Of Mother Nature and the Marlboro Men

The revival of landscape photography in the contemporary art world begs the question of how such subject matter remains timelessly alluring yet inextricably socially harmful.  Understandably, the vast and mysterious representations of nature trigger awe. The aesthetic tradition traces back to the seventeenth century wherein the act of painting the natural world became a practice adapted by the aristocratic elite. Over the centuries, the delineation of picturesque scapes has continued to evolve and shape the socially constructed vision of the world.  What is important to realize is what is left out a frame has the same degree of significance as what is captured within.  Bright uses Norman Rockwell’s mainstream image of “Small Town America” as an example of this.  Ideologically infused, this painting reinforces a hegemonic slant that neglects to represent the marginalized and ethnic minorities.  Hence, a landscape is never an unbiased documentation of a locality, but rather an image shaped by sociopolitical, cultural and racial predispositions- “there is no Form outside representation” (Bright 10) or misrepresentation.  In short, capturing a landscape, whether it be urban or rural, reflect the “vision or a feeling of the artist rather than a transcriptive record of the subject” (Bright 7).

Bright contends that in the tradition of landscape photography the masculine gaze has always been omnipresent. For instance, of the forty photographers honored in Szarkowski’s publication, American Landscape, only two were women. Bright justifies this disparity as so: “men choose to interact with nature and bend it to their will, while women simply are nature and cannot define themselves in opposition to it” (Bright 14).  For instance, in the late nineteenth century the topography of America’s wild west was documented namely by male photographers. “No less than Marlboro Country, American landscape photography remained a reified masculine outpost- a wilderness of the mind” (Bright 14).  Despite this masculine gaze, photography played a tremendous role in luring the populace out West through the visual marketing of geographic possibilities. Landscapes became commodified and packaged as consumable experiences. From this tradition came in tandem the construction of mythical places as havens of escapism- Disney World serving as perhaps the most explicit and concrete example.  “Beauty, preservation, development, exploitation, regulation: these are historical matters in flux, not essential conditions of landscape” (Bright 6).  Our vision of the world is thus constructed and distorted by these images that seep into our unconscious.  Furthermore, the postmodern inclination towards fabricated localities is a residual from these landscape images their and fictitious renderings.

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