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Tag Archives: Western Landscape

When in China, the trip involved participating in “discussion” with Chinese photographers—although direct conversation was difficult because of the language barriers (even with a translator that spoke very good English, some concepts were difficult to convey).    There was an exhibit associated with the event, so the most effective conversation was visual—the western photographers got to look at Chinese photographers work, and they got to look at ours.   One of the most obvious differences between the work was that all of the Chinese photographers were working in color, while about half of the western photographers were working in black and white.   Even in color, the Chinese work was in sharply brighter colors—to my western eye, at least some of the pictures appeared to have the saturation knob turned a little higher than my comfort zone—

Discussion in Zhengzhou, China, August 2011

So the question was asked, why the difference?  And the answer, of course, is one of traditions—I and most of the other western photographers were working in the context of and in response to a landscape tradition defined by American photographers—my own list includes O’Sullivan, Watkins, Muybridge, Weston, Ansel Adams, and Robert Adams—with not a single color image in the bunch.  It seemed to me that the Chinese photographers were working in response to the tradition of Chinese landscape painting—and within the realities of the Chinese landscape—which includes a brash color pallet, which can be seen walking down almost any street in China.

Street Scene, near Zhungzhow, China, August 2011

Street Scene, near Zhengzhou, China, August 2011

On Labor Day Weekend, shortly after returning from China, my family and I took a trip out into the landscape.  I took along both my digital camera (right now a Canon G12) and my trusty 8×10, loaded with black and white film.

Liberty Falls, September 4, 2011

Part of the discussion in China had to do with color being closer to nature, and therefore a more accurate representation of the world, as if to say that black and white was useful only before the invention of color.  But a photograph is always something less than nature—a two dimensional representation of what was in front of the lens—and sometimes something more—usually a carefully selected moment in time, sometimes with exposure adjusted in the camera or in the presentation, sometimes parts of the image manipulated to emphasize parts of the image over others.

8-6038 Liberty Falls

So which is better?  Here, the digital color image feels real to life, the green trees and the hint of fall colors add an accent to the image.  In the black and white image, the water and it’s motion lend a sense of stillness to the scene.  The black and white picture appears older—more settled—mostly because of the tradition it refers to—even though the two images were made  a few minutes apart.  I like both images, but probably the black and white will become part of my finished work, while the digital image (and the fifteen other similar exposures I made there) will disappear on my hard drive…

Before Timothy O’Sullivan, most easterners had no idea what the west looked like, and the overblown romantic paintings of Bierstadt and Catlin did little to help.  Part of what may have kept O’Sullivan honest was the fact that his employer, Clarence King, was a scientist, though the core of King’s theories based on cataclysmic events shaping geography have been largely discredited.   But the scientific nature of the work led to documentation of the ordinary as well as the beauty of the landscape, and his pictures, as a whole, feel more honest than many of those who came after him.

FingerMountain, Dalton Highway, June 1994

FingerMountain, Dalton Highway, June 1994

And while the expeditions that O’Sullivan worked on were difficult compared to my modern trips in my battered RV, I often find myself staring at mountains or rock formations that are strikingly beautiful, but not over photographed.   This land has not yet been adequately described, either by scientists or artists–and part of my job is to try to see this place as clearly as possible, and to make photographs that carry what I see.  Part of what makes O’Sullivan’s photographs so wonderful is the space that remains in the west–a space that remains in Alaska.

Pipeline, Near the Yukon River, 2005

Pipeline, Near the Yukon River, 2005