Review: "Looking at the Land"

© Kate Greene, untitled, Massachusetts, 2011

Looking at the Land is an exhibition of twenty-first century landscape photographs made in the United States curated by Andy Adams of Flak Photo in collaboration with the Rhode Island School of Design's Museum of Art. The museum contracted Adams to produce the exhibition as a projection installation currently on view in their gallery alongside the show America in View: Landscape Photography 1865 to Now. The gallery exhibition is up until January 13, 2013 in Providence. Adams has also released the exhibition as an online video of the projection alongside an online gallery of the same images with accompanying texts.

The exhibition has also taken physical form for the first time at FotoWeekDC with a selection of 20 images from the exhibition being presented. FotoWeekDC runs from November 9 - November 18, 2012.

Looking at the Land has also been reviewed on PHOTO/arts Magazine, American Photo Magazine, NPR's The Picture Show, New Landscape Photography, n j w v, Time Magazine's Lightbox, and other sites.

© Joshua Dudley Greer, Imperial Sand Dunes, California, 2011

Looking at the Land is a group exhibition containing images by 88 international photographers made from between 2000 and 2012. The images were culled from over 5,500 submissions received after an online call for work as well as from the Flak Photo Collection, an online archive of images Adams has curated since 2006. The exhibition crosses the boundary of online / offline as well as presentation concepts, being simultaneously shown in Providence as a projection, online as a video exhibition and gallery, and at FotoWeek DC as physical prints. The project includes photographer responses to four questions Adams has asked them about their practice and landscape photography generally as part of the online gallery and via URL links posted with the physical prints in DC.

© Nicole Jean Hill, Highway 14, Ucross, Wyoming, 2011

Unfortunately, I have not - and will not - be able to get to Providence or Washington D.C. to see the projection or the installation of prints. The online exhibition consists of a gallery and video of the same images as the Providence projection. Both are straightforward, professionally produced presentations. The gallery is click through, image-by-image, with the photographer biography and their responses to Adams' four questions posted below the photograph.  The video passes through the 88 images at 10 second intervals, clocking in at just under 18 minutes long. The photographer's name, image title, and location and year the photograph was taken appear to the left of the image.

© Rachel Barrett, At Low Tide, Bolinas, California, 2009

There are too many images to really discuss photographers or images individually, so let's pull back and look at the exhibition as a whole.

In his essay about the exhibition Adams talks about the trends and dynamics in the work. He writes:
This survey is by no means exhaustive but it does signal the beginning of a fertile new era in the ever-evolving landscape photo tradition. It studies a cross-section of current landscape photography in the documentary style...We live in a post-New Topographics landscape where an entire generation of photographers was born and raised in suburban sprawl. Wilderness is a foreign concept. Our environment has been significantly altered. We keep nature at arm's length. Photography describes these things. 
And yet, these images are subjective interpretations, not objective facts.
As a whole the photographs included in the exhibition do indeed give a sense of a changed, evolving contemporary landscape photography. As curator and historian Alison Nordstrom writes in the NPR Picture Show review of the exhibition, many of these photographers focus on the integration of a hybrid constructed landscape and nature. The images feel collectively – but not all of them individually – like an acceptance of, maybe even a fondness for the "man-altered landscape" in this generation of suburban-spawned photographers as the landscape they grew-up in ages and matures. This fondness manifests itself in more overtly subjective, personal lens work as well as more space for beauty.

While a handful of the images stop at being merely visually clever, the majority have more sincerity and warmth in their approach to their surroundings then the critical indictments of Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, and others of the New Topographics photographers. In fact, many of the images in the exhibition seem to move beyond criticism to take stock of the poetry in the odd constructed / natural spatial juxtapositions in suburban and urban areas - the formal connection of a cloud and shadow of a tree, groups of birds taking flight from different phone poles at the same instant.

Wilderness seems less "foreign" and "at arm's length" in these images to me than reflecting, perhaps, the role of wilderness in the suburban-dweller's contemporary narrative: an element of power to respect and preserve, even while manipulating and containing what’s around us for our needs.

Adams writes that this is a cross-section of contemporary practice, but by no means exhaustive, which I agree with; his acknowledgement of this blunts what would be my main criticism and suggestion for the exhibition – a wider visual range in the edit while not necessarily increasing the number of images. While knowing he was beholden largely to submissions and images already in the Flak Photo Collection, a broader aesthetic range could be provided without compromising the thesis, providing more visual variety and play while maintaining visual coherence; a number of the images say the same thing and a sense of visual sameness pervades a section of the images. I would briefly add that while Adams overall presents a consistent vision in terms of the exhibition theme and, at the same time that I would suggest of wider variety of image-making approaches within the show thesis, a handful of images fall outside the coherence of the thematic argument he's making with the work.

A second point of critique: just based on the small sample size of photographers I’m familiar with, there is a lot of work based solely in the natural landscape still, work that could be molded by a different editor into an argument we have reconnected with or returned to nature in contemporary landscape practice. In that way, I question whether this idea of suburban-focus and nature / man-made landscape hybrids is really a singular thesis that unites much of contemporary landscape practice in the documentary style or, more likely, a particular thread that Adams identifies. If it’s the latter, I would argue for a change in the exhibition statement that moves it away from the idea that it presents a survey or cross-section and instead focuses on linking this particular work to that specific thread.

Let’s go back to New Topographics for a moment as it’s been a major topic of conversation around the exhibit so far by just about every reviewer. As written above, I believe there is generally a distance in terms of tone in this contemporary work from New Topographics. I do see, however, a technical and formal debt: both shows overwhelmingly present clean, straight, direct, frontal, 4x5 aspect ratio images. The only real large difference between the two exhibitions in these terms is an exact reversal of the role of color and black and white. While Stephen Shore was the only member of the New Topographics Ten to use color, the same percentage of those included in this exhibition (9 of 88, or basically 10%) are represented by a black and white image. The percentage similarities also roughly play out between the two exhibitions in terms of the relatively small amounts of 35mm images (LAL 8 of 88; NT 2 of 10), square formats (LAL 2 of 88; NT 2 of 10), as well as what I’ll call conceptually-lead work which is hard to define, but let’s just say it’s when the idea of the image strikes you first when looking at it, even while staying within the "documentary style" (LAL maybe 5 of 88; NT 2 of 10, i.e. the Bechers).

This common ground - beyond suggesting a technical and formal relationship between the two exhibits and a lineage to the current exhibit - raises the question of whether an issue that the curator of New Topographics, William Jenkins, labeled "a problem of style" or "stylistic anonymity" in his exhibition is also an issue with Looking at the Land, but let's discuss that down below as part of the wrap-up.

Before doing so, let me add that in a critique in graduate school, Larry Sultan talked with us about the specific difficulty of working with the landscape – it’s simply such a rich tradition to work in relationship to. That being said, I really appreciate Adams’ edit and the photographers individually for providing a large number of visually fresh images and, beyond my suggestion above of a wider edit, the editing itself is almost uniformly strong, with impressively few weak points in a 88 image line-up. I also appreciate - while perhaps not completely agreeing with - the idea that we are in a "fertile" moment and the show left me with optimism about contemporary landscape work and a new understanding of the themes presented.

© Brad Temkin, Hanging Deer, Laporte, Indiana, 2005

Lots to consider. I'll start with a couple of smaller points and questions the exhibition raises.

Let's first go back to the question of the previous section about Jenkins and "stylistic anonymity," a term which I am admittedly taking completely out of context, distorting its original meaning of an "absence of style" and using to mean "tight stylistic similarity" for my needs in this review. To what degree are we looking at a fine-tuned editorial vision that provides stylistic consistency and how much should we see this as a large number of photographers all coming from the same background and going to the same types of schools producing relatively - considering the broadest range of ways of making a photograph - similar work?

Is the issue of "stylistic anonymity" Jenkins raised about New Topographics an issue here – even if it's applied to work that's warmer and more personal, not the cold anonymity he was originally referring to?

So many photographers today are making strong, but related images in terms of aesthetics and production methods. I'm actually building to a point that’s not critical or dismissive around the point of originality, a point that's back on the conversational hot plate in articles like this one. I've felt more questioning recently, personally and by others, of the idea of photographers in the 21st-century as individuals. I'm coming around to the idea that all of what we're doing is a collective project, its group research into aesthetics, formal and conceptual ideas, and cultural themes. 5,500 submissions? Hundreds of them most likely interchangeable? The common approach seen in much of the work – but by no means all of it – to the landscape in Looking at the Land leads me to wonder just how valid the individual really is in photography anymore, assuming it really ever was valid. We are in some sort of photographic Golden Age – the number of photographers today and the quality of images produced, as shown in this exhibition, is unprecedented, even if finding truly new and fresh ideas and territory to explore is increasingly a limited proposition as the medium enters adulthood. I'd just as soon do away with individual names, contests, and the fetishism of certain work. What does it serve beyond the market and egos?

Another question this exhibition raises: what does it mean to take images from their original context and present them together in the 21st century? On the point of curation and authorship, Nick Vossbrink of n j v w has written much of what I would like to write here and I would recommend reading his review of the exhibition. In essence, he points to the exhibit as part of the trend of curation being increasingly viewed as a creative act.

What exactly is Adams' role? Photographer Mark Powell has been working on a project curating images from the Spanish-language equivalent to the website "Hot or Not." Photographer Paul Shambroom in an interview with Pete Brook, revealingly titled "In Digital Age, Sourcing Images Is as Legitimate as Making Them," recently explained why he’s giving up actually making images, instead working on projects in which he’s culling the images from Flickr. Isn’t Adams' role sourcing images very similar, besides the fact he’s generally working with better images by photographers who would like a "name"? But is this really any different from the role of the curator mounting an exhibit fifty years ago, any different from The Family of Man? Is the exhibition a work of art? Are we moving to the idea of a hybrid photographer-curator? I need a drink.

Another point I won’t attempt to answer here: it seems to me to suggest any number of issues that the suburban-born MFA photographer is generally defining contemporary landscape practice and our collective artistic vision of the landscape. This speaks quite loudly about the limited voices present in contemporary photography practice and suggests a distorted emphasis on certain spaces and their cultural importance because of the personal familiarity of fine art photographers to them.

Moving towards a conclusion, Looking at the Land excites me about the future of exhibitions. As I wrote in a previous post, I don’t think enough has been made quite yet of Adams being at the forefront of the movement of online editors to offline roles to produce exhibitions such as this as well as 100 Portraits (which Adams curated along with Larissa Leclair). I think this presents a turning-point in the relationship of online editors and bloggers to more traditional, brick and mortar spaces.

Finally, most importantly and interestingly, Adams has presented a vision of the future of exhibitions – flexible and nimble, shifting between various iterations of form between offline and online, between physical presentation and Internet video exhibition, between 20 or 88 images. In fact, this should really be referred to as the Looking at the Land Exhibition...s. As the work shifts from the screen to being projected on the wall to a physical print and the number of images included changes, the meaning of the images included changes and, therefore, the exhibition itself.

Adams’ new model also creates a change in the time relationship between the observer and the work. It’s a shift towards a multiple relationship with the work, allowing the images to be digested in parts, in the case of the online iteration, and at one’s own pace. I have about an hour in me, tops, when I go to galleries or a museum. Here online I can take a half-hour one day, ten minutes the next, digesting the work in parts, going back to and reinforcing my understanding of the exhibition instead of trying to consume an entire physical show at once. The format also allows Adams to include more elements to the multi-media presentation with the accompanying texts, enriching the experience. The online version also allows for Web 2.0 interactivity to play a role in the experience, creating an exhibit that all can refer to, facilitating comments, inter-linking reviews, and generating public conversation about the work between people on different continents.

This update of the concept of the exhibition for the contemporary audience is Adams’ pioneering gift with this exhibit, which I say even while appreciating the strength of the work and the photographers he’s selected for it.

© Todd Hido, #6097, 2006