Making the rounds this week, I came to the conclusion there are two kinds of landscapes to photograph: the ones we've messed up by living all over them, and the ones we're destroying in absentia.
Manmade: Notions of Landscape from the Lannan Collection focuses primarily on the former, while Selections from True: Photographs by Thomas Joshua Cooper presents the latter, with images from the Earth's shrinking poles. The pair creates a nice dichotomy, but it got me wondering if it's possible to make landscape photographs that aren't a melancholy condemnation of our collective clumsiness.
Manmade depicts the Earth as shaped and controlled by humans, and the results aren't too pretty. In Victoria Sambunaris' images, shipping containers and parking lots form endless hallways among the prairies. Olafur Eliasson's lighthouses stand impotent along the shore, just hoping to be included in a calendar. An-My Lê and Sarah Pickering both document the use of land for military training, with the obvious moral and physical scarring in tow. Debbie Fleming Caffery's pictures of post-Katrina New Orleans quiver with rage. Even Cooper, whose images appear to show undisturbed, resplendent nature, reveals, via titles, the historical significance of the chosen sites—they are points of conquest, the first or the last things seen as the Old World began its reign over the new one.
The show does include a bit of levity. Aboard an unseen craft, Roni Horn photographed the Thames River in detail. In all 15 compositions, tiny numbers overlay the image in no order whatsoever, awash in the current. Each number corresponds to a footnote that submerges the viewer in Horn's delirious stream of consciousness writing about the water, flooding us with thoughts and quotes as varied as the waves themselves. I confess I didn't read all 3 zillion of them but, in my sampling, I caught references to Poe, Dickinson, Faulkner, pollution, murder, suicide and The Blob starring Steve McQueen. Like the river, Horn's thoughts ebb and flow from deep to shallow, clear to murky, humorous to deadly. She ponders the water and questions her perceptions of it. She sees it as a dumping ground as well as a grave. Of all the artists, only Horn seems to hold out the possibility of a respectful distance from nature.
Over at Lannan is True, Cooper's solo exhibition of images taken in the Arctic and Antarctic. Since I don't even like to bike in the wind, the work took on a heroic quality. I was simultaneously in awe of and saddened by the pictures of Earth's ends—proof we have seen all there is to see; there is nothing else. This sentiment is especially strong in Cooper's monochromes "Whiteout" and a pair of pictures called "Dreaming the [South and North] Polar Winter Solstice," in which the subjects are (supposedly) a blizzard and night, respectively; in actuality, the images depict nothing. Not that I doubt the word or the will of this dedicated hiker, but I still think literal extreme retinal experience does not make a very interesting picture. The white one is just the old joke about the blank page being a drawing of a polar bear in a snowstorm. The black ones might as well have been pictures of his lens cap.
When Cooper actually shows us something, we are treated to a masterful range of subtle grays and whites. Some of the photos merely hint at the subject. Cued by the faint horizon, the sky slowly cedes powdery forms that appear more like a charcoal rubbing than something produced by a camera. The desolate territories appear ethereal, as though they might just blow away.
Implicit in both of these shows is the critique of our treatment of this planet. We have traversed its entirety, altered its appearance and changed its climate. I suppose the only relevant question is whether we have gone too far, or if there is still time to save us.
ManMade: Notions of Landscape from the Lannan Collection
Through Jan. 10, 2010
New Mexico Museum of Art
107 W. Palace Ave.
Selections from True: Photographs by Thomas Joshua Cooper
Through Dec. 13
313 Read St.