AMERICAN WOMEN PHOTOGRAPH THE LAND
Gretchen Garner, Guest Curator
Tweed Museum of Art
University of Minnesota, Duluth, 1987
[catalog now out-of-print]
This exhibition was a pioneering historical look at the alternative landscape tradition developed by women photographers in America. Besides its showing at the Tweed Museum, the exhibition traveled to thirteen other sites around the United States between 1987-89.
Twenty-six photographers were included: Anne Brigman, Clara E. Sipprell, Laura Gilpin, Berenice Abbott, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, Imogen Cunningham, Geraldine Sharpe, Liliane DeCock, Marion Patterson, Barbara Crane, Betty Hahn, Evon Streetman, Meridel Rubenstein, Marion Faller, Linda Gammell, Lynn Geesaman, Kathryn Paul, Gail Skoff, Mary Peck, Vida, Joan Myers, Linda Connor, Mary Beth Edelson, Judy Dater, Cynthia MacAdams.
Martha Sandweiss, curator of photographs at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, TX, and Elizabeth Hampsten, of the English Department at the University of N. Dakota, Grand Forks, contributed essays to the catalog. What follows is the introductory essay by Gretchen Garner:
It often seems that landscape photographs are windows on the world, clear views that any of us might have seen had we stood in the photographer’s shoes. Just because they are photographs, they appear to be facts, not interpretations. As art historian Barbara Novak has written, “The photograph, by definition, replaces the artist’s hand with the so-called pencil of nature….For those of us trained on paintings, the never-touched surface of the photograph is elusively impersonal; its smooth tonality baffles our usual anxious readings.” As we read these photographs more deeply, though, asking more of them, we realize that if we are looking through a window then we are looking first through a powerful screen of interpretation. This screen is woven of many threads, a complex warp and weft that directs our vision. The warp is made of ideas about the land and about landscape pictures—ideas received from the culture, new ideas of the photographer. The weft, on the other hand, is the individual sensibility, the will to form, the imaginative response of the picture-maker. The work of art is the unity woven of imagination, idea and the world itself.
Landscape photographs, we then realize, like all photographs, are much more than simply transparent windows. Using another weaving metaphor, we might understand them better as dense tapestries instead. Woven into them are at least three levels of meaning: the descriptive meaning (what is framed by the “window”), the formal meaning (how the individual has formed the elements into a composition), and the symbolic or ideational meaning (what these subjects mean to the culture and the photographer). The viewer is invited to contemplate all these kinds of meanings in the landscape photographs in Reclaiming Paradise.
The land we live on is the very ground of our being, and understanding it requires the insights of many, from the biologist to the economist. The insight of the artist is essential to that understanding. Always, a culture looks to its artists for clarifying responses to the dilemmas of the time as well as for visions suggesting the possibilities of the future. We look to our landscape artists today with a special urgency, living as we do in a badly damaged world. Americans, in particular, are learning that they cannot continue to consume the earth’s resources as they have in the past, and environmental destruction—expressing itself in a huge range of actions from inappropriate irrigation to unsafe nuclear waste disposal (not to mention nuclear annihilation)—is for all people the great issue we must face if we are to survive on this planet. Clearly a new vision is needed. In The Death of Nature, Carolyn Merchant suggests that, because it is parallel in many ways to the ecology movement, the women’s movement may have special relevance to our environmental problems:
The vision of the ecology movement has been to restore the balance of nature disrupted by industrialization and overpopulation. It has emphasized the need to live within the cycles of nature, as opposed to the exploitative, linear mentality of forward progress. It focuses on the costs of progress, the limits of growth, the deficiencies of technological decision-making, and the urgency of the conservation and the recycling of natural resources. Similarly, the women’s movement has exposed the costs for all human beings of competition in the marketplace, the loss of meaningful productive economic roles for women in early capitalist society, and the view of both women and nature as psychological and recreational resources for the harried entrepreneur-husband. [emphasis mine]
This passage has nothing directly to do with art or photography, yet Merchant has given us a clue why traditional landscape photography may have come to seem an exhausted or irrelevant genre, and why we might find a much-needed alternative in the work of women as we struggle to heal or at least curb our exploitation of nature. Traditional landscape photographs, as everyone seems to know, are made far away from the cities where most Americans live (frequently, it seems, in the west). Often encompassing vast, Olympian views of grand mountains and clear lakes, they allow, as Merchant says, “psychological and recreational” refreshment for the harried city dwellers whose lot it is to breathe polluted air, eat chemically–tainted food, and fear their nearest neighbors. There is little connection between modern urban life and these traditional views. For the audience that views them, the most forceful message of such landscapes is that of an inaccessible ideal—where pure water, fresh air and living beings exist in Arcadian harmony—inaccessible to most people, that is, now only a luxury for the affluent few who can afford the right kind of travel.
Although such pictures continue to appear in glossy coffee-table books and calendars, a growing number of people has found them sterile and misleading. Why, these critics would argue, publish such images when the reality is so different? Such pictures do nothing to address the realities of our environment, nor do they offer a vision of how we can heal our very damaged earth. For many such critics within the photography community (Robert Adams might be an example) the imperative has been to look instead at how we live now, how we in fact have lost that Arcadian life. The photographs made by Robert Adams (and others) are marked by rigorous intellect and great integrity of vision, but they are grim pictures and their vision is basically a tragic one. Such photographs are the Greek chorus, it would seem, in the final act of a play whose outcome is almost certain to be disaster.
But must the outcome be disaster? May photographers be only clear-eyed witnesses to mankind’s folly? Is there another possibility? It is here, in answering these questions, where we may gain the most from examining the landscape work of women. Women—who have an age-old affiliation with nature and who have somehow managed to retain the impulse of identification with nature even after centuries of its exploitation (perhaps that identification is all the stronger because of it).
To examine the landscape tradition from a feminist perspective demands, like all feminist history, that we take another view, a view from the bottom up, a view that questions and promises to overturn some of the values of mainstream landscape tradition. We must look at new primary documents, the pictures women have made about the environment. While some of these pictures will rest comfortably within the mainstream, there are many that will not. At the very least, these photographs will enlarge our vision of what a landscape might be. Even further, they may offer visions of harmony with nature that are so powerfully needed today. This is the spirit of Reclaiming Paradise.
* * * * *
In the United States, where landscape photography traces its origins back to the all-male geological and railroad expeditions that followed the Civil War, the very beginnings of the genre excluded the female point of view. The few hardy men that joined those expeditions as professional photographers (Timothy O’Sullivan, Wm. Henry Jackson, John Hillers, Andrew Russell, et al.) struggled with heavy glass plates, awkward chemical “dark-wagons” and unwieldy equipment. When they faced the landscape, their purpose was to make a record of the white man’s progress in taming the continent. If the pictures seem to us somewhat flawed by the obvious presence of railroad tracks and rough engineering projects, we must remember that the tracks were the central reason for the pictures, expressing what Merchant has called “the underlying assumption of the superiority of culture to nature.”
Beyond this basic reason for the pictures, when these photographers faced the landscape as men, they faced it also with ideas about the land then current in the culture, such as notions of God-in-Nature, or of “the Sublime.” Among these ideas, Annette Kolodny has shown that in the literature of the 19th century a prevailing symbol for the land was “the virgin,” destined to be dominated and cultivated by the white man in his divinely appointed role as possessor. That such a metaphor has never really served the female imagination will come as no surprise; woman’s relationship with the land has been motivated differently and lived differently.
If women were not instrumental in surveying and mapping the frontier (in knowing it and owning it, we might say), nor the chief agents in clearing its great forests, they were nevertheless crucially important in every settler family’s struggle. Women wrested order from chaos in rude homes and in painfully cleared gardens, and alongside their men they planted the food and raised the animals that fed the families. To them fell the daily tasks of nurture and care; their vision was to create an idea of home in a frequently terrifying new land. Dispossessed of their familiar surroundings, women labored to create a new paradise in an unknown land. This experience with the land forms a ground on which later American women were to build in depicting it. We will see that like their settler forbears, women photographers would struggle toward a human scale, toward harmony and intimacy and toward an identification with the nurturing power of the earth.
By the end of the 19th century the frontier had closed and America was settled, sparsely in places, but settled. New towns and cities had grown up across the continent and continuing technological progress made the prospect of “civilized” living a hope for everyone. Among the technological breakthroughs were the streamlining of camera equipment and the replacement of the old wet-plate photography, first by dry-plates and then by much more convenient film. Artists and amateurs began to take up the medium, and many women were in their number. Their cameras were often focused on the land.
When we examine landscape work by women beginning during this period and continuing up to the present, two important paradigms emerge. One is strongly metaphoric; rather than seeing the land as sublime idea or as something “other,” we find instead a close identification with the land in photographs that are statements of union, not ownership, and frequently views that encompass not the vast, sublime glories of mountains, for example, but rather focus on closer, more commonplace sites. As photographer Linda Connor says, “We are nature so why venture very far?” Sometimes these images include a female figure or landforms strongly suggestive of it, and others emphasize a closeness to the earth by vantage point. The other paradigm has to do with the relationship of inhabitants to the land—a relationship that emphasizes nurture and interdependence rather than possession and production. Some depict erosion, but some are images of growth, others of labor on the land. In photographer Dorothea Lange’s words, “The people become their land and the land becomes the people.”
Reclaiming Paradise begins just after 1900, in the Pictorialist era when photographs were deliberately soft in definition and when content was consciously symbolic. We begin with Anne Brigman, a self-described Pagan and free spirit, who photographed female figures in attitudes of intense absorption within the landscape. However beautiful, these figures are not passive objects of desire but are embodiments of pure feeling in connection with nature. Clara Sipprell, who did not abandon the Pictorial style in the 1920s as most photographers did, directed her soft-focus lens on trees. With her sensitivity to the effects of light, her tree portraits convey at once delicacy and strength. Like Clara Sipprell, Laura Gilpin learned photography at the Clarence White School in New York City (this gentle teacher seemed to be especially nourishing to female students). In her long career Gilpin was primarily a photographer of the West devoted to its native people and its landscape. From her early Pictorial efforts to her views of the Rio Grande in the 1940s, Gilpin’s affinity with broad landforms and deep, huge skies was a reflection of the gentle yet heroic quality of her own life.
In the 1920s photography turned away from the symbolism and aestheticism that had marked the Pictorial era. After World War I, in an increasingly fast-paced and hard-edged world, photographers created sharply focused, realistic (or surrealistic) interpretations. Crisp, minutely detailed studies of natural forms were made by several photographers, including Imogen Cunningham. The documentary spirit that grew out of this clear vision found its full expression in the 1930s, a period of economic and ecologic crisis. Berenice Abbott returned to her native America after years in France, imbued with the spirit of Eugene Atget. Abbott was determined to document changing New York, much as Atget had documented Paris. Abbott’s vision, though, was uniquely her own—ironic, critical, sensitive to the peculiar absurdities of America and the rapid self-destruction of its greatest city.
The rural crisis in the 1930s brought forth photography’s greatest documentary project. Under the direction of Roy Stryker, the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration documented in thousands of images the crisis of agriculture in America—the exhausted farm lands, the uprooted tenant farmers, the plight of the migrant farm workers. Two of the FSA’s best photographers were women. One of the first hired for the project, in 1935, was Californian Dorothea Lange. Her landscapes showed a keen understanding of the need humans have for the land and the land’s need for care. After the FSA project Lange’s landscape concerns were to continue in the documentation of Japanese-American internment camps during World War II and urban sprawl after the War. The intrepid Marion Post Wolcott joined the FSA in 1938 and in her many photographs (of the southeast in particular) we see a vision of bounty and richness in the land.
After World War II, photography, like much else in American life, turned conservative. The practice of the “pre-visualized” photograph carefully crafted according to Ansel Adams’ “zone system” virtually dominated landscape work from the 1950s to the 1970s. Although he was a profoundly committed conservationist, in most of his landscapes Adams did not directly confront ecological issues. Instead his photographs memorialized—in exquisite images, to be sure—the spectacular wonders of the American west. Many of his students followed suit, fashioning images more expressive of 19th century ideas than of 20th century reality, yet two young women who had each been assistants to Adams, Geraldine Sharpe and Liliane DeCock, and another student, Marion Patterson, managed to develop strong landscape visions of their own. Gerry Sharpe’s intensely tragic, dark images were deep personal metaphors for her own short and troubled life. Liliane DeCock’s photographs of rural America—particularly its abandoned and ruined farms—suggest another kind of tragedy, one even more pointed today in our current farm crisis. Marion Patterson, like Ansel Adams, has photographed extensively in Yosemite, yet her approach has been radically different. Instead of stately images with all elements sharply focused, Patterson presents intimate, delicate views of tiny wildflowers. Their shallow depth-of-field transforms her photographs into visions of pure light and color.
Imogen Cunningham, one of the truly protean talents in American photography, was an active photographer for more than seventy years. She began as a Pictorialist and made her first mature work with her plant close-ups. It was in portraiture, however, that Cunningham’s talent was to find its greatest expression. As she grew older her understanding of the rhythms of the life-cycle grew richer, and in her later environmental portraits in particular she exercised a genius for using unaffected natural symbols to reveal character.
In the 1960s and into the 1970s photographic education underwent enormous changes as the conservative stranglehold of the fine silver print was relaxed. Many almost forgotten processes were re-introduced. Photographers combined images, experimented with hand-applied color and hand-applied emulsions. Three-dimensional constructions, multiple images and photo-sequences expanded the options of the creative photographer, and a sophisticated appreciation of vernacular photography (snapshots as well as popular commercial images) added further possibilities. Many women trained during this period found themselves also stimulated by the ideas of the feminist art movement. Incorporating traditional feminine crafts like sewing, and refusing to apologize for colorful, decorative and personal work, these women have made a great contribution toward freeing and expanding photographic expression. At the same time their work focuses attention on the epiphanies of the commonplace fact.
Barbara Crane, a consummate urban artist, has found landscape motifs of great elegance in the humblest corners of the city. In her use of repetition and contrast between radically different scales, a new beauty emerges, both decorative and humane. Betty Hahn brings together a love of embroidery, of snapshots and of natural beauty in her cloth images—sophisticated and witty pictures that are accessible on many levels. Evon Streetman’s studio “landscapes” of stones and other found objects are both paintings and photographs. They express at once her deep love for the eternal forms of nature and her grief at nature’s defilement. Meridel Rubenstein combines personal artifacts, portraits and landscape views of New Mexico in images that express the connections of people to the land and of the present to the past.
The intimate landscapes of garden and the home provide subjects for several women. In her “Local Conventions” series Marion Faller makes note of the aesthetic decisions of everyday life in witty foursome prints. Linda Gammell’s mosaics of backyard scenes are at once familiar in detail and formally elegant in design. Disorderly at first glance, the joined fragments create a new order evoking a sense of movement through the garden spaces. Lynn Geesaman depicts Longwood Gardens in richly romantic meditations on the dialogue between nature and architecture, and on paradise itself.
Kathryn Paul feels passionate about beauty, finding her inspiration in the arts of traditional peoples and her subjects in the wilderness. Gail Skoff is also drawn to wild, uninhabited places where a timeless and magical quality is intensified by her exquisite hand-applied color. Mary Peck photographs open, almost featureless land, where the touchingly fain presence of humans is conveyed with appropriate economy in her panoramic views.
A sense of the human past, or a connection with earlier marks left on the land, is important to several photographers. Sometimes these photographers act as moral witness, recognizing a legacy of evil, and other times they seek a lost wisdom from the past. In every case the images testify to the ability (so far) of nature to abide and eventually heal itself. In a series of stories, Vida tells of the taming and exploitation of Death Valley, and her accompanying photographs document the present look of the same sites. Joan Myers has photographed the sites of the internment camps where Japanese-Americans were confined during World War II, poignantly recording their decay and eventual return to nature. Traveling widely, Linda Connor has sought places of great spiritual power, either the sacred sites of ancient cultures or natural phenomena of wonderful mystery. In her delicate prints we sense the magic these sites embody.
Like Connor, many other women today are spiritual explorers. All over the world women are turning away from patriarchal, hierarchic religious traditions looking for a sense of the sacred that honors nature and replaces a mechanized world view with an organic one, one that sees the sacred in all of life. The contributions of women scholars to the revival of knowledge of the Great Goddess religions has had an empowering effect on the expression of spirituality for women. In its many forms—from feminist movements within Christian churches to the practice of Witchcraft—the women’s spirituality movement expresses a drive toward union with nature and toward power from within. In the words of Starhawk, a moder witch, “The model of the Goddess, who is immanent in nature, fosters respect for the sacredness of all living things. Witchcraft can be seen as a religion of ecology.” For Mary Beth Edelson, artistic practice and spiritual practice overlap; her photographs are documents of private rituals in natural places. Her movement in the photographs communicates a universal sense of spirit and power. In a series of searching self-portraits made in the desert, Judy Dater symbolizes the personal quest in the middle of life. Troubling images of an isolated woman in a barren landscape, they are at the same time courageous and bold. In photographs from her book Rising Goddess, Cynthia MacAdams celebrates the female figure in an erotic, ecstatic, powerful relationship to the earth and to the elements.
Cynthia MacAdams’ photographs conclude Reclaiming Paradise much as it began, with Anne Brigman’s affirmative statements of union with nature. Between Brigman and MacAdams is included an enormous range of landscape work by women, work that in its great variety and increasing confidence expresses the growing power of women artists to offer visions for our world. In poet Susan Griffin’s words,
Only now, we name ourselves. Only now, as we think of ourselves as passing, do we utter the syllables. Do we list all that we are. That we know ourselves. We know ourselves to be made from this earth. We know this earth is made from our bodies. For we see ourselves. And we are nature. We are nature seeing nature. We are nature with a concept of nature. Nature weeping. Nature speaking of nature to nature.
1 - Barbara Novak, “Landscape Permuted: From Painting to Photography” (1975), in Vicki Goldberg, Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), p. 173.
2 - Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980), pp. xvi-xvii.
3 - Such as Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Joel Sternfeld, John Pfahl; see Robert Adams’ Los Angeles Spring (Aperture, 1986).
4 - Susan Griffin, Annette Kolodony, Carolyn Merchant, Sherry Ortner, Paul Shepard and others treat this issue. See bibliography.
5 - Merchant, op cit., p. 144.
6 - Barbara Novak, “On Divers Themes from Nature, a Selection of Texts” in Kynaston McShine, The Natural Paradise: Painting in America,1800-1950 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1976), pp. 60-102.
7 - Annette Kolodny, The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975).
8 - Aperture 93, p. 50.
9 - Milton Meltzer, Dorothea Lange: A Photographer’s Life (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1978), p. 321.
10 - See A Collective Vision: Clarence H. White and His Students (Long Beach: University Art Museum, California State University, 1985). It is interesting to contrast White’s encouraging relationships with female protégés to Alfred Stieglitz’s very different approach. Clearly Stieglitz could recognize greatness in a woman (Georgia O’Keeffe was the best example), yet his need to be dominant, particularly with women, made the only workable relationship with him one of master and disciple—e.g. the relationship between Stieglitz and Dorothy Norman. Other women—Gertrude Käsebier and O’Keeffe herself—had to make a break with him to survive as artists. No female followers of Stieglitz were to distinguish themselves in the way that Doris Ullman, Laura Gilpin, Dorothea Lange, Clara Sipprell and Margaret Bourke-White (all students of Clarence White) were to do with their own work.
11 - Such as Mary Daly, Rosemay Radford Ruether, Merlin Stone, Barbara G. Walker and Carol Christ. Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion, edited by Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979) offers a good introduction to this work.
12 - “‘Witch’ and ‘Witchcraft’ denote the Pagan, pre-Christian religion of Europe based on the immanent Goddess and Her Consort. This should not be confused with Satanism, Devil worship, so-called black magic, or any other Christian heresy.” Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982), p. 231.
13 - Starhawk, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979), p. 10.
14 - Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature, 1978, anthologized in Griffin’s Made from This Earth: An Anthology of Writings (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), p. 343.