I rarely pass up a chance to visit used book stores. Shelves stacked with random titles, the scent of old paper and the hunt for interesting discoveries often make me lose track of time. On a recent trip I found myself in such a store where I stumbled upon a thin and poorly printed book about the most ambitious photography exhibit in history, The Family of Man, orchestrated by Edward Steichen and first presented in 1955. Despite containing one of the most impressive collections of photography ever put together, the book itself can be summed up in one word: unimpressive.
Practically every image in the book portrays some facet of humanity, men and women engaged in a variety of activities, representing a wide array of social strata, various races and geographies, occupations and traditions. Most of the images are small, occupying a fraction of a page, with one glaring exception: the largest image in the book, printed across two pages, contains neither people nor human-made elements; it is an impressive view of California’s Mount Williamson photographed by Ansel Adams. Not only does the image seem out of place among so many portraits and groups of people, it also betrays the clash of two photographic titans and their opposing philosophies about photography itself, its role, message, aesthetic and worth. For Steichen, photography was merely a documentary medium. For Adams, it was a means for the creation of art every bit as worthy as painting or any other. Many years later, Adams said that, in his mind, the exhibit set photography back twenty years, reducing it to a mere illustrative medium for portraying the enterprises of humanity and ignoring its role as a medium for expressive art derived from the artist’s own emotions, sensibilities and expert skills.
It should come as no surprise that Steichen was a successful commercial photographer in New York when Adams roamed the western wilderness. The same emotional disconnect between the commercial urban life and the wild is as pronounced today as it was then, and likely more so. As a society and a species, we are losing rapidly not only the wild, but wildness, the quality within ourselves that ties us to the very things that make life possible.
It is this loss of wildness that results in so much of today’s landscape photography repeatedly portraying the same scenes and the same postcard renditions devoid of personal narrative. In my mind, it is responsible also for the proliferation of visual gimmickry at the expense of meaningful interpretations of what remains of the wild and our relationship with it.
So many believe that scripted visits to well-known scenic places bring them closer to ‘nature’, when in fact they do little more than strengthen common perceptions having little to do with the natural state of the world and our place in it.
Philosopher Bertrand Russell articulated it perfectly when he said that “mankind is divided into two classes: those who, being artificial, praise nature, and those who, being natural, praise art”. Too many among us create work that praises nature without truly knowing it.
It is incumbent upon those of us who believe in the value and importance of wildness to do more with our art than to affirm erroneous perceptions of what “nature” means or what it should look like – benign and dispensable and optional to our existence.
Indeed, it is our duty as artists to use our skill and creative talents to reflect those things that are sacred to us, in whatever sense of the word that fits with our beliefs. Science and political activism are important but are just part of the message. Their expressive powers always will fall short of expressing the true value of wildness.
Goethe said that a work of art is the mediator of the inexpressible. As artists, we must leverage our unique voice and those things that only can be expressed through art, or we may lose that which is inexpressible in any other way. We owe it not only to photography and not only to art; we owe it to every living being on planet earth.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 26 of Landscape Photography Magazine.