this issue contains
>> Landscape Painting in the Deutsche Bank Collection
>> Second nature: Landscape and Photography
>> Ernesto Neto: Journeys into Inner Landscapes
>> Land Art: Breaking of the Art Space

>> archive

Second Nature, Non-Site, No Man’s Land: Landscape and Photography

Pleasantly shaped meadows, hills arranged with geometric precision, valleys, brooks, and rivers: landscape photography has aspired to painterly ideals ever since its earliest days. Long afflicted by sentimental kitsch and idyllic cliché, its history is nonetheless equally branded by war and colonization. Harald Fricke on the young photographers of the Becher School, who have revolutionized the landscape image and carried it beyond German borders.

Peter Fischli & David Weiss: Funghi 29, 1998
Deutsche Bank Collection

For a long time, landscape photography was burdened with the dishonorable reputation of kitsch. Artists saw nothing in it but the cheesy trade of better amateurs hunting down nature with expensive cameras and reproducing the typical calendar clichés of cherry blossoms in Japan, the sun setting over the sea, or Alpine panoramas. It was no accident that the Swiss artist duo Fischli & Weiss picked up on precisely this motif for the 1997 documenta and broadcast whole series of banal idyllic images in an endless loop on nighttime television. The work made reality seem as though it existed purely in the form of a sugary sweet fantasy made even prettier by an array of filters and lenses to the point that the actual locations had become completely unrecognizable. What was missing in the photographic landscape was the austerity and clarity with which Modernism had approached the world.

Peter Fischli & David Weiss: Untitled, 1991
Deutsche Bank Collection

Since then, landscape photography has succeeded in shaking off its bad reputation, chiefly thanks to the Dusseldorf School of Bernd and Hilla Becher. It was Thomas Struth, Axel Hütte, Elger Esser, and Andreas Gursky who revolutionized the photographic image of the landscape and carried it beyond German borders. As former Becher students, they all stem from a tradition of representing reality in the most objective way possible; at the same time, however, they’re repeatedly interested in testing the medium’s outermost limits.

In turn, nature seems to be a grateful subject in this respect, uniting the interplay of light, shadow, contours, and surfaces in outdoor exposures with the question that determines all of photography: the decisive moment to press the shutter.

Andreas Gursky: Seilbahn Dolomiten, 1987
Deutsche Bank Collection, © Courtesy: Monika Sprüth Galerie, Köln / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2004

Yet the landscape photographs from 150 years ago were completely staged. While painting continued to implement one-point perspective to cast a proper light on the beauty of English and French gardens, for instance, photography already began aspiring to this ideal shortly after its discovery. Although the first photographs of William Fox Talbot were a confusing mesh of foreground and background in which each object seemed somehow suspended, the photographers accompanying the first colonial expeditions soon saw nature through the camera as an orderly picture of pleasantly shaped meadows, hills arranged with geometric precision, valleys, brooks, and rivers. When Frances Frith photographed the Egyptian pyramids in 1858, the magnificent structures blended with the landscape surrounding them to form an image of a terrain still largely unpopulated following the downfall of the ancient cultures.

E.O. Beaman: Das Herz von Lodore, Green River,
Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado, 1871
Archive Denver

Indeed, photography shed an aesthetic light on nature ever since its inception: in the United States, E.O. Beaman and Timothy H. O’Sullivan began exploring canyons in 1865 because the extreme lighting situation set off the rock massifs and cliff formations to create particularly expressive images of wilderness. At the same time, landscape photography became a symbol of man’s rule over nature. In 1873, Eadweard Muybridge was commissioned by the government not only to photograph the last free Indian tribes in California; he was also asked to document the progressive conquering of the continent by the railroad companies – as a sign of civilization that was bringing technical progress even to the most remote areas. The conquering of the West depended heavily on photographic evidence to convince East-Coast investors that the settlement was progressing successfully.

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