Monday, February 23, 2015

Sublime, Banal, Commercial, Artistic: Photography and the West

Our discussion this week ultimately focused on artists like that of Ansel Adams, William Garnett, Ed Ruscha, and Robert Adams. These artists were photographers who were primarily interested in the conservation and preservation of the West and intrigued by the ideas of the sublime and the banal. Our class discussed what we felt were the ideas of an aesthetic or natural aesthetic, the differences between the sublime and the banal, the changes that have occurred in the West, whether they occurred naturally or through man-made development, and the last “secret places” left in the world.

Ansel Adams photographing Yosemite National Park

Ansel Adams no doubt had a huge impact on the conservation movements in the West. Especially in the Yosemite Nation Park, he strove to preserve the wonderful land we have out there. But to do this to the best of his ability, he used his photographic talents to show the public the awe of the landscape, and this was a huge factor in bringing tourism there.

Though his photography for the park and The Curry Company was for the marketing and business world, he was still able to implement his artistic vision, after a few hurdles, while making a living off it at the same time. But as we discussed in a very responsive class—this seemed like a good hot-button issue, the art world mixing with the business side of our nation— there was some debate on the balance of creating art as an artist and creating promotional (bordering on propaganda) imagery.

In our discussion, we also touched a lot on the resource of (natural) aesthetic. Later touching on constructed and man-made aesthetic, we first discussed if nature itself and the inherent beauty it has is a resource. There was back and forth on this topic because nature itself, such as a beautiful forest, can aesthetically look pleasing, but it could also be cut down and converted into lumber. However, does that delete the aesthetic value of the place itself, we asked in class. The answer was somewhat yes because the trees are physically gone so the aesthetic resource of the forest’s beauty is gone. But the land can have something new (buildings) or different (different forest re-planted) be placed upon it, therefore the resource is not lost. There were many good points made during discussion from the Yosemite and Ansel Adams article.

William Garnett, From God's Own Junkyard

To discuss the sublime and the banal, we first wanted to clarify what our definition of the sublime was. We found that although we take into account the European romantic definition of sublime including fear, the sublime can also include such ideas of awe, beauty, disgust, and hope. We constantly found ourselves redefining and reconsidering our definition throughout the discussion, and we were a little unsure of straying from that romantic European definition.

We discussed the two books that were brought up in the article: Nancy Newhall and Ansel Adams’ This is the American Earth and Peter Blake’s God’s Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of America’s Landscape. Both publications featured William Garnett’s photos, which were controversial considering our old and new definitions, and also controversial when we considered ideas such as “beauty” and aesthetic.

Edward Ruscha was an artist who came in the 1960s and the author made the claim that he pursued the idea of banality in Los Angeles. He was especially controversial in our class, and made books of photographs like Thirtyfour Parking Lots, TwentySix Gasoline Stations, and Some Los Angeles Apartments. He seemed to systematically document these images, with little to no people or movement. His views were that of a person driving around Los Angeles in their own vehicle. The author indirectly asked us ‘How can this imagery be sublime?’

Robert Adams, Mobile Homes, Jefferson County, Colorado, 1973

We read and discussed this article by photographer Robert Adams. Adams was a 20th century photographer who did photographic work for the exhibit New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. Adams and the nine other photographers in this show captured the land and its human made variations in an emotionless way.

In Adam’s article, he shared his relationship with nature. He talked about the early encounters he had with it and how peaceful he felt. He then spoke of the way he would revisit the same places years later and they would be crowded with people. Despite all this, he talked in a hopeful way about the future of our relationship with nature. We discussed the way he felt hopeful about this and how he viewed the necessary changes. He seems to think that changes need to happen within individuals before they can happen on a large scale. We compared Adams’ view of hope to that of Lucy Lippard, whose book we read at the beginning of the course. Lippard is a little more unclear in the ways we can make a difference.

We also discussed the Rephotographic Survey Project. This is headed by photographer Mark Klett who goes back to the sites that 19th century photographers shot at and rephotographs them in an almost obsessive manner. Klett has made the series Second View and Third View based on this idea. These series allow us to see the way land has changed over the span of, in some cases, 130 years. We discussed whether or not Klett was doing this with explicit intent. We are not sure of his intentions, but it is easy enough to interpret it for yourself and to see the way the land has changed often due to humans.

Left, Timothy O’Sullivan, Pyramid Lake, 1867-69; Center, Mark Klett, Pyramid Lake, ca. 1970; Right, Mark Klett, Pyramid Lake, ca. 1997

Nicole Nikas, Lexi Musselman and Sarah Lassiter

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Thomas Kinkaide of the Photography World

In light of the conversation that keeps on giving (the world's most expensive photograph), here is a link to David Segal's article "Peter Lik's Recipe for Success: Sell Prints. Print Money" that was published yesterday in The New York Times.

Some highlights include:

"Nearly every Peter Lik photograph is printed in a “limited edition” of 995; the first print sells at about $4,000, with the price rising as the edition sells out. With his eye fixed on a record-setting sale, he printed a single copy of “Phantom.” Then he alerted a handful of his most ardent collectors, one of whom, he said, agreed to the $6.5 million price. Before the deal was signed, Mr. Lik hired a public relations firm to make sure that the sale, and the record, were noticed."

"Mr. Lik opens galleries in areas with lots of tourist traffic, and he embraces the familiar elements of retail transactions, instead of cloaking them in mystery, which is standard in the contemporary art realm. There are even credit-card swipe machines in every Lik gallery, a device rarely seen in any other fine-art context, where checks are preferred."

"Mr. Lik doesn’t seem to have much interest in art, either, at least art made by other people. He never studied any photographer, let alone took an art class, and seems to take some pride in that fact. He professes no interest in Ansel Adams, perhaps the most famous American landscape photographer and an obvious touchstone to anyone dragging a big camera into a national park. 'Just a nice shot of Yosemite,” Mr. Lik said, summing up Adams’s work. 'Right place at the right time.'”

I could go on but at the risk of sounding too much like an opinionated art elitist, I will not. Check out the article. If anything, it made me want to visit one of Lik's galleries at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas in May to understand the spectacle and compare it to James Turrell's installation at Louis Vuitton. Art and commerce: a never ending discussion (I hope Lik knows his edition printing practices rival that of Ansel Adams).

Jacinda Russell

Friday, February 20, 2015

In the news...

We've talked a lot about oppression, ownership and stewardship of land and natural resources, narratives of American history, preservation, and patriotism this semester. A few of issues in the news this week resonate with many of our conversations.

Arkansas River near Salida, Colorado

President Obama talked about the importance of conservation and beauty when he designated new National Monuments this week:

"Conservation is a truly American idea.  The naturalists and industrialists and politicians who dreamt up our system of public lands and waters did so in the hope that, by keeping these places, these special places in trust -- places of incomparable beauty, places where our history was written -- then future generations would value those places the same way as we did.  It would teach us about ourselves, and keep us grounded and keep us connected to what it means to be American.  And it’s one of our responsibilities, as Americans, to protect this inheritance and to strengthen it for the future. And that’s why I’ve used my authority to set aside more public lands and waters than any President in history."

The three new monuments are Browns Canyon National Monument (Colorado), a home for bald eagles and big horn sheep in the Arkansas River Valley; Pullman National Monument (Illinois), the nation's first planned industrial town and the birthplace of the first African American labor union in the US; and Honouliuli National Monument (Hawaii), the site of a Japanese-American Internment Camp during World War II.

Several states are taking steps to ban the Advanced Placement American History course from their high schools in order to keep out "the bits of our history that might be uncomfortable, unflattering or even shameful — or, as some politicians call it, 'unpatriotic.'" For a synopsis of the state of this controversy see this Washington Post article.

And, today is Ansel Adams' birthday! Happy Birthday, AA! Learn some more fun facts about him here.
Ansel Adams Photographing Yosemite National Park

Lara Kuykendall

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"Spirit of Place"

We based the format of our presentation around the ideas that D.H. Lawrence brings up in the introduction to “Studies in Classic American Literature,” which is titled “The Spirit of Place.”  These ideas question why man desires to find an escape from his “masters” and that this manifests itself in different ways throughout history.  Using these ideas as a general foundation for the discussion, we began by reviewing artists motivations and intentions during the pursuit of exploring, civilizing, and claiming of the American West.  We concluded that many of these artists use their work as propaganda with either commercial or nationalistic intent.  Our first main example was Thomas Moran’s The Chasm of the Colorado.  Its seemingly impossible majesty very clearly communicates the biased goals of the painters of the Manifest Destiny era.   

Thomas Moran, The Chasm of the Colorado, 1874

Over time, the work created in the American West shifted away from commercial nationalism, and towards a strange contest of pride.  Artists desired to be the first to create a historically significant “American Art,” and they figured that the West was so uniquely American, it would be the birthplace of such a form.  However, many of these attempts feel forced and are therefore unsuccessful in achieving this goal.  Consider Stuart Davis; throughout his stay in the West, he remained an uncommitted outsider from his surroundings and created most of his work in a studio that was removed from his subject.  He, like many others, viewed the landscape through the lens of previously established methods.  They forced their intentions upon their surroundings as well as what D.H. Lawrence describes as the “sense of place.”   

Stuart Davis, New Mexican Landscape, 1923

Georgia O’Keeffe ultimately succeeded with what this group had failed to achieve: creating a clearly “American” style of art.  O’Keeffe moved out to the American West simply because she wanted a change of scenery.  She moved out to the West without the lofty (and somewhat pretentious) goals of her peers.  D.H. Lawrence emphasizes the idea of freedom from your masters.  We took this to insinuate that the artists before O’Keeffe still adhered to some semblance of a master, and were attempting to fulfill it’s desires before recognizing their sense of self, as well as their own sense of place.

Georgia O'Keeffe, From the Faraway Nearby, 1937

Dan Martens and Nikki Stacey

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Encounters: The Taos Society of Artists, Pueblo Culture, and the Hispanic Southwest

Walter Ufer, Me and Him, n.d., location unknown

On February 3 our class was introduced to The Taos Society of Artists, in John Ott's article, "Reform in Redface: The Taos Society of Artists Plays Indian." (American Art 23, no. 2 (Summer 2009): 80-107). These were educated artists that moved to the southwest and immersed themselves into the Pueblo culture. They fell in love with the people and the land that surrounded them. Through their paintings, they introduced the eastern border-states to the beauty of the land and the people that lived on it. Their paintings inspired a desire to establish a national art; art that is American and not influenced by Europe. In class, we discussed how these artists (especially by artists Walter Ufer and E. Irving Couse) were afraid of being emasculated by the supposed “feminization” of European art. Both sought to “regain” a type of “vigorous masculinity,” “rejuvenation,” and “identification with the robust men of the Pueblo.” Our discussion included analysis of the paintings by Couse and Ufer and we saw the slow transformation of the artists’ own images becoming less Anglo and more like the natives of the southwest.

Ernest L. Blumenschein, The Gift, 1922, Smithsonian American Art Museum

In Sascha Scott's article, "Unwrapping Ernest L. Blumenschein’s The Gift," (American Art 25, no. 3 (Fall 2011): 20-47) the focus was Blumenschein's efforts “to promote Pueblo culture as an important part of this country’s cultural heritage and the desire to protect or preserve Pueblo culture from the degrading influences of Anglo society.” We spent time discussing the influences behind the painting and the modernist techniques that Blumenschein used to create his image of the Pueblo culture. He was one of the founders of the Taos Society of Artists, and just like his peers, he immersed himself into the culture of the Pueblo people. As a result, he had a better understanding of the culture’s spiritual connection with the land and with each other as a community. He used the modernist approach in his painting, The Gift, “to celebrate Pueblo culture while keeping their culture from being fully known to the viewer.” Blumenschein was breaking away from the stereotypical paintings of the Pueblos that his peers had succumbed to by popular demands of the east.

Santa Fe Adobe

The last essay, Julie Schimmel's chapter from the book, Art in New Mexico, 1900-1945: Paths to Taos and Santa Fe, called "The Hispanic Southwest," addressed the Hispanic culture in New Mexico. Architects came in and tried to protect the original architecture of the Hispanic people, which today we call the Santa Fe style. The opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821, however, allowed factory-made products to replace homemade handcrafted art, as well as mass-producing religious icons. As a result, over the next few generations, Hispanic culture began to rely on the industrial economy of mass produced icons. The particular interest here is that when it came to the Pueblo Indians, American artists romanticized them, but they did not show the same respect for Hispanics. As a result, “the artistic image of Hispanic culture largely stemmed from an Anglo perception of the relationship between Hispanic people and land, labor, and the Catholic Church.” Artists depicted Hispanics toiling on the land, while for the Indians the land was a source of inspiration. We analyzed The Dry Ditch by Kenneth Adams, which exemplifies the very stereotype, and which we had seen during our recent visit to the Eiteljorg Museum.

Tracy Jarrett and Kristina Powell

Friday, February 13, 2015

New Robert Irwin Arwork at Chinati

Robert Irwin, untitled (Four Walls), 2006

A new permanent installation at Chinati is in the works! It will be the first large scale addition since 2004 and will be located in the former Fort D.A. Russell hospital.

From the Chinati Foundation website:

"Irwin’s design follows the footprint of the existing structure and preserves elements particular to it. The work will be experienced in halves, with one side of the building dark and the other light. Irwin’s subtle interventions will enhance the visual experience and include the use of long transparent scrim walls in black and white, as well as window films that manipulate and frame the changing light conditions that occur throughout the course of the day."

The estimated completion date is 2016. 

Jacinda Russell

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Westward The Course of the Empire Takes Its Way: 19th Century Painters and Photographers

This week we talked about the origins of Western expansion, Manifest Destiny, the destruction and exploitation of the redwoods, and photography vs. painting in the American West.

Carleton Watkins, Grizzly Giant, c. 1865-66

Albert Bierstadt, Giant Redwood Trees of California, 1874

In the articles Introduction: The Golden Meane and The Great Desert, Andrew Menard talks about the origins of Western state lines, and their reliance on longitude and latitude for their shape as opposed to the geographical shape of the Eastern states. A large reason for the square shape of the Western states is a direct cause of Thomas Jefferson's hurried attempts to have the land explored, and mapping out areas before their initial exploration. In class discussion we talked about how Manifest Destiny played into the action of acquiring the land prior to exploring and mapping it based off the land itself. Many people concluded that Manifest Destiny was the main cause for this quick and hasty mapping method.


John Melish, Map of the United States, 1816 (image via)

We discussed the way technological innovations influenced photographers like Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge was known for his work with the Stanford horse photographs where he captured the various stages of a horse trotting. Along with his innovative work with the speed of photography, Muybridge also worked in the American West. Many of his photographs focused on observing reflections of things like mountains on water. In the article River of Shadows, author Rebecca Solnit discussed the way our relationship with time changed with new technologies like the railroad and photography. All these things allowed us to be in different places, either in a photograph in the past or physically by traveling. These were ways to escape the present. In the class discussion we talked about how fast our world moves today in comparison to how the world moved in the 19th century. Along these same lines we talked about how the natural sublime and the technological sublime interact with one another and if that relationship is positive or negative.

Eadweard Muybridge, The Horse in Motion, 1878

Eadweard Muybridge, Mirror Lake, Valley of Yosemite, 1872

Another photographer we looked at was Timothy O'Sullivan. O’Sullivan began his photographic career at an early age. Some of his most well known work comes from his time photographing the Civil War. He did a lot of work in the American West as well. His work was often associated with the transcendentalist movement because of his use of simple, abstracted spaces that were often very meditative. His images did not often contain figures, but when they did they were being swallowed by their environment to emphasize the vast, sweeping landscapes of the West.

Timothy O'Sullivan, Vermillion Creek Canyon, 1867

Timothy O'Sullivan, Pyramid and  Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake, Nevada, 1878

Painters and photographers were often pitted against one another due to the variation between their works. Photographers tended to include things like railroads and buildings while painters excluded those details and focused on more on nature. Photographers also tended to be a little more dedicated to the exploration of the land. It was not uncommon for painters to take trips out to the west and created sketches or very quick paintings and then travel back east to create the actual painting. Photographers on the other hand were in it for the long haul and it was not uncommon for them to take many trips out West or to even move out West. A quote that covers a lot of the reading and topics in The Kiss of Enterprise is, “The message of many studio paintings was that the natural and the technological sublime were compatible, that the west could endure as both a symbol and resource.” Artists started traveling west, two examples of artists that we discussed in class and read about in the article, are Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Hill, they both combined and edited the field sketches, color studies, and photographs they had gathered, to produce paintings that were propaganda to encourage others to travel out west. They would create these places that did not exist, but were different beautiful parts of western landscape combined.


Joseph H. Becker, Snow Sheds on the Central Pacific Railroad in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, 1869

We also discussed the construction of the snow sheds, snow was making it impossible for the trains to travel across the tracks and so they proposed snow sheds, this let the trains pass through the snow tunnels. 37 miles of snow sheds were built eventually, costing more than 2 million dollars. The total build of all of these snow sheds used so much lumber.

Thomas A. Ayers, The Mammoth Tree Grove, Calaveras County, 1855

We also touched on the trees out West and the controversy of protecting them. Lincoln was involved in signing the bill to protect Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove. Even though he made the efforts to save this area, other areas even right next to these locations were not being saved. A great observation made by Ludlow was, “at the same time tourists were traveling great distances to see the giant trees, others were intent on turning them into shingles and grape stakes.”

We talked about propaganda, and how the painters and photographers joined works to bring people out to the beautiful west, though some people did not believe what people were saying about the sizes of the trees. To promote the west and to bring “national pride” the government cut down a three hundred foot sequoia, right outside of the parks protected area and displayed this tree in Chicago. Those who had not believed the actual sizes of the trees, could then witness the size in person. Another advertising method that we touched on was the Wawona Tree, being used on the front and back of brochures, to promote Travel to California by railroad.

Sarah Lassiter, Grif Williams and Kyla Tighe