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Trends in American Photography And Facets of the American Ideology of Space

Through the lens of an iPhone 4
Photography and the American Landscape Final Project Keenan Weatherford Prof. Andrea Hammer 12-10-2010

Photography dramatically changed the popular conception of which images are considered art -- a visual representation produced to instill some feeling in the viewer -- and which can be considered science, or somehow affiliated with some universal reality shared by all. A photograph is the result of scientific and chemical processes the effects of these processes can be quantified and predicted and, as such, interpreted as a representation of reality. At the very beginning of the process that results in a photograph, however, an individual a person with his or her own unique personality and set of assumptions has to set those chemical reactions in motion. Someone has to decide how to prepare the silver plate or when to press the shutter button, and that individuals assumptions are transferred into the photograph that results. At any point wherein the photographer makes a decision related to the photographs outcome, the photographers personality and beliefs are injected into the photograph. An obvious example of such a point is framing and composing the photograph the photographer chooses what to include and exclude, and how to position the elements he or she is including. Those decisions are grounded in reality after all, the photographer cannot photograph something that does not actually exist but they reflect only a very particular and carefully planned view of reality. Framing and composition may be one of the more obvious ways a photographer can selectively represent reality to his or her viewers. But every decision the photographer makes is a selective representation of reality. As Snyder and Allen put it: A photographer -- even a Sunday snapshooter -- makes a number of characterizations by his choice of equipment and how he uses it (1975, p. 150). Choosing from the various chemical and mechanical techniques of photography, selecting a size and frame for the final product, and even setting the price or method of distribution of the photograph all these decisions are made by the photographer and are a product of the cultural assumptions embedded in the photographers psyche. Although the photographer does not take the photograph with cultural assumptions in mind, per se, they are inevitably present in the final product. The photographers intentions for the photograph says something about contemporary society and its zeitgeist, or spirit of the times.

One way to increase the viewers insight into the objective reality of a picture -- a concept that is difficult to describe, so I think of it as the rough equivalent of if the viewer was actually present at the moment of capture of the photograph -- is to disclose every decision made throughout its capture, according to Snyder and Allen (1975, p. 162): The picture is valuable as an index of truth only to the extent that the process by which it was made is stated explicitly, and the pictures can be interpreted accurately only by people who have learned how to interpret them. So for the sake of allowing additional insight into the objective reality of these images, Ill briefly explain how I captured and selected them. All three were taken on my cell phone using a camera application called Hipstamatic, which produces images meant to look like they were taken by a vintage plastic camera. Each of the three photographs I selected reflects a different approach to photography, and each also reflects one of the three facets of Marxs American Ideology of Space. Overlook is a territorial landscape photograph, modeled off of Carleton Watkins images of the Yosemite Valley, and reflects Marxs notion of the pastoral American ideology of space. Stillness is a tonalist pictorial photograph, and reflects the nativist ideology of space. Wired at Break-


When I first walked up to the point at which I would eventually capture Overlook, I was with my father, who remarked on what a great view was laid out in front of us. It was, indeed, a view, in every consumerist and territorial sense of the word. The overlook was not obvious, but it was not well-hidden either, and it was clearly a destination designed for visitors to take in the view. An obvious, well-worn dirt path led off the sidewalk to a cliff -- lined by a waist-height stone wall to ensure that no tourists would fall -- that offered a panoramic vista: directly below was the Ithaca Falls in Fall Creek Gorge, and Cayuga Lake and the valley of Ithaca was laid out as far as the eye could see. Much like how Watkins various Views of the Yosemite Valley spawned photographic points of interest for tourists to consume, someone at some point decided that this overlook was a good spot for visitors to enjoy the view. Malcolm Andrews notes that In judging what is a good view we are preferring one aspect of the countryside to another. We are selecting and editing,

suppressing or subordinating some visual information in favour of promoting other features. (1999, p. 3). Whoever designed this particular overlook managed to include the presence of the waterfall along with the panoramic view of Ithaca, while omitting the suspension bridge just up Fall Creek. The waterfall provided an obvious parallel to the Sacred Place nature of Niagara Falls. If someone were to do the Ithaca landscape as John Sears describes tourists doing the Niagara Falls (1998, p. 22), this overlook would likely be a spot on the tour, offering visitors a pre-packaged opportunity to obtain photographic evidence that they were, indeed, in one of Ithacas famous gorges. Every politicallybounded region is defined at least partially by its scenery, but Ithacas identity is especially linked to its unique geographical traits, as

shown by the ubiquitous Ithaca is Gorges t-shirts and bumper stickers. It would be interesting to learn if that identity (and those t-shirts) came about before or after this particular Overlook was discovered and molded into a photo opportunity. Either way, it is not surprising that this spot is a well-traveled overlook point. The view is breathtaking in both its scope and beauty. This photograph is reminiscent of the typical Claudian picturesque pastoral landscape: the colors of the changing leaves blend the outline of the rocky hills into a smooth stroke of greens, reds, and oranges; and the river runs down the middle of the photograph before curving out of view. The only evidence of human influence are the white buildings that broach the top of the trees in the middle ground of the photograph. But these buildings do not seem particularly out of place, providing the impression of a harmonious relationship between man and nature -- the middle landscape idealized in Leo Marxs pastoral strain of the American ideology of space.


The message of a pictorial photograph should not be obvious solely by viewing it -- the viewer must think and interpret, as well. Whereas the intent of a territorial photograph is simply to give the viewer the impression that he or she is at the spot of the view, a pictorial photograph by definition carries some metaphysical message ascribed to it by the photographer. As De Zayas (1980) describes it, the photographer of a pictorial photograph wants to share a message, and uses the visual representation of the photograph as a medium: The difference between Photography and Artistic-Photography is that, in the former, man tries to get at that objectivity of Form which generates the different conceptions that man has of Form, while the second uses the objectivity of Form to express a preconceived idea in order to convey an emotion. In the first, man tries to represent something that is

outside of himself; in the second he tries to represent something that is in himself (1980, p. 130). On a superficial level, Stillness is a rather unexciting image of a lake and a duck. However, due to the composition -- the lake takes up most of the frame and the duck is facing the same direction as the photographer -- it conveys a sense of solitude. I added a red filter to enhance the dreamy or detached aspect of the photograph, two qualities that are commonly associated with tonalism, an American art movement described by Wanda Corn wherein images are dominated by one color or tone (Jussim and Lindquist-Cock, 1985, p. 65). I selected this photo in part because of its lack of clarity; Jussim and Lindquist-Cock note that pictorialists swore by platinums velvety grayness, soft focus, and generalized forms. (1985, p. 60). The ripples on the lake are large enough

to break up and add texture to the otherwise-monotonous shape of the lake, but small enough that they do not create distinct shapes of their own. This image is not intended to provide an accurate representation of Cayuga Lake, and would be of little use to a viewer who sought, for example, a rough estimate of the size of the lake. The filter and lack of clarity add to the dreamy atmosphere, and, combined with the single duck facing away, reflects the placid solitude I was enjoying on that particular day. This sense of separation from society -- there are no signs of humans presence in the photograph -- also fits with Marxs primitivist strain of the American ideology of space. With the appropriate technology, this image might have been taken 400 years ago in the same spot, as settlers were still coming to terms with the newness of the New World.

Wired at Breakfast

Wired at Breakfast is a social critique of the role that technology plays in modern students lives. It focuses on the juxtaposition between the shiny laptop computer and the remains of a relatively elaborate meal at the same table. Rarely does a week go by that I dont stumble across a news item or blog post with some hysterical new claim as to why technology is ruining this generation of young people. Whether its loss of attention span, lack of interpersonal relationships, or some other electronics-induced malady, the anxious hand-wringing is often accompanied with a photograph such as this one that displays the use of technology in a seemingly out-of-place situation. The framing of the shot is intentionally haphazard. It cuts off any identifiable features of the three individuals in the shot, and focuses

instead on the chaos of combining breakfast and computing at the same coffee table. The short, charged distances (Papageorge, 1981, p. 4) between the various elements of the photograph give the viewer insight into the situation. The meals are clearly in the midst of being eaten, and the blurry hand nearest the computer indicates that the laptop is being used at the same time. Papageorge addresses many of the aesthetic complaints that one might have with this photograph: The things in [Robert] Franks pictures which have bothered these critics occasional blur, obvious grain, the use of available light, the cutting off of objects by the frame are all, however, characteristic of picture journalism, and, arguably, of the entire history of hand-camera photography. (1981, p. 3). These aesthetic concerns may serve to strengthen

the photographs links to an objective reality -- such imperfections show that the image was not staged. The strength of this social photography lies in those perceived links to an objective reality, because a photograph can not make a point or inspire social change if it is thought to be an inaccurate representation of the problem the photographer seeks to highlight. Although obviously not a landscape photograph, Wired at Breakfast displays some of the traits associated by Marx with the progressive strain of the American ideology of space. Abundant resources (food) are available for -and in the midst of -- consumption, and modern technology is literally dominating the landscape (coffee table).

It is worth noting that the three photographs I selected were not taken with this assignment in mind. Rather, I looked through the semesters worth of photographs and decided on these three as the best examples of three different styles of photography and the three facets of the American ideology of space, according to Leo Marx. Because the photographs were not taken with a certain ideology or style in mind, it is all the more obvious that these styles of photography are still alive and relevant to anyone with a camera today. Furthermore, the inherent assumptions and techniques of each style manifested themselves in my camera phone photography without me even being aware of it. That unconscious manifestation alone should be proof enough that cameras are more than impartial historians of snap-shotted moments in time; they are the tools of a photographer, who is as biased and subjective as every other person with a camera when it comes to taking photographs.

References: Andrews, M. (1999). Land into landscape. In Landscape and Western art. Oxford. DeZayas, M. (1980). Photography and Photography and Artistic-Photography. In Classic Essays on Photography (Ed: Trachtenberg, A.) pp. 109-113. New Haven, Conn.: Leetes Island Books. Jussim, E. and Lindquist-Cock, E. (1985). Landscape as symbol. In Landscape as photograph. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press. Papageorge, T. (1981). Walker Evans and Robert Frank: An essay on influence. Sears, J. (1998). Sacred places: American tourist attractions in the nineteenth century. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press. Snyder, J. and Allen, N. W. (1975). Photography, vision, and representation. Critical Inquiry. 2(1) pp. 143-169. The University of Chicago Press. Stieglitz, A. (1980). Pictorial Photography. In Classic Essays on Photography (Ed: Trachtenberg, A.) pp. 109113. New Haven, Conn.: Leetes Island Books.