Occupied: The Impact of Developing America on Landscape Photography

Early Landscape Representation

The depiction of the land is a longstanding tradition within the visual arts. There is little doubt, that as a species we long to forge connections with the idea of a sense of place. As early as ancient Greece, the landscape has been a thematic approach to the visual arts for a variety of purposes that range from decoration, effects of tranquility, or even serving as a mere backdrop for religious tableaux. It wasn’t until after the 16th century and especially the Renaissance that landscape was seen as a true subject to be rendered in the visual arts [1]. In due time and technological advancements in reproduction, landscapes became more than just pretty bucolic painted scenes.

The photographic landscape provides something that classical landscapes cannot, which is the power to render an image with the perception of realism and yet abstraction. Photographs, after all are not quite objective pieces through the inherent nature of selection and omission in the photographic process. It is also important to consider that landscapes can be deeply symbolic and serve as a means to begin conversations about our cultural identities, as well as man’s direct relationship with the land. The perception that a photograph is more real than a painting can bring a different kind of raw awareness that painting seldom touches upon. This essay will explore beyond classical landscape scenes of arcadia and the picturesque but to hone in on the modern landscape as seen through the impact of colonization during the expansion of the American West, specifically how early photographic depiction of the American landscape shaped a cultural identity and to follow the connection American development as seen through its photographs.

Moving West and Settling In

The birth of photography during the first quarter of the 19th century overlapped with some of the most developmental times in American history. From the first discovery of America by explorers and colonist, the filling-in of this country has always begun with an attraction to a wild and free land. Although Native Americans had been making their home and cultivating the land prior to the onset of these early settlers, it is clear through events like the development of the railroad (figure 1) that there was a persistence to make the land accommodate what was desired. The American identity has grown from a urge to explore, cohabit with, as well as govern the landscape.

By the mid to late 1800s the American landscape had only just begun when groups began heading to the western edges of the continent. These settlers experienced the wildness of the American landscape and also began taming it through ownership and development, which seemingly has become a cultural hobby of sorts. In turn this group (maybe unwittingly) defined a cultural identity that can be seen even at it’s peak during the 20th century.

Photographers were there to record this progression through government sponsored land survey expeditions where these early images gave Americans the first look at the immensity and variety of the land. These expeditions also led to early movements towards its preservation that inspired such monolithic depictions of the landscape as seen in the work of Ansel Adams.

American West, Photography, and Cultural Identity

The American frontier was first seriously considered photographically when the United States Geological Survey (USGS) surveys undertook photographers Timothy O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, and William Henry Jackson (figure 2) to make records of the surface features during the expeditions. These surveys, although noted to begin around 1838 by the United States Army Corps it wasn’t until the 1860s that the USGS set out to being it’s topographic surveys [2]. In anIntelligent Life article it is said that it was believed America’s engagement with the wilderness steeped in rugged individualism defined the cultural identity of American and yet it was not believed that the O’Sullivan’s photographs actually reinforced this ‘frontier vision’ due to their desolation implied in the images [3]. With the development of the railroads, mining industries, and the discovery of states like California with its multitude of natural resources and mild climates brought for the ever steady and tremendous development of the frontier into what we now know to be pockets of mega development. The west went from 19th century individualism and evolved into 20th century capitalism and thus the national character changed from industrialists to romanticizing frontiersman in Hollywood within a matter of a few decades.

The Ansel Adams Tradition

Photographers of the mid-20th century went back to rediscover and photograph the wildness of the American landscape in a grand way. During this time the cold war came and went but this tradition of bucolic and sublime landscapes from classical painting never truly faded from mind. Ask anyone today who is outside of the contemporary art world who their favorite photograph might be and the answer more times than not is almost always Ansel Adams. Adams began documenting sites like Yosemite during a time that development through capitalism (almost seen as a patriotic activity) was at its most heightened state. Adams set out to photograph Yosemite National Park (figure 3) in a way to sanctify it [4]. Today we live in the aftermath of that photographic era, where it is now not unusual to fantasize about the American wilderness from the comforts of our homes or offices. Without the safety of experiencing nature from a Adams photograph many may not even consider the spiritual qualities of nature as much as we seemingly do now.

Through the popularity of Adams’ work came an anti-approach to Ansel Adams and other similar landscape imagery through depicting the true late-20th century landscape. This new landscape consisted of track housing, parking lots, and business parks and came to be know through a 1970s exhibition entitled New Topographics (figure 4). These photographs depicted prefabricated environments littered with symbols that James Howard Kunstler in his book The Geography of Nowhere identifies as an American attempt to illustrate the illusion charm [5].

Although labeled as cynical by those still committed to the classical approach of the photographic landscape seen in Ansel Adams images, the New Topographics exhibition showed us a reality closer to home. This in turn influenced many of the late 20th and early 21st century contemporary fine art photographers toward a style that is often attributed to deriving from work seen in the New Topographics exhibition. This style is often recognized as deadpan composition, overcast skies, banal subject matter, and very rigid compartmentalization of formal elements. By the end of the 20th century a new trend in the depiction of land shifted by moving towards the photographic illustration of the catastrophic impact of man’s imprint on the very land he set out to dominate.

Wasteland and Beyond

Through the New Topographics exhibition new ways to visualize the landscape shifted towards the end of the 20th century. With technology and even more development, the landscape dramatically changed. Such terms like ecocide have become widely used to describe the destruction of land. With that, comes photographs to illustrate or give a depiction and to define exactly in visual terms what ecocide means. At first, a new take on the landscape was merely man’s impact in altering it by adding new surface structures for convenience and recreation like picnic shelters in the middle of nowhere to the pop-up trailer parks. Now we are concerned with the idea of the wasteland which has become the tradeoff of such large amounts of development in such a short period of time. Through the work of Edward Burtynsky we are confronted with conflicting feelings on how this wasteland is depicted. Working much in the visual aesthetic attributed to classical landscape painting or photography, Burtynksy shows us a new kind of sublime. This can be seen in the beautiful, surreal and haunting imagery Burtynsky has presented to us to inevitably come to our own conclusions about the wasteland as seen through tailings ponds to even e-waste (figure 5). Although, the zeitgeist of our times is one that is still about consumption as well as the wasteland, there are also additional approaches to landscape photography that photographers are now focusing on. This can include how we integrate (and often attempt to disguise) our use of technological development and infrastructure within the natural landscape, like trees that are actually cellular towers. Although depicting the contemporary landscape is one that is often rooted in such statement-based agendas as environmental awareness there are also more conceptual or lyrical approaches to be considered as well. These new trends in the landscape photography could include entirely fabricated landscapes as seen in the narrative works of Lori Nix (figure 6) who builds model scales of land environments or even the work of Myoung Ho Lee’s directed reality approach to the landscape by isolating tress with a background in an attempt to create a portrait (figure 7). The landscape doesn’t always have to be about the beauty of it’s surface qualities or heavy-handed statements on the collective altering of the land but it can also still illustrate a sense of place or assist to define a cultural identity in expressive ways.


Works Cited

The J. Paul Getty Museum. Brief History of the Landscape Genre. Web. Retrieved March 2014 fromhttp://www.getty.edu/education/teachers/classroom_resources/curricula/landscapes/background1.html

Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: A Cultural History. Prentice Hall. 2010. Pg 133.


Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. Vintage Books. 1995. Pg 9.

Kunstler, James Howard. The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape. Touchstone Books. 1993. Pg 169.



Watkins, Carleton E. Oregon Portage Railraod Near Cascade Locks. 1867. Web. Retrieved March 2014 from http://www.sps700.org/portlandrailroadhistory.shtml

Jackson, William Henry. Mount of the Holy Cross. 1873. Web. Retrieved March 2014 from http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/grte2/hrs18.htm

Adams, Ansel. Halfdome, Yosemite. Web. Retrieved March 2014 from http://vickielester.com/2013/10/01/federal-shutdown-hits-southland-yosemite-visitors-urged-to-leave-latimes-com/

Adams, Robert. Tract House, Westminster, Colorado. 1974. Web. Retreived March 2014 from http://www.sfmoma.org/exhib_events/exhibitions/407

Burtynsky, Edward. Sudbury Nickel Tailing No. 31. Web. Retrieved March 2014 from http://www.greynotgrey.com/blog/2012/10/01/edward-burtynsky/

Nix, Lori. Park. 2001. Web. Retrieved March 2014 fromhttp://www.lorinix.net/some_other_place/11.html