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

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