The Museum of Art Rhode Island School in Providence is currently (through January 13, 2013) featuring a tremendous survey of American landscape photography entitled America in View: Landscape Photography1865 to Now. The exhibition, which sweeps across close to 150 years of history in 150 photographs, was inspired by the gift of 71 photographs from the collection of the late Joe Deal, himself a noted landscape photographer and provost of RISD, and his widow Betsey Ruppa.
What we see in America in View is not only how the American landscape has changed from the romantic grandeur of 19th century wilderness to the ironic blandness of 21st century dystopia but also how photo technology has changed from labor-intensive chemical processes to digital virtual reality and how the interests of photographers have changed from the sublime to the offhand.
Organized by RISD Museum print, drawing and photography curator Jan Howard and RISD photography professor Debra Bright, the exhibition is arranged in five historic chapters – Surveying the Field (Civil War to 1880s), Luminous Realms (Pictorialists), Abstracting Nature (f/64 school), Topographic Developments (New Topographics photographers of the 1970s and 1980s) and Where We Find Ourselves Today (Deconstructed landscapes and orchestrated photographs).
Perhaps because I visited the museum with my daughter Tess, an environmental science major in college, a week after the devastating environmental wake-up call of Hurricane Sandy, I found myself gravitating to images of the landscape in distress. Tess stopped at Arthur Rothstein’s iconic 1936 photograph of a father and his two young sons caught in Dust Bowl dust storm and explained how it had been used in an environmental history. I turned from that to Ansel Adams’ famous c.1955 photograph of Half Dome inYosemiteNational Parkand wondered whether the snow blown face of the landmark was now pock marked with climbing gear.
In general, a walk through America in View is a walk from a dim, dark past into a lurid present, the classic photographers of old celebrating pristine nature, the photographers of the late 20th century more interested in the human landscape, and the 21st century photographers drawn to the strange beauty of nature in decline.
Among my favorite American wasteland photographs were David T. Hanson’s 1984 color print of abandoned strip mines inMontana and Ed Burtynsky’s milky white 1991 image of a calcium carbonate mine in Vermont. Such a purposeful raping of the land is almost breathtaking.
Far more subtle are Laura McPhee’s soaring landscape of smoke rising from a wildfire inIdahoand Alec Soth’s desert landscape in which the figure of a man can be seen within a dome he has built as a refugee from civilization.
One of the most recent and pervasive trends in fine art photography is the orchestrated image. Gregory Crewdson at Yale is one of the chief practitioners and apostles of this cinematic approach to staging pictures. In the RISD show, Crewdson is represented by a haunting image of a man standing on a porch watching a young couple stroll down a cement canal in a bleak, small town.
Justine Kurland, one of Crewdson’s former students, contributes my favorite landscape in the show. Kurland, who is known for images of naked women and children at play in a kind of arcadia of the imagination, is represented by a 2000 color print from her “Runaway Girls” series. The photograph depicts three teen-age girls playing with smoke bombs beneath a New Jersey highway overpass. This is the new feralAmerica, a landscape where the humans conquered the wild and then went wild themselves.
[RISD Museum,224 Benefit St.,ProvidenceRI. 401-454-6500.]