Landscape Photography: Filling in the Checkerboard

Troubled Weather, Sunol Regional Wilderness

The 19th Century was the golden age of landscape painting in Europe and America. This coincided with the birth of photography, so it is no surprise that the cultural view of nature in the western world evidenced itself not only in painting but in landscape photography. Landscape images generally fell into one of three themes: the pastoral, the picturesque or the sublime. Pastoral images displayed a nature tamed by man to yield the necessities of life in beauty and safety. The picturesque showed the beauty of a nature where people are, at most, only visitors. The sublime emphasized awe, mystery and the power of nature. (See, for example the exhibit curated by Lauren Rabb at the University of Arizona Museum of Art.)

carleton-watkins-mirror-view-yosemite-north-dome
Carleton Watkins, Mirror View, Yosemite, North Dome, 1865. Library of Congress

Of these three themes, the picturesque and the sublime continue to be a dominant force in landscape photography into the 21st century. The work produced by well-known landscape photographers such as Carleton Watkins, Ansel Adams, Elliot Porter and Galen Rowell have defined landscape photography in the popular mind and generally present a view of nature that is pristine and primeval. Where humans are present, they are explorers, adventurers, or in the frame to personalize the experience of awe. Where human constructions are shown, they are romanticized. This persists in spite of the fact that art critics, museums and art schools generally denigrate this approach.

As an example, an examination of the editorial images (excluding sports and travel) in a pseudo-random[1] selection of five recent issues of Outdoor Photographer magazine, found that out of a total of 163 photographs, only 20 showed any hint of “the hand of man”. There is significance in the  particular  human elements shown: a dirt path, a dock, a silhouette of a person, a boardwalk through a wetland, a field biologist at work, a mountain lion with the “Hollywood” sign in the background, a Taos Pueblo, a rock climber, people rafting, a paved road, a cave explorer, tents, petrogyphs, a tall ship, a photographer and an excursion ship. With the exception of the Taos Pueblo, the paved road, the Hollywood sign and the petrogyphs, the rest are explorers, adventurers, a person experiencing beauty/awe or romanticized structures. And even then, the pueblo and the petrogyphs are tropes of “the exotic”, while the road is the “path into the wilderness”, leaving only one image — the Hollywood sign — as having any reference to contemporary American culture.

This philosophy of landscape photography leads to a certain blindness in our understanding of the landscape. As Rebecca Solnit points out:

“By the time (Ansel) Adams … came to photograph Yosemite, he had to crop out the trappings of tourism … Cropped out in the name of beauty, of formalism, of composition … leaving the landscape a checkerboard of scenic wonders and blank spots.”[2]

A break with this tradition occurred with the photographers represented in the 1975 exhibit “New Topographics: Photographs of the Man-altered Landscape” at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, curated by Williams Jenkins. “They looked at the suburban tract houses, strip malls, land developments, and industrial parks that populated the late twentieth-century terrain, making it clear that the idea of an untouched landscape, both in the past and the present, is a myth.”[3]

Most of the images in the New Topographics exhibit focused on buildings and included little of the natural landscape. Of the images from the exhibit that I could find, the ones below have the most in common with “traditional” landscape phototography.

Even in these images the human-constructed landscape dominates, while the “natural” is relegated to backdrop. Is there a role for image making that still focuses on the “natural” world, but does not exclude the imprint of human activity?

An example of such an approach is the work of Mark Klett that, according to Solnit, “are neither assaults on the tradition of virgin wilderness photography nor elegies for a raped landscape.”[4]

roadside-memorial-between-gila-bend-and-ajo-2013
Mark Klett, Roadside memorial, between Gila Bend and Ajo, 2013

Solnit continues “The West, (Klett’s) work suggests, is not less sublime for its banal and kitsch additions; instead, the two cohabit a landscape without simple moral or visual resolutions.”[4]

For me, the question is: can one make work that fits Solnit’s description of Klett’s images, but where the “additions” are neither “banal” nor “kitsch”?

The San Francisco Bay Area provides a unique environment for exploring this concept, as the region has been a leader in preserving natural environments in close proximity to urban centers. This effort began in earnest in 1928 when Robert Sibley, Executive Manager of the University of California Alumni Association, and Hollis Thompson, Berkeley city manager, organized the East Bay Metropolitan Park Association.[5]  After strong lobbying, particularly by women’s groups, the California State Legislature in 1933  passed AB114 authorizing the creation of the first-in-the-nation independent agency dedicated to the acquisition and management of park land: the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD).

The core of the new park would be 2,162 acres of land acquired in 1936 from the East Bay Municipal Utilities District (EBMUD). This land currently is part of Tilden Park, Round Top (now Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve) and Lake Temescal. It is important to note that this land was only available because by 1890 a number of private water companies bought up large quantities of watershed in the hills above Oakland to keep it out of the hands of their competitors.[6] These companies subsequently were absorbed into EBMUD. The land was declared surplus when EBMUD completed the Pardee Dam and the Mokelumne aqueduct in the Sierra Mountains in 1929.[7]  Therefore we owe these lands to the commercial enterprises working to supply the burgeoning population of the Bay Area with water.

Over the years the lands owned and operated by EBRPD has grown to 120,536 acres in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.[8] However, utility districts still own large tracts of land in the East Bay: EBMUD mangages 27,000 acres[9] and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission owns 23,000 acres.[10] A portion of the watershed lands owned by the utilities are leased by and produce revenue from a variety of uses including grazing, plant nurseries and quarry operations. Several utility companies have easements for routing of public utilities such as gas pipelines, electrical transmission lines and water aqueducts. Preservation of the natural environment and the provision of services are inextricably intertwined in the Bay Area, from both a historical and current-use perspective.

A portrait of these preserved landscapes is presented in the book Bay Area Wild by Galen Rowell.[11] The book displays the beauty of the region’s parks, supplemented with Michael Sewell’s wildlife photography.

aerial-view-of-readwood-regional-park-and-sf-bay-copy
Galen Rowell, Aerial View of Redwood Regional Park and San Francisco Bay, 1996

While several of the photographs in Bay Area Wild place the open space within its urban context (see above) and two small images even discuss agriculture and commercial salt production, by and large the images in this book are in the tradition of picturing nature as picturesque or sublime.

By contrast, in the following photographs,[12] I intend to present East Bay open spaces as natural, beautiful and inevitably containing evidence of human use. Human use may consist of power lines or gas pipelines. These lands contain infrastructure to support water storage and distribution, some – the so-called “water temples” – hide their utilitarian nature under Arcadian symbolism. The need for data to enforce environmental protection laws has resulted in the region being dotted with water and air quality monitoring stations. In the latter we see the irony of human intrusions being necessary to protect the open spaces.

I chose to make monochromatic images to enhance a dialog with the work of modern artists (modern in the sense of the school of photography epitomized by Ansel Adams and other members of Group f/64). Whether the human influences contribute to or distract from beauty is intentionally ambiguous. As Solnit commented, they  “cohabit a landscape without simple moral or visual resolutions.”

(Note: the best way to view these images is to click on the first one to open up a full screen view. Then click on the arrows to the right and left of the image or use the cursor keys on your keyboard to scroll through the collection. To return to this page, click on the ‘X’ in the upper right or press <esc>.)


[1] Whatever issues I happened to find around my house.
[2] Rebecca Solnit, As Eve Said to the Serpent, University of Georgia Press, 2003, p101-102.
[3] Photography: The Whole Story, Juliet Hacking, Ed. Prestel, NY 2012, p401.
[4] Rebecca Solnit, As Eve Said to the Serpent, University of Georgia Press, 2003, p94.
[5] Mimi Stein, A Vision Achieved: Fifty Years of East Bay Regional Park District, East Bay Regional Park District, 1985, p5. Available at https://archive.org/details/visionachievedfi00stei?q=Vision+Achieved%3A+50+years+of+the+East+Bay+Regional+Park+district
[6] Mimi Stein, A Vision Achieved: Fifty Years of East Bay Regional Park District, East Bay Regional Park District, 1985, p2. Available at https://archive.org/details/visionachievedfi00stei?q=Vision+Achieved%3A+50+years+of+the+East+Bay+Regional+Park+district
[7] East Bay Municipal Utility District website. Archived at https://web-beta.archive.org/web/20161106233036/http://www.ebmud.com/about-us/who-we-are/mission-and-history
[8] East Bay Regional Park District website. Archived at https://web-beta.archive.org/web/20161202225122/http://www.ebparks.org/
[9] East Bay Municipal Utilities District website. Archived at https://web-beta.archive.org/web/20161106232535/https://www.ebmud.com/recreation/east-bay/east-bay-trails/
[10] San Francisco Public Utilities Commission website. Archived at https://web-beta.archive.org/web/20161027170123/http://sfwater.org/index.aspx?page=198
[11] Galen Rowell, Bay Area Wild, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1997.
[12] The photograph of the bridge in the Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge was taken with a 4×5″ field camera on Kodak T-Max 100 film. The remaining images were created using a Canon 5D Mark II digital SLR. All photos in this gallery are ©2016 Douglas G. Stinson and were taken in the fall of 2016.

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