PICTURING PLACE NOW
Review of “New Territories: Landscape Representation in Contemporary Photographic Practices”, International Workshop, Humboldt University, Berlin, 16-18 June 2017
Landscape representation can be considered among the very earliest experiments in the development of photography. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s „View from a Window at Le Gras“ (1826/27) and Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s „Boulevard du Temple“ (1838), to name just two of the most commonly recognised early photographic images, suggest an initial and longstanding affinity between the medium of photography and the genre of landscape, understood here in the wider sense of the notion, including representations of man-made environment. The interdisciplinary workshop „New Territories: Landscape Representation in Contemporary Photographic Practices“ gathered international scholars from the fields of photographic culture, art history, architecture and geography to discuss, debate and reflect upon the ways in which recent photographic practices depict natural and humanly built environments of contemporary Europe. In wider context, „New Territories“ can be considered in relation to a number of university conferences, symposia, and workshops that have taken place over the last few years including „Emerging Landscapes at University of Westminster, London“ (2010); „Landscape, Wilderness and the Wild“ at Newcastle University“ (2015) and „Territories“ – as part of the Land / Water and the Visual Arts research programme at Plymouth University (2017). There is clearly a reinvigorated concern with questions of how contemporary landscape photography visualises established and emerging ideas of place. „New Territories“ was especially timely in this regard, and, in considering wider questions of how contemporary Europe is imagined and visualised in relation to events including the centenary of the First World War and recent referendum and general election outcomes across different European countries.
The workshop introduction – presented by Olga Smith and Stefanie Gerke (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) – stated a context in which landscape was to be considered as a set of essentially human interventions. Contemporary landscape photography was proposed to be acknowledged as a field of practice involving diverse approaches from documentary to montage. The workshop’s perspectives on the subject matter were multidisciplinary in order to do justice to the complexity of the issues involved. Art history therefore entered into dialogue with landscape studies and visual culture. In combination, landscape was introduced as a series of modes through which to raise questions of place and how we see it.
An overview of themes and topics covered described the point of departure as the ‘picturesque’, a traditional aesthetic category that has re-emerged through contemporary photographic practice and theory. From there, related questions of landscape perception were proposed: how do we derive meaning from the picturesque? Can the picturesque provide renewed focus for considering what a European landscape is? How are current patterns of travel and migration related to shaping such a notion of landscape? How does the work of photographic artists contribute to the conversation? The recent refugee crisis was noted, and the depiction of events involved were stated to have impacted significantly on considerations of the politics of landscape aesthetics and questions of national identity.
“Other issues introduced included the possible effects
of defining landscape as territory, the ‘geographic turn’,
and furthermore, what consequences might be evoked
by perceiving environment as landscape
and defining it as ‘picture’. ”
The introductory overview also acknowledged previous work made possible by European cultural organisations that commissioned, published and exhibited photographic projects concerned with exploring questions of place. Among others, the Cross Channel Photographic Mission whose legacy perhaps has been overshadowed by the influence of those photographic practices presented at the „New Topographics“ exhibition that took place in the USA in 1975, more recently restaged and toured internationally to venues in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain between 2009 and 2012. The workshop therefore intended to cast new light on significant photographic practices that emerged from European countries approximately since the 1980s that demonstrated innovation in depicting landscapes of expanded transport infrastructure, logistics and distribution.
Other issues introduced included the possible effects of defining landscape as territory, the ‘geographic turn’, and furthermore, what consequences might be evoked by perceiving environment as landscape and defining it as ‘picture’. Therefore, a key focus of the workshop was on the built environment and on the related emergence of terms such as cityscape and townscape to describe photographic practices that often involve extended sequences of images made over long periods of time. Such practices complicate distinctions between ‘nature’ and humanly built landscapes in the recently defined anthropogenic era. Nature as a unity and the universe as holistic in the human mind are ideas pioneered by Alexander von Humboldt. The location of the workshop and the KOSMOS support programme that made it possible therefore were particularly appropriate.
Picturesque Ideal and Images of Conflict
The following paper entitled “Picturesque Migration? On the Photographic Representation of Flight and Refugees” by Bettina Gockel (Universität Zürich) highlighted possible continuities from picturesque tourism in photographic modernism that made use of landscape as setting to depict migrant identities and shifting human relations to place. Through examples including celebrated work made by Paul Strand in the Outer Hebrides, antecedents of today’s global images can be seen. The use of landscape as setting in these images is significant as it can provide a space with which to reveal potentially important points of convergence between artistic and editorial intentions. In connection, contemporary images of migration made in artistic and editorial contexts often employ wild nature, in various forms of land and sea, as settings for the kinds of social struggles and tragedies involved in human flight from conflict and persecution. Such uses of landscape as setting have become strategies through which dramatic arrangement of human figures constitutes a powerful rhetorical device, often utilised in ways that indicate that news photographs resemble art and vice versa. On the potential ambiguous complexity involved, expectations of art to subvert or undo the so-called ‘bad ideology’ of images of migration in mainstream media were argued to be misleading. The various kinds of photographs of flight and refugees require nuanced differentiations; implicit picturesque aspects within the range of photographic examples discussed draw our attention to the continuity of migration myths, multi-layered with current social realities and political messages.
Liz Wells’ (Plymouth University) related contribution “Hidden Histories and Landscape Enigmas” focussed on photographic practices made in the context of academic research and art practice exploring and reflecting upon legacies of conflict. Examples included the following photographic series: Chloe Dewe Mathews’ „Shot at Dawn“, Bleda y Rosa’s „Battlefields“, Ori Gersht’s „The Clearing“, David Farrell’s „Innocent Landscapes“ and Bart Michiels’ „The Course of History“, which in different ways depict former battlefields and related sites of violence long after the events took place. Such practices acknowledge academic histories of photography as much as the enigmatic character of the land itself. The works produced exert a symbolic force created by the qualities of the photograph as a trace of a trace, citing David Campany’s related notion of the ‘late photograph’, where the more or less visible remains of human activities form the principal motifs of the photographs. Here, the artists discussed employ photography to create temporal distance and relative emptiness of visible evidence of war in order to invite quiet reflection on the horrors of conflicts that took place across the European continent throughout the last century.
The panel discussion bringing together all three presenters involved the significance of photographic strategy, drawing upon picturesque conventions, in which picture structure and sequence are deployed towards visual and thematic coherence in bodies of work such as those discussed. Furthermore, the cultural values that the visual examples embody are complex and operate across spaces including the academy, gallery and museum, connecting with broadcast, editorial and news contexts. As an aesthetic category, the picturesque – different to the sublime and the beautiful – is not singular. It is a fluid category and therefore useful to articulate ambivalence in contemporary photographic landscapes where aesthetic, ethical and social values are often in tension.
“Places pictured as landscapes [...]
can move us away from singular points of view
towards different experience of time [...].”
An artist talk that featured Beate Gütschow (Berlin) in conversation with Stefanie Gerke (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) opened up further questions of related artistic processes. Landscape in Gütschow’s practice is articulated through photographs made in encounter with environments both urban and rural, subsequently combined as montage using digital technologies, but often retaining an illusion of pictorial coherence. Subtle alterations in perspective and scale are involved and the works discussed foregrounded different kinds of uncanny qualities of landscape photographs as articulations of place, where, for example, unease around current and historical notions of home is produced through creative strategies; ideas of place – and how we might belong or become alienated from it – are deliberately left unresolved and therefore pose questions to us as viewers.
Landscape as Territory
Day two involved panels focused on “Landscape as Territory” and “Urban Topographies”. Danièle Méaux’s (Université de Saint-Étienne) paper focussed on the work of artist Stéphanie Solinas (Paris), who was presented in 2016 at the international photography festival „Les Rencontres d’Arles“. Méaux suggested an emerging approach characterised by an investigation of site – different of place – that reveals aspects of history and significance not previously perceptible. In a shared paper Sonia Keravel (École nationale supérieure de paysage de Versailles) and Frédéric Pousin (Centre national de la recherché scientifique, Paris) discussed the work of Emmanuelle Blanc (Paris) as an instance of collaboration between the disciplines of landscape architecture and photography. Blanc’s discussed series was made in partnership with two landscape agencies in France. The presentation introduced questions about possible tensions, consonance and dissonance between commercial interests and independent creative intentions in the production of landscape. Here, landscape images not only represent; they play an active part in the process of the evolution of landscape.
Furthering notions of interdisciplinary practices, Marta Dahó (Universitat de Barcelona) introduced the notion of the geographical turn in a presentation that took as its main case studies works by photographers including Xavier Ribas (London), Ignacio Acosta (London), Trevor Paglen (New York), Ahlam Shibli (Haifa) and Mari Bastashevski (Lausanne). All works in various ways draw attention to what Dahó described as the “heavy sociocultural legacy of landscape”. The historical appreciation of landscape is here linked to social and class discrimination, contemporary disasters driven by globalisation, new social inequalities, and ecological crises. The selected works focus upon making visible various factors including deterritorialisation and the interdependence of events in geographically distant places. Drawing upon recent work by Ariella Azoulay and Daniel Rubinstein, the photograph here is considered less as an exclusive kind of landscape picture, and more as an image within a discursive network of visual knowledge relations, transformed by the alteration of traditional forms of photographic mediation through algorithmic processes.
Continuing the theme of urban landscapes from images of infrastructure to those of housing, Raphaële Bertho (Université François-Rabelas) discussed the “grandes ensembles”: the large-scale high-rise housing projects considered quintessential products of French post-war urban planning. These were examined as places that were subjected to a series of targeted image campaigns in which photography was tasked with depicting the evolution of this specifically French urban landscape. This process was historically and politically complex, from initial development, to failed social housing to heritage project. How this complex trajectory was visualised in different ways was shown through discussion of examples of photographs by Laurent Kronental (Paris), that observe a perhaps utopian belief in the future, and, those of Mathieu Pernot (Paris), rooted in a strategy of authenticity to immediate social realities, acknowledging history, and the material image cultures of residential communities.
Following the presentation of papers, art historian Michael Diers (Hamburg/Berlin) spoke to the well known German artist Thomas Struth (Berlin/Düsseldorf) whose practice includes landscapes ranging from cityscape to wilderness. The discussion began with the early photograph „Bernauerstrasse, Berlin“ (1992) that was also used for the conference information material (fig. 1). The talk provided illuminating insights into Struth’s working process; the importance of seeing urban landscapes as consequences of complex political and social histories as well as a set of creative possibilities for picture making; a calling, as Struth claimed, to depict the world in its complexity.
Landscape and National Identity
Beyond Human Perspective
In “Beyond Human Perspective”, Laura Breede (HBK Hochschule für Bildende Künste Braunschweig) discussed how architectural and landscape environments are visualised by interlaced analogue and digital photographs that create illusions of objectivity and improbable photographer / viewer positions. Laura Breede introduced examples of works by the artists Andreas Gefeller (Düsseldorf) and Michael Reisch (Düsseldorf) and described them as ‘subtle visual shifts that provoke confusion and exceed physical possibilities of the viewers perception in an imaginable extra-pictorial reality – making imaginable a view of the world in our absence’. The complementary presentation by Olga Smith (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) argued that exclusion of the human figure in contemporary photographic practices is coextensive with desire to represent landscape on its own terms. Olga Smith cited examples of vernacular and industrial landscape photography, as associated with German schools in Berlin, Düsseldorf and Leipzig that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as recent works by Beate Gütschow, Lauren Marsolier (Los Angeles) and Mathieu Bernard-Reymond using digital technology. Olga Smith pointed out the connections between capabilities of the former photographs to go beyond limits of individual and subjective perception, and the latter works to disrupt and de-centre human perspective in order to move away from an anthropocentric single point of view.
These presentations segued into a concluding panel that addressed broad aesthetic, ecological and political concerns bound up within the range of photographic works discussed throughout the workshop; how landscape representation in contemporary photographic practice enables us to intensify our refection not only upon images of place, but also on our very acts of perception. Places pictured as landscapes, in docu-
mentary series, and through digital reconstruction, can move us away from singular points of view towards different experience of time; away from ‘the moment’ to enable longer narratives, and to consider places as interdependent and plural. Furthermore, the concluding conversations, and the workshop overall, emphasised the importance of international influences and cross cultural exchanges of ideas, generating numerous compelling questions of how contemporary photographic practices are altering our expectations of what landscapes are and what landscape photographs can do.