A road trip through photographs

By Carol McCusker

Looking at certain landscape photographs makes me want to take a road trip. I’ve driven the remote two-lane black tops that crisscross eastern California, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico inspired by photographers Mark Klett, Terry Falke, Richard Misrach, and Philipp Scholz Rittermann. Driving out in that vast land and sky slows me down. I experience space, time and light differently. I also like the solitude (these days many people seem frightened to be alone). If, as artists, teachers, or simply as good citizens, we want to have something to say or to give back, we need to recharge ourselves regularly, alone. If I can’t get away, landscape photographs — good ones — can have that effect on me. They’re visual poetry as well as document, and carve out a space for thinking and feeling.

The beginnings of landscape photography were established with the inception of photography itself as a medium in the 1840s. William Henry Fox Talbot, the pioneer of photography, often mimicked the Romantic painters on either side of the Atlantic whose images reflected the philosophy of the Romantic and Transcendentalist writers and poets such as Emerson and Whitman. Some Civil War photographers became landscape photographers in the years right after the war, working for geological expeditions created by the government, which needed to know what resources lay west of the Mississippi to fuel America’s growing need for industrialization.

In the last 170-plus years, many photographers have taken up the environmental banner, replacing the pastoral landscapes of Talbot’s time with a dystopian eye and the inconvenient truths of Al Gore. Artists like Ansel Adams produced photographs that exaggerate the beauty and seemingly endless resource of America's West, but the world has changed since Adams first traveled the country photographing the most remarkable spaces in our national parks. Rather than having access to unlimited raw materials and wilderness to play, we have seen natural resources depleted and overused, resulting in a dramatic change in the nature of landscape photography. These changes are acutely reflected in the call-to-action imagery of artists like Chris Jordan and Edward Burtynsky.

The key to understanding the amazing impact that landscape photography has on us all is evident in the work of a number of excellent contemporary landscape photographers. Among those talented landscape photography aficionados are Mitch Epstein, Nadav Kander and Benoit Aquin, who take their large format cameras to places you and I will never go, and show us what’s going on around our planet. The Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park currently has an exhibition showing through February 5, 2012, called "Infinite Balance: Artists & the Environment" showing the work of some of these outstanding photographers. If you’re not familiar with them, see the exhibition — you won’t regret it. Their images may inspire you to take a road trip…or, more likely, prepare us for a bitter, 21st century steam-punk revision of Romanticism's sublime ruins.

Carol McCusker, Ph.D. in art and photo history from the University of New Mexico, is an independent curator, writer, and educator. For eight years, she was the Curator of Photography at the Museum of Photographic Arts. McCusker is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of San Diego. She is teaching "From Manifest Destiny to 'Inconvenient Truths': A History of the Photographic Landscape" starting in January.

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