Shedding New Light on the Chrysler Museum of Art's Landscape Collection
Curators Erik Neil, Seth Feman and Ed Pollard could have pulled out any number of beautiful photos from the Chrysler Museum of Art’s collection of landscape photographs for their latest exhibition, “New Light on the Land.” However, the goal was to bring out lesser-known photos, organized in a way to make viewers rethink conventional ideas of photography and the role photographers play in a place’s perception.
“We’re interested in these questions of how people depict the landscape, and how photographers…change the way that we’re actually able to see the land itself,” Feman said about the themes in the new exhibit. Feman is also the Chrysler Museum of Art’s newest curator of photography.
This shift in perception began bubbling while looking through images for another upcoming exhibit at the Chrysler, the traveling show “Edward Burtynsky: Water.” Large-scale photographs in this show are filled with rich colors and enchanting lines, but sometimes reveal harrowing scenes. In one photo, slick black swirls in a turquoise pool actually capture the gulf oil spill.
Photographs in “New Light on the Land” are lumped into four different themes. “Tourism” explores photos taken of places to encourage visitors. Weather photographers are taking advantage of already popular tourist spots or commissioned by cities to take tasteful photos and entice visitors.
Frank Mason Good was hired by Greece to take photos of the city to promote tourism. Good dismissed close-ups of rough ruins, pulling away to focus on the contemporary city as a whole. This showed a deliberate effort to control the perception of the landscape along with the viewer’s ideas of the city.
Platt D. Babbitt monopolized on already beautiful tourist spots with his year-round photo studio perched near Niagara Falls. Peaceful images of couples enjoying the falls are riddled with consumerism, as Babbitt made a living selling these shots to tourist, and viciously competed with other photographers along the way.
The next section, “East vs. West,” connects two sides of the world and conquers mysterious land through photographs. Depictions of holy land like Good’s “Fountain of Jericho” are pre-conceivably shaped by the viewer’s perception of the familiar location filled with backstory, blurring the lines of fiction and reality.
“The camera was a neutral tool that wasn’t actually distorting anything at all,” Feman said, “but in fact the expectations being projected on the image by the consumer would’ve altered what they’re seeing. What you see in a photograph isn’t just what’s depicted, it’s kind of what you bring to it and what the photographer brings to it.”
This is true of the sole Ansel Adams piece in the show depicting The Canyon De Chelly in Arizona from a virtually identical perspective of Timothy O’Sullivan’s geological survey photos made 70 years earlier. Unlike O’Sullivan’s flat and matter-of-fact documentary image, Adams focused on the design of the vertical lines enhanced through contrasts. Feman recognized the photographers sought different objectives, and stated Adams saw landscape photography as “an interior image you create through nature.”
“Man v. Wild” explores the tension of human relationship with the land. Photos commissioned by the Farm Service Agency by Dorothea Lange and railroad companies depict outdated technologies, not accurately representing modern machines, which altered the perceived harmony these images show.
“It’s propaganda while also showing the landscape as it is,” Feman said.
A sharp contrast to this propaganda is depicted in Sebastiao Salgado’s “Serra Pelada, Brazil,” planted next to Charles H. James’ commissioned piece from the Crozer Iron Company. While James’ desolate and messy landscape depicts an orderly tipple, Salgado’s image of several people single-file configures controlled chaos, while in reality these men are frantically digging for gold in a mine notorious for dangerous conditions.
“Life as a Stage” combines the concepts of altering perception and man’s relationship with the land exercised in previous sections and takes them to the limit. The negative for Thomas Barrow’s “Barcelona Backdrop” has been scratched with an X, permanently and deliberately demonstrating the artist’s depiction of the landscape is a manipulated scene. “Every observation is an act of authorship,” Feman said.
Artists Carrie Mae Weems and Tseng Kwong Chi become apart of the landscape, not as themselves, but as characters. Photographed from the series “Eatonville,” Weems, who takes the role of writer Zora Neale Hurston in her daily life, walked around the writer’s hometown adding original poems inspired by Hurston. Chi becomes a character all his own, donning his infamous Mao suit with Lake Kamloops, Canada in the backdrop.
These landscapes hold their own stories and might explain the artist’s relationship with the landscape. Eatonville, Florida was not only Weems’ muse’s hometown, but also the first U.S. town to incorporate black residents. Chi’s backdrop is near the city that saw the first Chinese-Canadian mayor.
Feman ends the tour with a dingy and dark image by Sally Mann’ “Untitled, (Antietam #21)” depicting Civil War battlefields, utilizing photographic methods from the era. Mann manipulates the image by carelessly, but deliberately letting chemicals pool up, which create orbs invoking thoughts of spirits of the dead.
The Chrysler had several images of a field from the Civil War era scattered with bodies, but Mann’s image is a less literal cultivation of the same idea. It explores the memory of the event that lingers on and embodies all the themes explored in the exhibit, controlling the perception of photographers to invoke particular emotions in viewers who bring their own story to every photo.