In 1842, while visiting the United States, Charles Dickens took a train northwest from Boston to the industrial town of Lowell, Mass. He wasn’t impressed by the scenery: “Mile after mile of stunted trees: Some hewn down by the axe, some blown down by the wind, some half fallen and resting on their neighbors, many mere logs half hidden in the swamp.”
Everywhere he looked, the English author saw signs of “decay, decomposition and neglect.” This is not the New England inscribed in popular memory, from the writings of the American Transcendentalists to the paintings of Grandma Moses or Norman Rockwell.
But one does see many images reminiscent of Dickens’s description in “East of the Mississippi: Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Photography,” a revelatory and fascinating exhibition of early photography at the National Gallery of Art that opens Sunday. The show has gathered 175 photographs, from early daguerreotypes to mass-market stereoscope cards, including some of the earliest photographic images ever made of the United States.
Visitors primarily interested in history will find here a record of this country’s early infrastructure — its canals, railroads and dockyards — as well as the calamities of the Civil War, the development of Eastern cityscapes, and a record of American architecture both rural and urban. The opportunity to stare into the reflective abyss of a watery daguerreotype and move about until the light hits at just the right oblique angle to reveal an 1840 image of Niagara Falls, is alone worth the visit.
But the larger drama of this exhibition is its restitution of memory. American landscape photography is dominated by photographers who worked in the West, capturing its large vistas and sublimity, and advertising its economic potential. Often, these were photographers who worked directly for commercial or government survey projects, men such as Carlton Watkins (whose work was featured in a 2000 exhibition at the National Gallery) and Alexander Gardner (whose post-Civil War photography was a highlight of a recent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery).
But photography arrived in the East well before intrepid photographers began lugging large-format cameras across the Plains. In fact, it arrived with astonishing alacrity. Within a year of Louis Daguerre’s announcement of his namesake photographic process in 1839, scientists, tinkerers and adventurous amateurs were reproducing the technique in the United States. A British scientist named Hugh Lee Pattinson went to Niagara Falls — already a popular subject for painters and printmakers — to produce some of the earliest extant daguerreotypes made in America (and the earliest extant images of the falls). They aren’t in great shape, but it’s a wonder that they still exist and are still legible.
From these first efforts, the exhibition charts the rapid technical and aesthetic evolution of the form. A parallel technology invented by the English scientist Henry Fox Talbot, which used salted paper to produce a negative and then, through contact printing, a positive image, took root quickly, as well, yielding thin but crisp photographs that didn’t have the distracting reflective background of the daguerreotype method. Even though both processes were cumbersome, and photography flourished mainly in the urban portrait studio, landscape photographers made images of places that were physically close to the nascent country’s cities, yet still wild, rugged and spiritually remote. The Adirondacks of Upstate New York, the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Hudson River were popular subjects.
Perhaps the most interesting room of the exhibition juxtaposes paintings and photographs made at the same time, in some cases by artists within the same family. The photographers Charles and Edward Bierstadt were brothers to Alfred Bierstadt, the great landscape painter, and photographer John Moran was brother to the great Hudson River School painter Thomas Moran. An 1863 Albert Bierstadt painting, “Mountain Brook,” makes a fascinating contrast to a similar image, photographed by his brothers at Franconia Notch, N.H., a few years earlier. In both, a stream cuts through a dark patch of forest, with just a glimpse of sky above. The visual focus is on the rhythm and tumult of the forest floor, rocks, leaves, ferns and trees, including fallen trunks at strange angles.
But examine the shadows in the painting, and one sees an image that functions more like a map guiding how one sees rather than mere transcription of visual data. In Albert’s painting, readily identifiable objects cast clearly articulated shadows, such as a broken tree stump that leaves a perfect dark shadow on a sunny rock beneath it. In the photograph, the shadows are not nearly so delineated, but appear merely as dark patches. And where Albert paints a tiny patch of sky visible through the trees, a perfect shade of sky blue, in the photograph made by his brothers, the sky appears as a blur of white light. The painter, it seems, used a set of visual cues to orient the eye, to let the viewer know where the light is coming from, which in turn heightens the illusion of verisimilitude. These are signs that refer to visual ideas, rather than a transparent record of the things themselves.
Throughout the exhibition, the dialogue between painting and photography is recorded mainly through the development of a specifically photographic aesthetic of photography. But as early as the 1850s, in a magnificent winter landscape by Josiah Johnson Hawes, you see photographs doing things that would spur a small revolution in how painters depicted the world. In this case, a delicate screen of snow-covered branches all but obscures the image of a building in the distance. It would take years of seeing the world in this photographically determined way, and seeing it in a similar form depicted by Japanese printmakers, before this kind of thing would crop up on the painted canvas.
The emergence of a photographic aesthetic wasn’t the same as the adoption of painterly techniques by photographers. An 1880s image of a stream with a water wheel to one side and a picturesque bridge in the distance by J.W. Stewart suggests a photographer with an eye toward the standard genera scene beloved by the more unimaginative painters of the age, and it’s lovely in a limited, easily grasped and quickly forgotten sort of way. But blue-tinted cyanotype images by Henry Peter Bosse in the late 1880s and ’90s, showing bridges, dams and waterways, live in the photographic world, full of detail and incident yet also open to the large, engulfing vista. Bosse is one of many happy discoveries in this exhibition, along with William Rau, Seneca Ray Stoddard and James Ryder.
By the late 19th century, nostalgia and regret creep into the aesthetic. The Eastern landscape was looking more and more like Dickens’s infernal wasteland of the 1840s. Beloved places were being encroached on, and destroyed. Infrastructure that had been lovingly photographed decades earlier no longer read as a light harness or gentle guiding hand on the wilds of nature. Train tracks didn’t cut narrow tracks through the primeval forest, but blighted wide swaths of the landscape, and the cleared field was no longer bounded by the infinite wood. Photographers who had popularized the landscape for tourists were increasingly worried about its preservation. The caption of an 1880 heliotype made near Niagara Falls is self-explanatory: “Disfigured Banks: Repulsive Scenery around Visitor Approaching Goat Island Bridge for First View of Rapids, from ‘Special Report of New York State Survey on the Preservation of the Scenery of Niagara Falls.’ ”
Americans who have lived in both the East and West tend to draw sharp distinctions between the landscapes of each. The East is framed and contained, and offers discrete charms. But it takes work to see them, to look past the pervasive despoliation and reconcile the rough hand of man with the fragility of old forests and mountains. The West is more immediate and can still overawe the spectator with substantial remnants of its old annihilating grandeur. This exhibition scrambles these old expectations and prejudices and recalls the memory of wildness in the East.
Now, as the country flirts with undoing its environmental protections, unleashing the pure and untrammeled predatory power of capitalism once again on the landscape, and investing in massive new infrastructure projects, the show could not be more timely. The essence of photography, which fixes an image in a matter of moments, is to say: Look what we’ve lost. Now it’s time to look again.
East of the Mississippi: Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Photography On view March 12-July 16 at the National Gallery of Art, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Free. 202-737-4215. nga.gov.