Two photography books focus on how we look at our landscapes
Landscape as Photograph, by Estelle Jussim and Elizabeth Lindquist-Cock. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. 168 pp. $35. Common Ground, the American Field Guide, Volume 1, by Gregory Conniff. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. 125 pp. $19.95. ``Places Where I've Done Time,'' William Saroyan titled a 1972 collection of essays, and his approach to place -- casual, haphazard, and in passing -- characterized the way America looked at its landscapes. A generation that was ravaging its surroundings was often simply blind to their very presence.
In the last decade or so, however, that attitude has been reversed: As Americans rediscovered their surroundings, the built and natural environments have earned their devotion. In tandem with that public consciousness, scholars have put their minds to the matter that is billed as ``nature.'' Following the pioneer work of J. B. Jackson (an editor and essayist who reflected on the humanized landscape), they have taken landscape as a fit subject to describe the human beings who create and
These two Yale University Press offerings, ``Landscape as Photograph'' and ``Common Ground,'' reflect that new territorial inspection at its most visual -- in photographs. The first, a history of landscape photography, is a slow-moving and studied treatment of those who captured the landscape on film, complete with 79 images and 209 footnotes. The second is a more quirky attempt to label one man's vision as ``Common Ground.'' For all their problems, both are admirably produced and thought-provoking exam ples of the welcome labor to apply the intellect to aesthetics and environment.
``The landscape photograph, like poetry, seeks to convey not only feeling but idea,'' observe co-authors Estelle Jussim and Elizabeth Lindquist-Cock in ``Landscape as Photograph.'' The awesome majesty of an Ansel Adams photograph or the pop iconography in a Robert Adams ``Mobile Camp'' before a mountain says as much about their notions of the environment as about their artistry.
The same can be said, and is, of the gifted photographers who captured the American wilderness a century ago. The authors show how their attitude of reverence (``Nature was a cathedral not a dance hall'') shaped the nation's sense of itself.
There is nothing especially new in ``breaking the spell of the idea of objectivity,'' but the authors' closely worked resectioning of conventional histories gives new insights and cross-fertilizes one's sense of both landscape and photographic history. In eight chapters, landscape is treated as ``Artistic Genre,'' as ``God,'' as ``Fact,'' as ``Symbol,'' as ``Pure Form,'' ``Popular Culture,'' ``Concept,'' and ``Politics and Propaganda.'' Each chapter not only delves into the philosophy and evolution of i ts subject but also offers good reproductions (in black and white, if not color) and annotations of the subject.
This is no primer, however. The average reader or newcomer to photo history is likely to bog down in such sentences as this: ``The Stieglitz Equivalents, which included his Music, were in some ways reminiscent of T. S. Eliot's search for `objective correlatives,' or what Pater took for granted as thoughts and feelings `twin-born' with their perceivable analogues or symbols.'' Nonetheless, the juxtapositions of 19th- and 20th-century images -- of say, Wilbur Porterfield's ``September Morning, '' all mist and memory, with Paul Caponigro's 1960s-style surrealism in ``Redding, Connecticut'' -- and the delving into photography's many worlds reward the persevering.
``Common Ground'' has much of the pedantry but little of the perception of this work. Of roughly the same dimensions and book design quality, it inflates an offbeat look at the backyards and spaces in between into a socio-historical statement.
Photographer-author Gregory Conniff is a poor man's J. B. Jackson. He has translated the historian's certification of everyday landscapes into uninspiring images. Mr. Conniff does have the capacity to shoot the spaces in between, to weave scraggly backyards and trees, trash cans and architectural elements, into an occasionally arresting fabric. But to suggest that this is photographically or environmentally novel enough to justify this volume -- and projected future volumes -- is pompous in the extreme.
A lack of labeling further prevents these photographs from serving their supposed ``field guide'' function. By flipping to the final pages, one picks out that this image is Skowhegan, Maine; that one, Albuquerque, N.M. Yet Woods Hole, on Cape Cod, and Madison, Wis., look like kindred Midwestern landscapes, undifferentiated and undistinguished. The author may mean to offer a message on the placelessness of America, but the enterprise is so oblique that even that notion of nothingness is hard to take a s theme. The photograph, as Jussim and Lindquist-Cock demonstrate, can reveal ``issues concerning the meaning of nature and the nature of meaning.'' The study of how we see our surroundings is happily on the rise. One hopes it will lift better boats than this.