In the house where I grew up my mother painted a scene of green rolling hills and an arching rainbow on our kitchen window. She said she painted it so she would have something pretty to look at rather than the side of the neighbor’s unkempt house. The painting gave me much to think about: the boundaries of personal and public space and the irony of painting a picture on a picture window. It also made me wonder: What is art? What is beauty? – questions that would later inform my artistic practice.
In the belief that landscape has less to do with nature than our shaping and adapting of it, I focused on urban settings while making the photographs in this series. This interpretation follows the scholarly work of John B. Jackson who argued, “landscape is not a natural feature of the environment but a synthetic space, a man-made system of spaces superimposed on the face of the land, functioning and evolving not according to natural laws but to serve a community.”1 The land – and our relationship to it – is always in flux. This change is evidenced in murals of nature scenes painted in urban settings.
Public mural paintings most often memorialize someone or something that has come to pass. Wall paintings depicting nature scenes serve the same function. Ironically, they are painted on surfaces that displace the natural world they depict. I consider these murals idyllic nods to nature and a show of dominance over the world they portray.
I photographed these landscape murals focusing on the intersection between the natural earth and the man-made environment. The boundaries between these two worlds are often unclear in the resulting images. The paintings and the earth have merged to form a new landscape while drawing attention to the meaning of that term.
Inspiration for this series came from 19th-century photographers such as William Henry Jackson. In making this series I used a 60 year-old large-format film camera that required the transport of a bulky tripod, multiple film backs, a changing bag, and related cumbersome equipment. The procedure of carrying these tools slowed my photographic process, making my working methods more akin to the 19th century photographers who influenced this series. I became a landscape photographer steeped in a landscape tradition.
Landscape photographers would often use a mammoth plate camera to capture the intricate details of the land, believing that in such awe-inspiring detail, God could be illuminated. In my photographs, buildings of stucco and cement are seen in sharp clarity, while evidence of nature often wanes in out and out of focus as branches and leaves blow in the wind. The images speak to a loss of wilderness that has been replaced by decorations and facades.
Using a large-format camera I can achieve print sizes that approximate the scale of the American landscape paintings of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Images of the “new land” by painters such as Albert Bierstadt and Frederick Church, and photographers like Timothy O’Sullivan and Carleton E. Watkins, showed both the sublime grandeur of nature and its subjugation. The land most illustrated during that time was the American West. This vast and uncharted territory represented both physical and transcendental freedom and helped give rise to a national identity for a country struggling to define itself in contrast to Europe and after the Civil War. Government agencies and railroad companies hired artists and photographers for survey and expedition groups to produce pictures that would propagate the theme of Manifest Destiny. The pictures fueled the belief that the United States had the God given right, and duty, to conquer the wildness and its native peoples. In Aperture magazine’s 1990 issue, “Beyond Wilderness,” Rebecca Solnit notes “the compositional strategy that landscape inherited proposed the landscape as a stage with humanity as its drama.” My landscape photographs invert this earlier tradition, or perhaps are the evidence of it having come full circle. No people need be present in my photographs to show this is a populated land. My images do not foreshadow territorial dominance as the pictures from the 19th century often did; they are its reflection.
1 Jackson, John, B. Discovering the Vernacular Landscape, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1984, p.8.