Deborah Bright’s essay ‘Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men’ was written in 1985.
Landscape (from lakes Tahoe to Wobegon) is conceived by the middle classes in America as evoking the universal constancy of geological and mythic America beyond politics and ideology, appealing to ‘timeless values’.
But: every representation of landscape is also a record of human values and actions imposed on the land over time. Even formal and personal choices reflect collective interests and influences – philosophical, political, economic.
In late 19C US, after the ‘Indian problem’ had been brutally solved, a Cult of Wild Nature flourished. Tourism to national parks exploded. Supported by cowboy films from Hollywood.
But landscape photographers represented are mostly male.
John Pfahl Power Places – beautiful pictures of nuclear power plants but there are no statements to anchor his photographs. Expensive for gallery.
Contrast with Lisa Lewenz Three Mile Island Calendar uses photographs from nearby inhabitant’s windows. Published cheaply for mass distribution. Much more human and political.
Landscape images are the last preserve of a nation’s myths about nature, civilisation and beauty. It is no accident that the genre’s resurgence in both popular and high art is taking place during the Reagan Revolution when multinational corporations have been given virtually free rein over the economic and physical environment. Photographs of the strong graphic lines of a blast furnace or pithead tell us nothing about the massive exporting of industries to impoverished labor markets overseas and the devastated communities left behind…Landscape imagery has almost always been used to argue for the timeless virtues of a nature that transcends history – which is to say, collective social action…
But landscapes needn’t serve such meagre ends. If we are to redeem landscape photography from such a narrow, self-reflexive project, why not use it to question the assumptions about nature and culture it has traditionally served? Landscape is not the ideologically neutral subject many imagine it to be. Rather, it is an historical artifact that can be viewed as a record of the material facts of our social reality and what we have chosen to make of them.