Photographer and Filmmaker
“Anna Ehrenstein’s work ironically and humorously explores the possibilities and limitations of virtual reality to bridge the gaps created by eurocentrism, colonialism and racism.“
Journeying through ethereal terrains and kaleidoscopic abstractions, Adam Bell surveys the genre of landscape photography, releasing it from the outmoded tropes for which it has become known.
The images we create about the landscapes that surround us reveal a great deal. What we point to, what we ignore, and what we take as a given, all reveal a history and politics that is as much personal as it is cultural. Lens-based images are the primary means by which we depict the natural world and have roots in a long tradition not only of landscape as genre but also of phenomenological explorations of the world. Yet the genre is full of clichés and barriers to actually looking – calendar views, topological studies and impressionistic gestures. In a time when the red lights of climate change are flashing, the challenges of adequately and honestly responding to the need for the moment are dire. Images can never solve our problems but they can illuminate possibilities and reveal our shortcomings, pointing ways forward in a dark time.
While landscape is an adequate descriptor for many lens-based images that explore the natural world, it is often too wedded to its traditional roots in painting from the early 17th century onward. Like all terms, it can only take us so far. Yet for many artists, its boundaries are creative constraints – limits to test, explore and transgress. Looking at three contemporary lens-based artists – Michael Lundgren, Sean McFarland and Anastasia Samoylova – we can see the various ways this broad genre has proven itself both intractable and generous. Stubborn because of what has been done and the vistas well-trodden, but also expansive in its possibilities.
"While Lundgren often visits and photographs prehistoric sites, he just as often seeks out and creates his own."
At first Michael Lundgren’s work appears fairly traditional, of the three artists examined here his large-format images hew most closely to the pictorial conventions of the genre. Yet his unsettling, hallucinatory images dig deep. Geomacy, his most recent body of work, builds off his previous two projects, Transfigurations and Matter, and offers an almost mytho-poetic vision of a depopulated and arid world. While Lundgren often visits and photographs prehistoric sites, he just as often seeks out and creates his own. Circle of the Old Ones could be the ruins of the settlement but could just as easily be an abandoned campsite. Often shot at dawn or twilight, his images hover in an eerily temporal space resembling day-for-night shots in cinema. In Eroding Cider, the sky is nearly black but the desolate mine tailings or gravel heaps are evenly lit as if by a celestial light. The effects are otherworldly. Walking a tightrope between cheap spirituality and visionary clarity, Lundgren’s acute attention to the objects and landscape reminds us that despite the bad news about our planet, it is full of mysteries that rest underfoot, beneath rocks or in a desolate plain. We just need to look harder.
Whereas Lundgren uses pictorial conventions to explore the landscape and reveal its mysteries, Sean McFarland is more interested in disrupting these very conventions as a means to bring us closer to an experience of place. Teasing apart images or marring their surface, McFarland aims to create what he calls a ‘synesthetic object’. In this sense, his work is both critical investigation of the landscape genre and its history, but also phenomenological dismantling of it. In images like Pacific Ocean, the underlying colour channels of the black-and-white image are digitally pulled apart, transforming an otherwise clichéd image of a Sugimoto-esque seascape into a vibrating mirage. In A Mountain in the Desert, what appears to be a tear arcs across a conventional desert scene of a mountain. The rupture reminds us not only of the physicality of the print, breaking the illusion, but also violates the sanctity of the print, thumbing its nose at an otherwise elegant scene. If we can no longer rely on conventional images of landscape to draw us closer to the world around us, McFarland asks us to experience these familiar spaces in new ways, literally opening the images up and putting them back together.
"The seamlessness of (Anastasia Samoylova's) final images never disrupt the illusion of the fabricated space, but we’re made acutely aware that we’ve entered a hall of mirrors."
If clichés can be torn apart, they can also be embraced, as seen in the work of Anastasia Samoylova. Using stock images, Samoylova creates abstracted tableaus of the landscape which are then photographed in the studio. In the case of Summer 2 and Winter 2, these constructs are often built around thematic images found via Google or in stock agency catalogues. Bent and free-floating, the images bounce and float throughout the pictorial space as if we’ve been thrust inside a kaleidoscope. Unified by colour and similar imagery, the end results often appear somewhat decorative, but never treacly. The seamlessness of her final images never disrupt the illusion of the fabricated space, but we’re made acutely aware that we’ve entered a hall of mirrors. Like many artists working with appropriated images, Samoylova reminds us of how we imagine the landscapes around us. We repeat what we’ve seen before as a kind of assurance. At times this assurance can be seen as a rebuke to a changing, unmanageable world, but it can also be read as a wilful denial of our complicit refusal to act.
Nearly thirty years ago, the eminent critic Max Kozloff wrote an essay about photographers delivering ‘Bad News from Epic Landscapes’. In that essay, he looked at artists such as Robert Adams, Richard Misrach, Lewis Baltz, and John Pfahl among others. While the news has gotten worse in the last quarter century and what’s being reported is no less dire, in many instances the focus has shifted. Artists are still fortunately making images that bare witness to the changes affecting our world and natural environment just as there are people who’ve taken alternative approaches. We may no longer need convincing that we’ve irreparably damaged the natural world and environment, but we’ll always need images that tell us what that world is, can, and might be.
Adam Bell is a photographer, writer, and educator. He received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts and his work has been exhibited and published internationally. His books included Vision Anew: The Lens and Screen Arts (2015) and The Education of a Photographer (2006), and his writing and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Afterimage, Aperture, FOAM Magazine, Paper Journal, photo-eye, The Photobook Review, and The Brooklyn Rail. He recently received a 2018 Individual Artist Fellowship from the New Jersey Council of the Arts and is on staff and faculty at the MFA Photography, Video, and Related Media Department at the School of Visual Arts in NYC.