Looking at the Land

Looking at the Land: 21st Century American Views

Curated by Andy Adams and produced in conjunction with the exhibition America in View: Landscape Photography 1865 to Now, organized by the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island, and shown there September 21, 2012 - January 13, 2013. This exhibit is presented as a video slideshow as well as individually accessible images containing detailed information about the photographers and a short interview format.  

Emily Shur   Parking Lot
Sedona, Arizona  (2010)

"Photographers are doing what they’ve always done — looking at the land with a camera to explore, understand, critique and comment upon humankind’s relationship with nature. The subject matter has changed with each new generation, as have the impressions of the photographers behind the lens. This survey is by no means exhaustive but it does signal the beginning of a fertile new era in the ever-evolving landscape photo tradition. It studies a cross-section of current landscape photography in the documentary style. Most of these pictures depict actual places and their content says much about the United States and the American people. We live in a post-New Topographics landscape where an entire generation of photographers was born and raised in suburban sprawl. Wilderness is a foreign concept. Our environment has been significantly altered. We live with nature at arm's length. Photography describes these things."
          -Andy Adams, Looking at the Land 

Christine Carr
Roanoke, Virginia (2005)

When we really begin to think about the landscape, and look beyond the cliche and romantic images that might appear in our heads when hearing the words Landscape Photography, it quickly becomes apparent just how ambiguous the concept really is. The landscape is both a visual experience and a cognitive puzzle without an obvious solution. The American landscape has intrigued artists and geographers for centuries, the best of which have never stopped asking themselves why things look the way they do.

In The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes  (1979 Oxford Press) , D. W. Meinig's essay The Beholding Eye offers what I have found to be one of the most helpful ways in which to categorize and evaluate landscapes. Meinig breaks down the landscape into a pattern of language based on ten elements; landscape as Nature, landscape as Habitat, landscape as Artifact, landscape as System, landscape as Problem, landscape as Wealth, landscape as Ideology, landscape as History, landscape as Place, and landscape as Aesthetic. This language of landscape allows us to analyse and better appreciate not only the visual aspects of the landscape, but also the cultural and psychological qualities. And while this is obviously most helpful for academics like Meinig and J B Jackson (etal), I think it is just as useful to curators and photographers/artists in search of deeper understanding of the ambiguous meanings within the contemporary landscape.  Based on Meinig's elements as a benchmark, I think Andy Adams did a remarkable job with his selections.  Eighty eight images were chosen from a submission pool of over five thousand. As a back story to the photographs in the exhibit, each photographer was asked the same set of four questions, including one about the specifics of place and another that explores the compulsion of the artist to photograph the land. The answers are as intriguing and insightful as the images.

Mike Sinclair  Western Auto Building from 22nd & Main Street
Kansas City (2010)

I'm not sure I agree with Andy Adams about today being a post-New Topographic landscape. For better or worse, the landscape hasn't changed all that much since the mid-nineteen seventies and neither has the general aesthetic of contemporary landscape photography. The influence of the New Topographic photographers and the New Color photographers of the 1970's is very evident among the images being presented. Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, Len Jenshel, Joel Meyerowitz, and a few others are eerily present and hovering over this exhibition. I'm not saying that is a bad thing. I love those photographers. We're not quite ready to declare independence and graduation from the influences of such recent photographic past is the only point I am trying to make.

Ian Baguskas  Two Structures
Death Valley, California (2008)

This is, however, a post- Gallery Centric exhibition.  The evolution of the online exhibition format has been relatively slow and hindered when compared to the frenetic pace of internet time, but Adams has his foot on the accelerator. I won't get into the details of the development of this exhibition. There is an excellent piece written by Paul Moakley on Time Lightbox  that needs to be read to fully appreciate the significance and success of what Andy Adams has accomplished not only with this exhibit, but also in shaping the virtual contemporary photography landscape. We are witnessing a new interpretation of the exhibition format.

Self Contained

I shared with more than a few people during the weeks of this call for work that I was nervous about a slow response and that I was having trouble finding patterns and relationships among the images being submitted. I began to doubt myself in choosing this theme. Maybe it was too cerebral.... too vague.... too similar to last year's theme, etc etc. I had to let go of that anxiety and just wait to see what would come in.  I have not been let down. In the past few weeks I have received some really strong work and remarkable symmetry is happening in front of my eyes. To me this is the primary joy of curating a project like this. An orchestra sounds chaotic and dissonant while warming up, but ahhh, once the music begins! That is how I feel right now.

There is one week left to submit your work. I want to remind all readers that this is a completely profit-free competition. No entry fees, and the resulting Blurb book will be sold at the artist cost (no profit added).  The deadline is October 1st, 2012.

Sylvia De Swaan     Self Contained (2012)

Satoshi Tsuchiyama       Self Contained  (2012)

Mikhail Palinchak       Self Contained (2012)

Submit to Self Contained

Towards the 21st Century

“To celebrate new ideas in photography, we are asking people to nominate up to five photographers who have demonstrated an openness to use new ideas in photography, who have taken chances with their photography and have shown an unwillingness to play it safe."

In response to this open call from Joerg Colberg and Colin Pantall for examples of the current avant-garde among photographers, here are the first two that come to mind for me...

Zoe Strauss

Zoe Strauss
Billboard #28 "Women Kissing" at Cottman Ave & Revere Street

At the turn of the century, an unknown Philadelphia based artist named Zoe Strauss created a ten year public art project that presented an annual outdoor photography exhibit, displaying works in progress mounted on concrete pillars under Interstate 95 in South Philadelphia. Visitors were invited to take home a print at the end of each annual one day exhibit. Five dollar copies of the images from the exhibit were sold to art collectors and curious neighborhood visitors who (towards the end of the decade) stood in line for hours for a chance to meet Zoe face to face and have her sign the prints. In 2012, as part of a mid career retrospective at the Philadelphia Art Museum, images were displayed on 54 billboards throughout the city of Philadelphia, further enhancing the public accessibility of her art. Strauss fully embraced the transparency of social media; allowing Facebook, Twitter and her blog to become an open diary and window into her work process. Starting relatively late as a photographer (age 30), she does not even have a 20th Century portfolio. Strauss developed an internationally recognized photography career entirely within the 21st Century.  The PMA exhibit had the double effect of being one of the most talked about and well attended exhibits in the museum's history, while at the same time ruffling the feathers of Philly's photographic olde guard. Self taught photographer Zoe Strauss has never played it safe a day in her life. Just ask the White House press secretary.

Alec Soth

Alec Soth photobooks

Alec Soth has changed the way we think about, and consume, photobooks. Always pushing in new directions, Soth sells a wide variety of book formats via his prolific Little Brown Mushroom publishing venture. Collectors can buy limited edition books that range in price from less than ten dollars to almost one thousand dollars, in an amazing variety of formats. Soth has produced cheap staple bound zines in various edition sizes, as well as elaborate projects such as Broken Manual that took several years to complete. Most recently, Soth has been travelling the United States, producing very quickly edited newsprint "dispatches" from places like Ohio and Upstate New York. Soth also transitions seamlessly from solo artist to collaborator. Projects such as Lonely Boy Magazine have been produced with multiple contributors, House Of Coates was produced with writer Brad Zellar, and Soth has ventured into the pseudo-psychological realm via his alter-ego Lester B Morrison. I am an avid collector of Alec Soth's books and have written about my passion previously on PHOTO/arts Magazine.  Alec Soth has little competition in becoming the defining figure in the early 21st Century photobook genre.

Valerio Spada

The first United States showing of Valerio Spada's Gomorrah Girl series is currently on the walls at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center in Philadelphia, Pa. The exhibit opened on September 13th and runs until November 24th, 2012. Spada's self published book of the same title won the grand prize in the 2011 Blurb Photobook Now competition. The book is a uniquely designed format consisting of two books in one; larger staple bound pages of crime scene reports interwoven with smaller pages containing Spada's photographs. The crime scene reports are details of the shooting death of Annalisa Durante. It was meeting Annalisa's father on a visit to Naples that instigated the desire in Spada to create this series.

Valerio Spada lecturing at the
Philadelphia Photo Arts Center

I have attended quite a few artist lectures over the years, but I have heard very few as mesmerizing as the one given by Valerio Spada at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center on September 15th.  For ninety minutes non stop, Spada gave us a first hand account of the history of his series, which documents the crime and drug ridden neighborhood outside Naples that is the setting for his photographs. From his first encounter with the father of murdered teenager Annalisa Durante, to journeys inside heroin shooting galleries and dangerous situations with the Camorrah (mafia). Spada speaks very fluent English, but his unique accent that is strongly Italian with a slightly noticeable touch of French required intense concentration for me to follow every part of his story. I must admit I got lost a few times, but never once lost interest in the subject.

The most touching part of this series are the Gomorrah Girls themselves. We never see Annalisa except for a tiny portrait that hangs from a gold chain around her father's neck. The images of young girls we see in this series are growing up among one of the most difficult and dangerous environments in Italy.  Spada is a fashion photographer in Paris and it was significant to hear him talk about his reactions to meeting very young girls whose only dream in life is to become a sex symbol on the nightly TV news. The ambiguous messages they receive from Italian mainstream culture are compounded by the intensely difficult environment in which they are growing up. The Gomorrah Girls live in a world of lost adolescence; lost to violence, criminal social order, and a misogynistic sexual culture.  Spada presents us with a chilling look into the center of this world.

Gomorrah Girl installation images
Philadelphia Photo Arts Center
Philadelphia, Pa

Valerio Spada's website

Self Contained

"Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that musty old cheese that we are. We have had to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable, and that we need not come to open war. We meet at the post office, and at the sociable, and about the fireside every night; we live thick and are in each other's way, and stumble over one another..."
Henry David Thoreau

The deadline to submit your work to Self Contained is October 1st, three weeks from today.  I have been receiving some beautiful work, and I thought I would share a tiny peek at some of the images that have inspired me. Each week between now and the deadline I will post a few images from the submission pool.  Here is today's selection of photographs, from Eastern European submissions.

Alex Kruglov   Self Contained (2012)

Robert Hutinski    Self Contained (2012)

Kristin Lukash   Self Contained (2012)

Call For Work 2012.... Self Contained