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By Suzanne Révy, Associate Editor
Mark Klett’s triptych of the Hoover Dam is a tour de force that lays bare humankind’s fascination with the awe inspiring western American landscape and our urge to re-shape it by sheer force of will. The frame to the right depicts a virgin scene of mountains and river, the center shows a man-made structure embedded into the side of a mountain, and to the left, the Hoover Dam, a monument to engineering and the grit it took to pave our way west. It opens a broadly satisfying exhibition, “Contemplating the View: American Landscape Photographs” currently showing at the Addison Gallery of American Art through March 3, 2019. A gallery talk and tour of this exhibit with curator Allison Kemmerer is scheduled for tomorrow, Thursday, October 25, 2019 at 11:00am.
Organized largely chronologically, the exhibit begins with mid-to-late nineteenth century albumen prints of mammoth plate landscapes made in pristine western wildernesses by Carlton Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge. These magnificent images were designed to bring tourists west to fulfill the potent nineteenth century idea of “manifest destiny,” which stated that conquering the land is inevitable and ordained by God. Industrial incursions such as the railroads and bridges were photographed to demonstrate the feats of engineering needed to populate the American landscape, as seen in Andrew Russell’s Bird’s Eye View of Bull Run Bridge from 1863 and William Rau’s Lower Genesee Falls, LVRR from 1899.
Pictorialism is paired with modernism and abstraction to offer views of land seemingly untouched, as in George Buell Hollister and Hebe Hollister’s softly focused “Elms by the River” from 1916, Ansel Adams’ impressive black and white prints of images made of western mountain ranges and Yosemite from the mid-twentieth century, and Harry Callahan’s quietly abstract “Sunlight on Water” from 1943. Purely formal considerations endow a mythic and idealized vision of the American landscape, but as we move through history, photographers challenge those ideals through irony, humor or descriptions of intrusions onto the land.
Lewis Baltz’s series “Candlestick Point” (1989), for example, reveals vast areas of industrial waste or suburban sprawl in a matter-of fact and repetitive manner, while Emmet Gowin’s aerial studies of drainages reveal transmutations of land at the hands of industrial agriculture. Robert Frank’s image of postcards on sale near the Hoover Dam ironically depict the untouched land, the engineered reshaping of the land by a dam, and the annihilation of it with a nuclear bomb: it reflects a sense of the history from the earliest settlers through industrialization and the Cold War.
Roger Minick amusingly offers an idyllic view of Yosemite falls twice in one image: as a landscape and its reproduction on a souvenir scarf of a visiting tourist, his pointed critique of the commodification of our natural wonders. John Pfahl literally intrudes in the landscape by polluting it with string or aluminum foil or small orange balls in a grid of nine “Altered Landscapes,” which speak to encroachments not just on grand vistas, but more ordinary and prosaic places.
Photographers often question the veracity of the medium. Joel Sternfeld’s “McLean, Virginia; December, 1978” has become the classic example of “what’s wrong with this picture?” A firefighter nonchalantly shops for pumpkins as a house fire rages in the background… and we are to believe it is in December. The context is not present in the picture, but apparently the fire was a controlled practice, and I rather suspect the date in the title refers to when the first print was made, not the exposure. Similarly, Patrick Nagatani presents an unlikely snowy scene in “Renault Alpine, Wilkes Land, Antarctica,” which raises questions… how did that car get there? On close inspection, the viewer realizes it is not a vast snowy landscape, but a small-scale model.
Robert Adams visually questions the impact of expansion and development into the western landscape in four simply presented black and white prints of images made in Colorado. His work was included in the influential “New Topographics” exhibition in the mid-1970’s along with Baltz, Frank Gohlke and Stephen Shore (all included in this show) which questioned humankind’s relationship with the land. Contemporary local photographers such as Oscar Palacio and Greg Heins explore nature’s ability to protrude through and persist in urban or industrial environments. Will we allow the environment to flourish? And by extension, will we allow humans to flourish in it?
We may find the answer in more personally expressive work such as Lois Conner’s panoramic platinum prints of Yosemite and Louisiana or in one of the few figurative works by Barbara Bosworth in “Christmas Eclipse in my Father’s Hands, Sanibel Island” from 2000. Their pictures offer a glimmer of hope through a reverence for the natural world.
The Addison Gallery’s deep holdings in photography offer a broad survey of the history of the medium through the lens of landscape. We journey not just through the craft of photography from its earliest days to the present, but through a myriad of visual approaches and responses to place. This is a magnificent and impressive exhibition, presenting a unique reflection of American history that headed west to develop and shape lands, serving the economic and cultural ambitions of a powerful country.
If you visit, be sure to see the Paul Manship exhibition. Famous for his Art Deco sculptures, including “Prometheus” in New York City’s Rockefeller Center, Manship created a fifteen acre artist retreat in Gloucester, Massachusetts. After his death, an artist residency and studio program were developed to preserve the estate, and the Addison Gallery commissioned four Massachusetts based photographers, S. Billie Mandle, Abelardo Morell, Barbara Bosworth and Justin Kimball to respond to the Manship Estate on Cape Ann. Their four interpretive installations accompany Manship’s sculptures in a captivating contemporary counterpoint to the deep historical dive in “Contemplating the View: The American Landscape Photographs.” A gallery talk with S. Billie Mandle and Barbara Bosworth is planned for this Sunday, October 28, 2019 at 2pm and a gallery talk with Abelardo Morell and Justin Kimball is planned for December 2, 2019 at 2pm.
This is a great time to visit the Addison Gallery! The interplay between their multiple current exhibits that include photography is truly enlivening. To read our review of “The Body: Concealing and Revealing”, go to: https://whatwillyouremember.com/the-body-concealing-and-revealing-at-addison-gallery-of-american-art-andover-ma/ Tomorrow, we introduce you to the woman behind the Addison’s photographic exhibitions in our Curator’s Viewpoint interview with Allison Kemmerer, the Mead Curator of Photography and Senior Curator of Contemporary Art.
For directions, hours, exhibit and programming information about the Addison Gallery of American Art, go to: