The American landscape of our memory, and relatively our most recent past, first memorialized in the subtle hues and creamy pastels by the grand painting masters such as Thomas Cole, Thomas Eakins, or Winslow Homer, and then concretely flattened in the blacks and whites of Ansel Adams, and consequently the new topographers, famously Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, the Bechers, among others, has taken twists and turns in the hands and eyes of the romantics on a mission to find their visual pleasure in the eccentricities of what they found: Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Ed Ruscha. There is an American landscape on-the-go, and ready-made for an explorer with the means to delve into and document. There is an American landscape of the ages, of the now, and of the no longer in existence.
In this selection from the International Center of Photography’s collection, the pleasure in each landscape derives from the origin of its peculiarity, the man-made versus the land, the uses of such land as stages for illusions and constructed narratives, and the understanding of this vastness as not never-ending, but in fact, concretely rooted in one discreet capsule of geography and time.
The work of Ernst Haas (1921-1986), John Pfahl (b. 1939), and Charles Pratt (1926-1976) all encompass what’s simplistically known as the picturesque. Out of the three, John Pfahl continues to document the oddities he finds in the land in what he now calls a series on earth’s metamorphosis. There’s old-school if not twee glamour to these men, not strictly tied to conceptual applause. They are, perhaps, photographers for people of the twenty-first century in search of the awe-inspiring. There’s the breed of men and women with cameras who knew everything about the apparatus that reproduced their dreamscapes. There’s the crop of photographs that, when encapsulated in the right place and time, represent what perhaps this new, new American landscape will be.
Charles Pratt, raised in New York City and Maine, was awestruck by what he called the “edges of the city.” It was his fear that the edges of New York would eventually blur, making his city merge in an vast “megalopolis” with Boston and Washington, D.C. Pratt stated: “I find myself drawn to [the] edges with a sense of urgency, knowing that they may be gone tomorrow—not just extended but really, finally gone.” Out of the three photographers in this presentation, the “scarcity of the city” versus that of the countryside is his preoccupation. In his landscapes the “rivers, parks along the waterfront, highways, embankments, empty lots, airports, rooftops, and the marshes in New Jersey” are predominant.
Ernst Haas, born in Vienna, moved to the United States in 1951 and was part of the LIFE magazine crew, as well as Magnum, an invitation he received directly from Robert Capa. He was a successful, and prolific travel photographer. His work not only for LIFE, but also Vogue, and Look took him across the globe. Haas was considered a pioneer in color photography. The two works selected represent two instances of man in land that evoke two very different variants: the presence of man through his absence with symbols of modern communication, and the presence of man’s chimeras and story-making machine through the lens of motion pictures, and the Hollywood ubiquity.
Lastly, John Pfahl’s inclusion echoes the “alteration” of the picturesque in its most ambiguous iteration: the oddity of elements in his photograph convey a feeling of eeriness and unknown processes, perhaps hidden and unfamiliar to us, but sourced from systems that seem unlikely to be married with the landscape, yet there they appear, in man’s necessity to maintaining his manufacturing activities apparently seamless, but never quite so.
—Laura A. González, ICP-Bard 2014