Frank Gohlke: Thoughts on LandscapePosted: January 3, 2011
Affection for the land runs deep in us, and its manifestations—from the garden plot to the national parks—encompass a vast range of human actions and choices. At what point in the history of our species, I wonder, did the watchful, anxious regard for our surroundings, on which survival depended, begin to modulate toward love of a particular place? There must be an Other before there can be love; Eden becomes the object of our desire only after we are cast out. The best landscape images, whatever their medium and whatever other emotions they may evoke, are predicated on that loss. They propose the possibility of an intimate connection with a world to which we have access only through our eyes, a promise containing its own denial. In the case of landscape photographs, the paradox is sharpened because the world represented must have existed for the picture to be made, and yet the existence of the photograph attests undeniably to that world’s disappearance.
Culture creates a gulf between people and the world they inhabit. Some human groups experience this rupture as a problem and expend enormous amounts of energy in their attempts to heal it. Americans have been noticeably divided on the necessity, even the desirability, of a harmonious relationship with the natural world; but when we do attempt to establish a connection with larger realities, photographs of unspoiled Nature frequently play a central, almost devotional role. It is an odd choice of tools: the making of a photograph presupposes distance, which accounts, I think, for the elegiac tone, the note of longing that suffuses so many of the finest landscape photographs. I admire those pictures most that acknowledge our predicament without causing us to lose heart, just as I am most touched by those places where damage and grace are inextricably entangled. Photographs bear witness to the facts, be they visible or existential, and it is a fact that our relationship with the natural world is a troubled one that can never be otherwise under the present cultural dispensation.
Approached attentively, any place may persuade us to linger in an attempt to locate the source of its attraction. What we discover often comes to us in the form of a story. Landscapes are collections of stories, only fragments of which are visible at any one time. In linking the fragments, unearthing the connections among them, we create the landscape anew. A landscape whose story is known is harder to dismiss, harder to treat like a neutral matrix of interchangeable parts. For all the obvious, vast differences between ourselves and the aboriginal walker, singing the world into existence at every moment, there is still some sense of kinship. At its best, telling the landscape’s story can still feel like a sacred task.