedom to tackle the project how he saw fit.
- Snyder explains that Krauss was highly critical of his work. Having assumed that he travelled as a scientist, she didn’t feel that his work could be placed in the discursive spaces of science or history. The images had a different approach and aesthetic.
- O’Sullivan’s work was lost until 1929 when Ansel Adams found a small selection of the photographs. He sent them to MoMA and said of them that the images were technically deficient but surreal and disturbing.
- The compositional techniques were quite different from Watkins topographical / factual observations. O’Sullivan placement of landscape within a frame leant itself to producing a sense of uneasy viewing – the reality of the photographer when confronted with vast and pristine wilderness? He placed people within the frame to further enhance the sense of uneasiness – achieving the communication of the sublime that could be subjected to formal analysis.
The next part of this exercise is to analyse a photograph by Watkins and O’Sullivan that hasn’t been considered within Snyder’s writing. The image quality in the chapter is so poor that I am not sure what I am looking at exactly. I don’t believe my selected photographs form part of the text.
O’Sullivan – Alkaline Lake.
I have selected this image because of the placement of the person within the far foreground of this image. Without that person in the frame, we would be unable to easily discern the scale of what we are looking at or how we might feature within that landscape. The uneasiness of the vast emptiness and loneliness of the location signifies that is somewhere that you might not actually want to find yourself in.
This image is a clear illustration of how O’Sullivan is able to project ‘the feel of the place’ by use of perspective and people placement. Albeit there is an air of the honesty that topographic photography provides, it is unlike Watkins idealised work and it departs from the idea of what photography ‘is’ in the mid 1800’s and by definition, it steps into the realms of art.
The website where I sourced this image from demonstrates in various other photographs how O’Sullivan used compositional skill and light to exaggerate the landscape to capture the imposing nature of an area. His approach veers away from pictorial art/ photography. In this photograph, I am unable to compare the vista to a different composition by a different photographer and therefore I am unsure as to the ‘honesty’ of the photograph as an accurate depiction of this landscape; nor the means he employed to achieve it. That is the point of his work though. He wasn’t asked to photograph for scientific purposes but to convey the ‘otherness’ of various regions that hadn’t been easily discerned from the work of Watkins, or other scientific pioneering photographer of the time.
It is hard to work out how technically ‘correct’ the images are. Snyder reflected on the culture of technical perfection being at the centre of photography. However, if we are to assume that this reinforces Adams observation of technically deficient, then that deficiency would add to atmosphere in my opinion.
It seems to me that O’Sullivan was ahead of his time and probably why his work was lost on his critics. It is such a shame that only a relative handful of his work survives.
http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma99/paul/tim/framing2.html Last accessed 12/03/2016
This image by Watkins has to epitomise the very idealistic representations of the American frontiers under the cloak of ‘real’. This image is also an example of how he tackled the incoherent debates of landscape photography with blending the technical craftsmanship and perfectionism.
In the style of pictorial artists that have gone before him and with the mechanical precision prized at the time, the result being, “who couldn’t stare at that image and imagine a little Swiss style chalet, smallholding and logging opportunities?” This followed with considerations of family life – a Sunday afternoon picnic while sheltering under the canopy of the woodland, perhaps? Relocating to America would seem a very inviting prospect and certainly an image to take home on a postcard.
His approach fits very much into Baudelaire and Holmes opinions that photography should be factual and superficial and should not be subjected to artistic interpretation in its making. This notion is exactly what Lady Eastlake disliked – the lack of creative merit that O’Sullivan went on to achieve but not be recognised for until much later. This approach to photography stood to be popular as a commercial venture for the travelling middle classes and still is to this day.