This essay explores an unmanaged park in my neighbourhood of Thornhill, Ontario. An island of nature set within an urban grid of intense human activity, it is surrounded by homes, heavily trafficked roads, and railways. Overhead, aeroplanes cross the sky on their flight path towards Pearson International Airport. Situated in a gully, this space is surprisingly isolated and rarely visited. There is only the occasional glimpse of a house; city noise is muted by its location in a depression. It reminds us of that which was once prevalent is disappearing under the steam-roller of urban expansion. The vast natural spaces, that form a part of our identity, the Canadian ethos, are being cut up into an archipelago of smaller and smaller islands.
This photo-essay begins with my departure from home and a short walk to the park. Reaching the boundary, I peer over the edge, into the gully. Venturing down the path, I reach a portal that transports me from the urban landscape into the wild natural surroundings. There, a grass covered pathway provides easy access through the park. Tributaries of less well-defined paths, often difficult to navigate, allow me to enter deeper into the space. A pond, disconnected from the nearby river, raises many questions: how did it get there? How it is replenished? Ducks make this pond their home.
In the park, we witness the uncontrolled growth of the vegetation, that unfolds within us a sense of the wild. The muted, unmediated colours, lend to its natural ethos, yet they are warm, and in a way, comforting. As one looks closer, we see the marks of human activity. An empty bottle, painted marks on trees, flags identifying the location of gas lines, manhole covers, cut trees. A widened trail, scored by tire tracks suggests some purpose, some need to allow heavy equipment into the space. These marks are signs of human activity, suggesting a history, that this space is purposeful, meaningful to others; but none of these carry meaning for me. It emphasizes for me that this is an other space.
In the unrelenting drive to consume every piece of land for residential or business purposes, it begs the question why this island of nature survives? Is it because the land could not be developed? Does no one see its value? Is it because we want to save the few remaining places to assuage our desire to connect with, to be within nature?
By contrasting the urban and natural settings, this work explores the relationship between order and disorder through landscape photography. The departure point is the human propensity to seek order in their lives through controlling their environment, by defining their place out of the chaos of natural space. And yet, we often seek to return to our natural environments, to revisit nature in its uncontrolled form. Does this reflect a deep-seated desire to balance that which we can control from that we cannot? An urge to explore the unknown? Does it reflect an impulse to return to our roots; a nostalgia for what we believe was a simpler time? Is it a reflection of the impression that nature is pure, simple, un-confounded by the complexity of 21st-century life?
It shows us that while we inhabit a controlled place, an attraction to non-place persists. Our manicured gardens represent a utopian view of nature: organized, aesthetic, tidy, safe from wild beasts, and insects. Yet our desire to re-connect with nature reflects nostalgia for simpler times and restoring our connection with the myths of open space. A contradiction.
This is the first in what I hope will be a series of “mini-projects” that explore a narrowly-define topic of interest to me. My goal in executing a mini-project is to develop my practice of expression. That is expression through an image-based narrative (and optionally a written essay) that is built on a theoretical foundation.
This specific project explores landscape imagery, and some of the related theories and practices, as a medium of communications. I have chosen to focus on the Western notions of landscape; I respect the Eastern perspective is vastly different, and thus to cover both, is too broad a scope.
This paper is a summary of my thought process; I don’t intended it to be a fully developed academic paper (which basically means, I have been loose in citing all references).
What do I mean by Landscape?
To establish a point of reference, I start with a definition offered by Wells, that landscape images are “vistas encompassing both nature and the changes that humans have effected on the natural world” (Wells, 2). This definition encompasses what is generally understood to comprise a landscape, however, including “the changes that humans have effected …” allows us to include the impact of human activity, such as urbanization, in addition to those pastoral scenes often depicted in traditional English or Dutch paintings.
While some would exclude any signs of human activity from the landscape image, I am uncomfortable with that constraint. First, to do so would not allow me to reflect the 21st-Century urban landscape that I, and most (Canadians), live in today. Second, I view landscapes as both a genre of photography, and as a medium of communications that expresses more than simply the picturesque, but also current social issues and challenges.
Wells’ observed that the aesthetics of landscape photography has moved away from the romantic views of earlier times to conveying stronger social issues and concerns: “… the extent to which landscape imagery relates … to questions of class, nationhood, heritage and identity has been clearly exposed through questioning more established ways of seeing and representing land” (Wells, 10). The questions that follow include: what form does this expression take? What is the “language”?
My starting point is to consider a narrative expressed through a collection of images, rather than a single one. As a narrative, they need to co-operate as a whole. Secondly, the images need to convey the character of the place, of the land, but not just the physical characteristics, also the signs of human activity, enabling a sense of place, identity and culture. Metaphor and allegory play their roles in extrapolating the conceptual perspective. Finally, there is the representation of the subjects, the photographic techniques, the genre or style, etc. to convey feelings and mood.
Yet, I also need to know the boundaries of what I can and should say. Keeping in mind the adage of documentarians, show don’t tell, Wells reminds us that “the power of the photograph lies partly in what the reader brings to it” (Wells, 184).
The narrative of my work follows a path from our home to a pond located in a near-by park. It unfolds the world, starting literally at our front door. Presented through a series of images, I construct the story through a set of “building blocks” that are both physical and metaphorical in character. The narrative is based on the work of John Gossage in his book, The Pond. In his book, the storyline has a beginning, middle and end. I am sensitive to the argument that establishing a structure privileges order over disorder, but in doing so, I am suggesting order’s triumph over disorder, or put another way, that the structures we have developed in our modern lives has subjugated nature (which tacitly suggests nature has no order, which I’m sure many will disagree with, and I will step back from later on.)
In homage to Stilgoe’s preference for walking, due to his enjoyment, and advocacy, of scrying, I submit here a couple of clues that this too was my means of transport: first, no automobiles are pictured; second, I have chosen to include detailed images that might otherwise be missed if not walking.
Broadly, two sites are presented in this work: gardens and a park: managed and unmanaged landscapes. These, as noted earlier, represent the order we construct in our lives in contrast to the disorder we face. Stilgoe refers to sites as the world-as-we-want-it and the world-as-it-is. While one might be tempted to conclude these correspond to the garden and unmanaged park, I don’t presume to assume such a binary view, rather I think in terms of proportions of each. Situating both within a site, in my mind, reflects the reality of incompleteness, developing tension between our wants and what we can achieve in our daily lives.
Stilgoe makes reference to roads, rivers, and other conduits of transportation, that connect sites. Gossage as well includes many images of paths, and roads, often including some sort of blockage or impediment. As such, I have included images of roads, paths and barely visible trails, not only to convey the connection between the sites (or the relationship between order and disorder) but also to suggest the friction.
By representing two different sites, there are boundaries; edges. Referring to more ancient times, Wells notes “the frontier was viewed by many as the border between civilisation and savagery” (Wells, 112), which might be less top of mind in today’s more managed world, but I submit it as a subconscious concern some might feel. Images of a wall of trees, a wire fence, a duct, each convey a boundary between order and chaos.
The gardens expose the actions of human activity through their managed, planned construction: the organization and selection of the vegetation; the consideration of colour; the alignment of textures, etc. Human activity is exposed in the park by paint-marks on trees, a discarded plastic bottle, an algae bloom in the pond, suggesting the effects of the invisible pollution. I also include with those images, ducks feeding in the pond and a spiderweb strung among the twigs. This is to say that the park includes life beyond the vegetation. This is their home; this is their order. Whose to say which order is better — a human’s order or an animal’s order — it may be what is right for each.
The landscaped garden is more colourful; it is tidy and organized. It is shaped. In some respects these sites reflect the 19th Century view of landscapes epitomized in the Photographic Surveys. In contrast, the park has fewer, and less vibrant colours, it is untidy and thus it can be unsettling. It appears to lack that mythical quality of the 19th Century landscape.
We might ask if our managed gardens reflect a utopian view: clean, safe, uniform, no swamps. Yet as controlled as they are, gardens too have their imperfections: weeds; mosquitos, etc. The gap between reality and what we would like.
Wells points out that “landscapes, real and imagined, contribute to the formation of our sense of identity, subjectively and collectively” (Wells, 262). As noted earlier, landscapes form part of our national mythos, they help us construct who we are. Jung viewed the universality of myths relating to nature as serving to deal with fears and desires, that is, as directly related to ‘human nature’.
Landscapes are reflective of our identity, of cultural elements we deem important. Stilgoe notes the value we place on land is determined by who we are, what we do. A farmer has a different perspective than a miner, than a forester, than a tourist, or a home-owner. The garden, as an artistic work, reflects the character of the owner, their interests and culture; their priorities.
Wikipedia defines place as encompassing the physical, emotional, social, cultural dimensions a site. It is not just the physical elements, it includes all the memories and emotions people attach to them. Space, contrasted against place, is devoid of these things. Wells offers that “[Space] may refer to that which is not known, and thus cannot be precisely categorised” (Wells, 2).
Gossage talks of his pond as not place specific; it is about non-place, dealing with the boundaries or “the interface between city and country sometimes known as terrain vague.”
“The act of naming is an act of taming…Naming turns space into place” (Wells, 3), and it is for this reason that I leave the pond in my work unnamed. For me, it is a space. Yet, this is my perspective, uninformed by a history. But there are signs of human activity. Not just ones of recent activity, but trees cut long ago, a sign announcing “Danger, Thin Ice”. Each of these suggest past activities: timber cutting, skating on the pond. Other people have memories; they might recall skating on this pond as a child. They might think of this as a place. And, in recognition of the animals that inhabit these parts, they too would have some form of bond that might elevate this space to place.
Representational approaches for each of the two sites — the gardens and the park — were informed by conceptual and a physical considerations. How does one express the conceptual notion of order and disorder, the controlled and uncontrolled. Moving beyond the physical subject matter itself, I position the park as an island within an urban sea and ask how and why does it survive? My view is that answering these questions might offer some insight into our own nature, our own human needs.
My first consideration was the style to employ: observational, abstract, poetic. Whether I should employ certain techniques, such as: distance vs. closeness; movement vs. stillness; voids; focus and depth of field. Each of these imparts a feel or mood: affective or emotionless, excitement or banal.
Binary choices applied to each site helps develop visible separation, and in doing so, highlight the essential character of each. Beyond the immediate subject matter, I wanted to offer, at minimum as a suggestion, what exists outside the boundary of the park; what is it that lies at and beyond the edges?
Gossage’s style contrasts with the 19th Century “Photographic Survey” as a method of understanding landscape. These surveys included mythic and magnificent landscapes (the sublime), they were hopeful, positive, stimulating, enthusiastic. The images show the “best of breed”; they show nature and the natural and untouched. Yet many of the images were aloof, distant, prim and proper. They were well composed, in focus and long depth of field, a tendency towards vast vistas over narrow details. Gossage took steps to contrary to these characteristics, to make his own statement.
With these two reference points, I have chosen a position in-between. Like Gossage’s site, my park is mundane and lacks the majesty of a 19th Century landscape. However, I have chosen to scratch the surface and expose some of the beauty that lies in the details, majesty in miniature. It is also a subtle gesture to Stilgoe who submits that such things only become visible when one takes the time to walk, and more importantly, look. Or may be it’s Barthes punctum.
As a member of the f/64 club, Ansel Adam’s landscape photography is famous for its crisp focus and deep depth of field. Gossage stepped back from this approach and chose various depths of field and focal points to develop a sense of mood, of indeterminacy and ambiguity. I chose to develop mood through other means and avoided such poetic techniques, and positioned myself closer to the traditional straight, observational, photography style. I want to emphasize the sense of reality of the space. I had in mind that this gesture would elevate the site beyond its current physical stress, offering a tenuous link to past glories. A form of respect.
In contrast with the picturesque, the sublime is often a character of traditional landscapes. Wells notes:
“By contrast with the beautiful and the picturesque, the sublime is associated with awe, danger and pain, with places where accidents happen, where things run beyond human control, where nature is untameable … if pain or danger are too imminent they are simply terrible, but if held at some distance they are pleasurable … mountains are associated with the sublime, hills with the picturesque; sea with the sublime, rivers and canals with the picturesque.” (Wells, 48)
When today’s observer explores a little, mundane park, like the one I chose, there remain few physical dangers: the contours of the land have been tamed, the paths are often well-maintained; there are no wild animals, other than the occasional squirrel or bird. To engender a traditional sense of the sublime is difficult. But if we look more closely at the park itself, another thought emerges; I have conflated images of human activity with images of the subtle natural beauty. Combining the images into a narrative suggests the park, including its various natural inhabitants, is an integrated whole. We can see this place as home. Rather than seek to expose the pain and dangers we humans might face (there is none), we see the pain and danger the park faces, from human activity, the pain and danger we inflict.
As a means of expression, the landscape genre offers many interesting options. I have explored just one. By contrasting the garden and the park, the managed and unmanaged, I touched on our collective desire for order and the propensity to want to reduce disorder. By stepping back from Gossage’s more current style and touching on the traditional styles of landscape imagery, I tried to resurrect the notion of the sublime. Recalling Wells’s thoughts “…the sublime is associated with awe, danger and pain, with places where accidents happen, where things run beyond human control, where nature is untameable…” I am struck by our desire for order on the one hand, and our seemly contradictory desire for the sublime on the other. “For Freud the sublime relates to repressed desire and the uncanny, that which is strange and frightening because it leads back to or stirs up something deep-seated or primordial concealed beneath the veneer of human culture” (Wells, 49).
Our individual veneers present each of us as rational and ordered people, yet within lies the turmoil of conflicting emotions and thought. I chose to express these tensions between order and disorder through a series landscape images of ordered gardens and unmanaged parks. The landscape genre struck me as an apt metaphor as it is the land and our environment that is so deep-seated within us. While the sublime reflected in the 19th Century Photographic Survey may be out of style, I submit that some of its core notions persist within, as those national myths related the “wild west”, our national parks or the reference to Canada as the Great White North. These are part of our collective identity.
Tangibly, the images comment on the human impact to the environment, through our desire for order and taming disorder. In doing so, I ask why would we be willing to destroy that which is so integral to our existence and our inner selves.
 John Gossage, “The Pond”
 John R. Stilgoe, “Landscape and Images”
 Liz Wells, Land Matters : Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity
Yesterday I published a photo-essay, with accompanying text: Park & Pond. (update: renamed to The Park) A support paper will be published in the next few days.
The other day I published an essay, now I have added a support paper. The support paper summarizes my thinking process in creating the work.