Most photographs will have elements within them that attract the eye. Those that stand out (studium) are often the subject of the image. In contrast, those details easily overlooked are sometimes referred to as punctum. But, to be truly considered punctum, there must be something special, poignant, about the detail.
The material of any place we visit is a tapestry weaving together the natural and the artificial, the modern and the past. While we walk through these things in the present, they also reference the past or stimulate our own imaginations about what once was. What do they tell us?
A monument directly refers to past events. Often it explicitly recalls what happened and when. A monument is both inclusive and exclusive. While it cites an event that was of significance to the builders of the monument, it often expresses just one point of view on the matter. By citing one event, it excludes all other events that might have occurred in that place.
Sometimes buildings are seen as monuments, yet they are less specifically focused on an event. Rather they attest to lived experience: places of work, play and residence. Not a single point in time, buildings span a period. They express meaning through their architecture, that exposes both form and function. An architectural style might correlate to a culture.
Naming defines something as a place. By naming we give [an un-named] space some meaning, we elevate it from the commonality. The relationship between name and space can become complicated. Most of us have a place we call home, but the actual place each of us call home is different, yet it often means many of the same things: safety, comfort, security, love, family. Conversely, a single space might have several names. For example, in 1793 John Simcoe named an area on the northern coast of Lake Ontario York in honour of the Duke of York. In 1834 it was renamed Toronto, a name rooted in the Mohawk word Tkaranto, meaning “where there are trees standing in the water.” Each of these names sets a different context for how we might interpret the place: the British name sets a colonial context and erases the original history of the place. The Mohawk name restores the place’s connection to its indigenous past, and the previous inhabitants of the place, and their way of life.
As the modern recedes into the past, its material decays, and reverts back into the soil. Not all at once; some parts out-last the others and remain as remnants of the larger whole. A clue of what once was. The people that worked and lived there. Their goals, their troubles, their joys.
In Nice, we visited the Musée de la Photographie to see the Franco Fontana exhibition. The work shown was focused on his land and cityscapes. His method of abstraction of these subjects results in a simplification that emphasizes the lines and shapes of the subject, over details of the content itself. The method of rendering the images complements this simplification, and for what ever reason, reminded me of Yozo Hamaguchi’s use of mezzotints. The results are often very poetic, highly aesthetic.
The use of aesthetics in documentary photography can present various ethical questions. Usually these are related to the concern that by beautifying something, that which might otherwise be considered traumatic, it becomes normalized as a result of making it more appealing or more acceptable. Ed Burtynsky’s work has received such criticism — making beautiful the destruction of our planet, our environment, and thus the allegation his work devalues the significance. Yet, the counter argument submits that the juxtaposition of the pleasant and the horrible offers a reference point to measure the degree of horror. How can one determine the scale of how horrible something is, and not be desensitized as it is viewed, if the subject is not anchored to a reference point? That which is destroyed.
The remains of a former building can stir the imagination. The Roman Theatre in Orange France built in the early first century AD, could hold 10,000 spectators. The statue of a Roman emperor over looking the audience reminds us of the power of Roman. The physical mass of the building re-inforces our sense of their strength, but also conveys a sense of their abilities, the Roman’s engineering skills. The ruin reminds of the collapse and the frailty of power. We might even cast our eyes downwards and gaze momentarily upon our navel to try and draw parallels between the rise and fall of Rome to our own times.
Sitting on the concrete seats, we co-exist in space, but not time, with those people who have come to this place for the last 2000 years. We are free to move among the different levels, but our Roman predecessors, constrained by class, were not.
Even though its history may be unknown to the visitor, the physical size of this man-made structure confirms this is a place, and one of significance. Oddly, this takes us back before modernism, before the time when perspective was captured in paintings, and the size of an object reflected its importance, not its distance from the viewer.
When Europeans first saw North America, what many reported seeing was a vast, empty space. When many North Americans visit Europe for the first time, they are enthralled by the history of the place. How one interprets what they see before them is informed by their understanding of its history. None and the space is a void, empty, nothing. One with a long history of events, memories, is a place. The latter might stir some emotion — a sense of home — the former can feel cold, inert. Space vs. Place.
When I look out onto the Mediterranean near Marseille, I am aware of the seafaring Greeks and Phoenicians who arrived on this bit of coastline over two-thousand years ago. But this is not my history; it’s a learnt history. This second-hand knowledge decouples me from this as a place. It subdues my sense of place. I can see this as both a space and a place. One man’s space can be another’s place. Just like the European settlers who arrived who saw space, vs. the indigenous peoples who lived in the place.
The definition of a landscape typically situates it’s subject matter in a natural setting. Certainly having land embedded in the term encourages us to take that view. Yet as we approach the details, the definition becomes malleable, like a bowl of jelly, difficult to grasp and hold onto. In part, it is because as one looks closer, those settings that we would like to capture in an image, that appear natural, have been manipulated in some way by the hand of man. We face the question of whether landscape includes more than pure, natural settings. For example, many will allow those pastoral scenes, depicted in so many famous English paintings, within the definition, and with that comes an acceptance of manipulated scenes.
If we accept to include such scenes, then the manipulations become part of the narrative of the image. To appreciate the implications this choice, one must recall that manipulation of the land is usually done for some purpose, to the benefit of people (e.g., agriculture) and often reflects cultural markers (e.g., architecture). Manipulations come heavily loaded with meaning and inference.
There might be a question whether there is a boundary: what is an acceptable amount of manipulation? An approach that limits manipulations would privilege the more natural settings; a more relaxed definition would widen the subject matter. The latter approach allows us to consider that Landscape could be seen as an umbrella term for a range of scenarios including cityscapes, seascapes, etc. As we further widen the definition, “the landscape” could be interpreted as simply the environment around us, leaving us with a question of why not simply refer to this as environmental (photography)?
Mitchell offers a solution to what might otherwise become a circular argument: landscape art is a medium, not a genre. So rather than focus on the content, and become consumed by what physical objects may or may not be included in the image, think of it as a mechanism to communicate something. Maybe we just shifted the bean using the discourse that is the shell game of critical analysis.
Notwithstanding, for me, Mitchell’s premise opens a broader range of useable subject matter and shifts the focus more on the message, which I think is where I want to be. Put another way, it positions landscape as a mechanism for communication, yet the imagery remains situated in the “land” (however loosely). By allowing images that include “the hand of man”, we enable the inclusion of the messages inferred by the manipulations such as culture, control over the environment and indeed, power.
With no sight of land in the image above, most, if not all the elements captured within it are made of the land: the brick walls; the concrete surfaces; the tiles on the roofs; the metal of the aerials. The convergence of multiple time periods is represented through “ancient” architecture and modern satellite dishes, offering a window onto several cultural questions, such as trans generational cultural change, the cumulative nature of culture, things lost and gained, etc.