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The American and British Nations in Contemporary Landscape Photography - March 28, 2014
full name / name of organization:
Julie Morère / Université de Nantes, France
Workshop, March 28, 2014
Centre de Recherche sur les Identités Nationales et l’Interculturalité (CRINI)
This second workshop in a series devoted to photography and national identity will question the way in which landscape as represented through the specificities of the photographic medium may participate in the construction of contemporary American and British national identities.
At crossroads between visual arts, geographical and cultural studies or art history, this interdisciplinary workshop will show how photography works on the landscape or with the landscape, using it as a backdrop and more deliberately as a screen upon which the history of a nation, its dreams and aspirations are projected. What is the power of the image in framing the nation? Why and how are some landscape images so powerfully associated to certain nations exclusively, to the point that they become metonymies of these nations? What is photography’s role in articulating, maintaining, symbolizing, strengthening or perhaps fragmenting the nation’s cohesion?
Through photographs, the nation is seen, remembered, imagined. It is situated in space and time and pictured beyond immediate surroundings. It makes familiar the abstract and sometimes unfamiliar notion of nation, shaping the perception of place and identity on a national scale. For Ernest Renan, nation is a heritage from the past as well as a project for the future, a vision which echoes Sontag’s postulate on the role of photography in providing ‘most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past and the reach of the future’.
The functions of landscape photography are multiple: to inform the viewer about the (geographical, geological, environmental) specificities of the space; about the influence of space on people’s ways of lives; about the role played by a certain space in the national history and collective memory; to record process of changes; to provide aesthetic pleasure; to create cohesion or to emphasize peculiarities.
If a lot has been written about the way landscape has being appropriated by the nations while at the same time informing national identities in the past centuries, little has yet been written on how images reflect contemporary evolutions or preserve stable values of the nations as they shape landscapes and are shaped by them.
Both American and English landscape photography were highly influenced by traditional landscape painting and aesthetics of the 18th and 19th century. In Britain, the romantic vision of the pastoral with little human presence was an alternative to crowded and corrupted cities. British landscape images hovered between the delicacy of the ‘Beautiful’, the darkness of the ‘Sublime’ (Burke) and the agreeableness of the ‘Pittoresque’ (Gilpin). British landscape photographs in the 20th and 21st centuries are still rooted in past images, as if nostalgically echoing them while also mocking them. In the United States, photography arose at the time of territorial exploration and surveys. The point was to visually control and order the land by scaling and measuring a wild territory. Transcendentalism depicted pristine, pure and sublime environments (borderlands or national parks). The American landscape was and still is a set of expectations and beliefs about both the environment and the conventions of its representation that are projected on the world (subject to historical change / culturally specific). In the 30s and 40s, conservation values defined nature as a refuge, an escape from urban life. Pictures from the 60s and 70s reminded the viewer that the environment wasn’t just the majestic, but also the vacant lot next door. Pollution, global warming, industrial development affected every part of the environment, suggesting an anti-romantic redefinition of landscape photography. Both the US and Britain suffer from a lost Arcadian idyll and grandiose (imagined) spaces that are menaced or even depleted by modern, urban encroachment.
Papers are encouraged to focus on either the American or the British nations, but also on converging ideas shared by the treatment of landscape in photography in both nations.
Many possible directions can be considered and the following list is by no means exhaustive.
1) Landscape photography could be seen as a militant act, focusing on man’s impact (positive or negative) and on the transactions between the natural and the political (global warming issues, etc.). Landscape can be shaped as a result of a socio-economic context or material process which disturb spaces or destroy the pastorale – e.g. landscape that has been engulfed by the fuming ashes of modernity or war. The impact of the formal plastic elements of the photograph as well as the natural elements may participate in the construction of the national mood in landscape photography (British light and weather, hurricanes and natural catastrophes).
2) Landscape photography may be considered as a tool to record or preserve an old view of the city undergoing changes, in the process of disappearing; to expose social/economic conditions of urban areas; to be viewed as spectacle, whether bizarre, surreal, strange, underground, perverse, dangerous, violent, invisible or ideal.
3) Landscape photography in movement refers to travel photography (loitering/flânerie, déambulation, itinérance, errance). Landscape and tourism is an interesting dyad. Why do tourists take photos at all? How do photos build places? How do they shape and change lives, how do they create visual narratives reinforcing or decentering the national identity in the gaze of the foreigner?
4) The mediums used to diffuse landscape photography could be explored: everyday objects/ everyday spaces (postcard, wallet, family album), magazines (travel, fashion, news), corporate advertising (billboards, television, Internet…), art exhibits (landscape photography as art), government use (as archives) or tourist photography (amateur).
5) Landscape photography is also a chain of repetitions – repeated images (from paintings to the first photographs), that are reproducible, disseminated, preserved in archives (landscape photography within the walls – the outside penetrating the inside), or comparable (before / now, jeu des différences).
6) Reception theories will focus on the effect of landscape photography on the viewer. Landscape may lead to contemplation, evoke a sense of freedom, or trigger some (re)actions. How the viewer reads and receives the picture depends on his culture: does he identify, reject or recognize a sense of a nation in a landscape photograph? Is pathos or empathy felt at the thought of a lost space (real vs. imagined)?
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