Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Positively a Negative Critique


When I first began shooting film, I greatly admired Ansel Adams' work, for no other reason than its appreciation by the masses. Yet, as I've grown as a photographer, I've slowly joined the ranks of "cynical artists" rather than being a purveyor solely of beauty. Artists - photojournalists especially - seem to have a collective reputation as skeptics, yet whether this image fits may really be in the eye of the beholder. I explored this concept - that art which is critical of culture is often construed as negative, but can have a positive message - through an experiment in "New Topographics," or "man-altered landscapes" as the pivotal 1975 exhibit at the George Eastman House dubbed the style.

The beauty of New Topographics lies in its irony, originally depicting urban and suburban American landscapes with a critical eye, commenting on civilization's "progress" and its (negative) effects. Though the style came to prominence almost 40 years ago, in this age of "green initiatives," climate change debate, and other seemly tree-huggerisms, this social commentary has truly caught hold - now with the added twist of media and technological analysis.

In my personal interpretation, I played upon the theme of [digital] photography and technology's impact on the viewing of landscapes. Photography has the ability to tell a story to the world of subjects many or most people would never know, and this applies especially to landscape photography.

In the first image, I wanted to show photography's ability to tell a story, even one not entirely truthful. With the ability to crop out unwanted information, a photographer can tell their version of a story, tailored to fit their motive. For instance, in my examination, I shot a still of my digital camera set up at the top of The Cut in Asheville overlooking the city with the mountains surrounding. Although the film capture shows the juxtaposition of man vs. nature, the viewfinder of my digital camera shows my ability to crop in closely on the mountains to show only nature, cutting out man's "destruction" (as some would call city-building - although I personally love architecture, culture, and all the bustle that cities have to offer.) True to the New Topographics style, while the photo shows a majestic landscape, beautiful in spite of and because of the contrasting geometry of the city, the addition of my camera creates a social commentary on the photographers' (politicians,' scientists', anyone's) ability to spread only a partial story.


My second image shows the increasing commercialism of photography, now the medium of the masses, and its decreasing difficulty. By overlaying the image of a computer screen on top of a landscape, I wanted to again show the basic contrast of technology (man) vs. nature.  The Google screen displaying a search for "how to photograph a landscape" is meant to demonstrate how lazy technology allows picture-takers (not everyone with a camera is a photographer, in my humble opinion) to be, with the ability to simply ask a search engine how to photograph a landscape or to find landscape images to emulate, rather than going out on an artistic adventure of their own. 


This final image is my favorite, possibly because it took me three hours to print correctly, and maybe because of the rich quality of the contrasting darks and lights. In this diptych, I picture two dissimilar scenes; one a landscape photo opened on an iPad which sits on a bed, the other an actual view of plants with a mountainous backdrop. This again is supposed to show technology's laze-inducing nature, where anyone with an internet connection can "visit" exotic and foreign lands vicariously through others' photos from the comfort of their own beds, instead of traveling there themselves. (The Cut may not entirely be exotic, but it is quite a steep hike to the top.)

As an added commentary, I shot these photos in black and white film (35mm and not large format 8"x10" like the first New Topographics photographers, but closer to the basics) on my fully manual camera in an attempt to distinguish the photos from its digital counterparts which I critique. As I said before, the beauty of art is its differing interpretation based on the viewer, and this series can be either positive or negative, both or neither. Photography has come a long way since the first cameras (arguably camera obscuras, which were quite literally holes in walls that let in light to show an image, although the image could not be "captured" in the traditional sense) and many would argue that this progress is a good thing. Technological progress's modus operandi is to create shortcuts, to generate comfort, to manufacture ease. For many, this is everything. For others, a little hard work - developing their own photos rather than transferring them from an SD card, for instance - is the fruit of life. New Topographics is about bringing these choices into visual perspective. Skeptical or hopeful, destructive or progressive, like much of photography, your opinion is all a matter of vantage point.