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Human Natures

The Altered Landscape: Photographs of a Changing Environment

This book would surely have appealed to one of America’s greatest writers on landscape, the late John Brinckerhoff Jackson. In the preface to his collection of essays A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time (1994), he says: ‘Since the beginning of history humanity has modified and scarred the environment to convey some message, and for our own peace of mind we should learn to differentiate among those wounds inflicted by greed and destructive fury, those which serve to keep us alive, and those which are inspired by a love of order and beauty, in obedience to some divine law.’

Drawn from the photo collection of the Nevada Museum of Art, and coinciding with an exhibition there until 8 January 2012, The Altered Landscape requires its readers to discriminate in the way that Jackson urges, although ‘wounds inflicted by greed’ are much more in evidence than ‘a love of order and beauty’.

While it includes a few images from Europe, Antarctica and Australia, the book’s emphasis is firmly on America, especially its western states. It was there that, in the 1970s, Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams and Joe Deal highlighted the suburbanisation of a once-wild landscape, the mundane construction invading the mountains and desert.

Labelled as ‘New Topographics’, their work was a riposte to such predecessors as Ansel Adams, who had turned an idealising eye on the natural world and found a pristine wilderness. That position no longer seemed viable, and as anxiety about the environment intensified, so New Topographics became the orthodoxy, with photographers working in a similar spirit all over the globe.

In her overview of the contents, the museum’s curator Ann M Wolfe catalogues the ways that landscape has lately been ‘altered’ to meet the demands of industry, agriculture, energy production, transport and telecommunications. Less visible, as often fenced-off and clandestine, is the impact of military use, but all too visible is the continuing suburbanisation that Baltz and his colleagues portray. A more benign category is what Wolfe calls ‘cultural mark-making’, which encompasses Christo’s grandiose installations (such as his 39km-long artwork Running Fence in California) and James Turrell’s Land Art (his Roden Crater observatory) in a linereaching back to ancient geoglyphs.

The book is less systematic in presenting the photographs than Wolfe is in categorising them. There are clusters of them on a particular theme, and sometimes one shot visually echoes another, but overall it is a rather loose miscellany. Keen to indicate the breadth of the museum’s collection, the book features 100 photographers, but if it had presented fewer of them more thoroughly it might have appeared more cohesive. These artists are usually working in series and should be seen in a significant quantity to get a sense of their subject and the sensibility they bring to bear on it.

The Altered Landscape: Photographs of a Changing Environment

The Great Salt Lake of Utah from the sky. Photographer David Maisel’s Terminal Mirage 13 is part of a series of images where run-off from the industrial exploitation of the Lake’s minerals creates vast pools of terrifying beauty

The designer’s predilection for the colour orange (brash monochrome spreads of it) doesn’t enhance the book, nor do the sporadic fragments of text in huge hectoring capital letters. But the photographs just about hold their own: for instance, Laurie Brown’s panorama of identikit housing in Aliso Viejo, California; Richard Misrach’s eerie image of a pipeline passing through a Louisiana swamp; and Edward Burtynsky’s shot of nickel tailings at a mine in Ontario, looking much like lavastreaming from a volcano.

Midway through the book come essays by three authors: WJT Mitchell, professor of english and art history at the University of Chicago and editor of Landscape and Power (2002); Lucy Lippard, who was one of the first commentators on Land Art in the 1970s; and Geoff Manaugh, who runs one of today’s most engaging architectural websites (bldgblog.blogspot.com). It’s a shame that contributors with such good credentials have not been asked to write something more substantial. Yet even though their essays are brief, they would be easier to read if each paragraph was indented in the standard way rather than indicated by a tiny orange square in otherwise continuous text − another dubious mannerism of the design.

Two comments in these essays are especially pertinent. Mitchell talks about ‘the aesthetics of sublime melancholy’, acknowledging that photographs of environmental destruction are often alluring, almost transcending their subject. Lippard says: ‘We pass by construction sites every day and often have no idea (unless CLUI has passed through) what is being built, whether progress or outrage is being perpetrated.’

Lippard is referring to the California-based Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), founded in 1994 (clui.org). With its databases, newsletters and field trips, CLUI is exemplary in the way it deciphers the manmade landscape, supplying a model that should be followed elsewhere. You sense that its participants enjoy a spectacle as much as the rest of us but they don’t leave it at that. Knowledge matters to them as much as aesthetics.

With some of the photographs, the title makes it clear what we are looking at, but others are more cryptic, perhaps disarming us by being so aesthetically appealing. A case in point is David Maisel’s Terminal Mirage 13, almost abstract in its colour and geometry, where you have to resort to his website to discover that it shows the Great Salt Lake, now industrially exploited for its salts and minerals (davidmaisel.com). But all of these images would profit from CLUI-style captions that give us facts, figures and history. In their absence, The Altered Landscape risks being simply a diverting picture book that doesn’t equip its audience to assess what they see or to gauge implications for the future.

In his preface to A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time, Jackson was quite sanguine about the future, saying: ‘In time, we will find our way and rediscover the role of architecture and man-made forms in creating a new civilised landscape.’ Though the images in this book are not exclusively dystopian, they make that prospect seem a long way off.

The Altered Landscape: Photographs of a Changing Environment

Editor: Ann M Wolfe

Publisher: Rizzoli

Price: £40

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