This aversion to sullying the natural landscape with any hint of human presence is what informed "nature" photography almost from photography's inception up through today. By contrast, by the '70s the so-called "topographic" school of photography both color and black and white depicted the hand of humankind in the form of industrial buildings, homes, gas stations, etc., often shown in awkward relationship with their more "natural" surroundings.
Yet both schools, according to photography critic Andy Grundberg, share the same ideal, approached from different directions. Each held that "signs of human presence signified despoilment and impurity...both were concerned that the natural world was fundamentally discrete from human beings."
It's a tough position to argue against, especially if you happen to be arguing in the middle of a strip mall. But Grundberg, curator of the excellent and varied celebration of "place" now on view at the Corcoran Gallery, echoes the more current feeling that any depiction, be it photograph, painting, drawing any image is necessarily as much about its creator as it is about what is depicted.
"There is a cultural and historical need to find new ways to describe our place in the natural world," Grundberg argues, as curator of In Response to Place: Photographs from the Nature Conservancy's Last Great Places.
If the effort that Grundberg supervised largely falls short of breaking any new visual ground the unpeopled landscape still reigns here the show is remarkable for what it does reveal about the creative process: how different photographers responded to different places and how each managed, with varying degrees of success, to put his or her mark on some of the world's last "great places."
This show, frankly, is one big 50th birthday promo for the Nature Conservancy, whose non-confrontational stewardship of endangered places sometimes puts it in ideological conflict with more direct-action (read: violent) bands of tree-huggers and militant Greens. Bolstered by mega-buck backing from Merrill Lynch and other corporate sponsors, including Cadillac, Georgia-Pacific and 3M, this is, to be sure, a slick and beautiful show. The dozen photographers whom Grundberg tapped to travel the country and the world on the Conservancy's dime certainly do include some of the hottest names in the business today. Conservancy president Steven J. McCormick calls them "twelve of the most talented photographers of our time." Maybe so, maybe not, but everything on the walls here is worth seeing which, when you get right to it, is all that matters.
The dozen photographers represented are: William Christenberry, Lynn Davis, Terry Evans, Lee Friedlander, Karen Halverson, Annie Leibovitz, Sally Mann, Mary Ellen Mark, Richard Misrach, Hope Sandrow, Fazal Sheikh and William Wegman.
Misrach and Davis, both renowned landscape photographers, are the head-and-shoulders-above-everyone-else stars of this show. Lynn Davis, who began her career as apprentice to Berenice Abbot in 1974, photographed at Utah's Colorado Plateau, and was dismayed at the encroachment of development near Arches National Park. "It is important to me that these entrances to our sacred places be preserved," she noted. "Part of their greatness like the greatness of the ancient temples lies in how you enter."
Her stunning, warm-toned black and white images resemble at times moonscapes ("View into Canyonlands"), or haunting evocations of human presence ("Highway to Dugout Ranch"). Her work exemplifies as some other work here frankly does not the need to wait for precisely the right light before making an exposure.
So too do Richard Misrach's monumental color images of sand dunes in Nevada show a master's hand. They are among the most spectacular landscape photographs I ever have seen, even including Ansel Adams's and John Sexton's glorious work in bxw. "In twenty-five years of wandering the American desert, I have never seen sand dunes surrounded by water like we found here in the Carson sink," Misrasch wrote of his experience. Such pooling of rainwater occurs maybe once every dozen years, and it is a gift that an artist like Misrach was there to shoot it and then share it.
Less successful, but laudable for her desire to do something new and untried, is Sally Mann's atmospheric portfolio of the amazing Mayan ruins on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. The multi-tiered Mayan pyramids some with tree trunks growing out of cut stone are seen through the imperfect lens of an ancient view camera, Mann's new approach to photography after decades of depicting, in sometimes disturbing detail and settings, her own children. For the Yucatan, Mann chose to work in color for the first time, and the delicate, almost monochromatic, palette she achieves is partially the result of her ancient lens's inability to render true color and the fact that this relic's glass elements are out of alignment.
If some of Mann's pictures look like overexposed outtakes, others are magical.
Annie Leibovitz, too, photographed against type but up to a point. Known for her sometimes stagy, slickly produced color portraiture, Leibovitz chose to photograph moody black and white landscapes in the Shawangunk Mountains, close to her weekend home in upstate New York. Many of these are beautifully composed and all are done by available light certainly a departure from much of her commercial color work, that often requires a team of gaffers and gofers to prepare the scene. Still, anyone familiar with her previous black and white work documenting the White Oak Dance Project will know already that this gifted shooter is at home in monochrome.
The artist who did most to work outside the photographic box is Hope Sandrow. She offers lush multi-part color images made from the water half in half out depicting Indonesia's Komodo National Park. These gorgeous images seem to mimic what she says is a local belief that "life is in constant flux." She also provides a Web site and video record of her journey as well as a series of boxes on the gallery floor containing powdered white chalk the ground remains of coral reefs now being devastated by local fishing techniques using dynamite and cyanide.
Two artists who chose to rely on their strengths or at least on the kind of work for which they are known are Mary Ellen Mark and William Wegman. Mark, one of the greatest documentarians of her time, offers her signature edgy bxw environmental portraits, from the Pribilof Islands in Alaska, as well as from the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Wegman, once again relies on his dogs perhaps once too often to picture Maine's Cobscook Bay.
Wegman's work, once whimsical and new, is becoming somewhat tired, and these pictures, with as many as four of his Weimaraners posing by the water, do little to conjure greatness of place, only weakness of gimmick. In addition, all of his pictures seem to have been made at the same time, under the same, rather uninteresting, light. Which is a shame I can talk about firsthand since Wegman worked at Race Point in Lubec, Maine, only minutes from the property where my wife and I live every summer. In various light, from high noon to deep night, we have seen Race Point with its owners, our friends Becky and Ed.
This place most certainly a "great place" - deserved better.
IN RESPONSE TO PLACE: PHOTOGRAPHS FROM THE NATURE CONSERVANCY'S LAST GREAT PLACES. Through December 31, Corcoran Gallery of Art, New York Avenue and 17th St. NW. Open daily except Tuesday, 10a-5p; until 9p on Thursday. Admission: $5 adults, $3 seniors, $1 students (12-18) with ID. Info: 202-639-1700.
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.