The effect of looking at places you cannot visit, through photography, becomes more profound when longing is the lens through which you look. This sense of longing sprouted from confinement – self-confinement.
Photography, of course, transports us. It sends us to places near and far, known and unknown. We see the world this way now. All the metaphors and concepts that seemed to use-up photography – window, doorway, surrogate, facsimile, simulacra, index, sign, signifier, affect and all the others – don’t feel quite so dangerous right now. Perhaps it is not the time to pull out all of the knives of discourse, when what I need is a doorway, a surrogate, an index – not as a way to escape or copy – but as a way to attach.
Of course, this essay is defined by “before”, “during” and “hopefully-almost-after” the pandemic. Our work together in the Landscape Studies Group here at Syracuse University started “before,” punctuated by a study trip to the Minnowbrook center in the Adirondacks in the fall of 2019. Gathering together in the boathouse, on the dock, inside kayaks, and around a table sharing meals, we were surrounded by an iconic, yet also unique and tangible landscape. Small real moments happened within that icon. Steadying kayaks for novice paddlers. Soft chatter while watching the light rise on the lake. Shivering as the temperature falls and the coffee becomes cold. Sharing such diverse takes on landscape representation, from wide ranging parts of our human history. Looking at places near and far on a projected screen. Each of our unique agendas floating in the air of the dark-paneled boathouse hovering over the lake. While listening and looking at the projections we also look over one another’s shoulders and out the windows at the landscape surrounding us.
What has been so helpful for me in this engagement is the periodic sustained conversation with people outside of my primary discipline. As a landscape architecture professor (from SUNY-ESF) researching the implications of photography in how we understand, value and design landscape places, the discourse can sometimes feel narrow in my discipline. I am bringing knowledge from other places into my discipline – I am introducing. While here in the Landscape Studies Group, I have found a place to learn again. It sounds so simple, yet meeting with others outside of your discipline is still essential to progressing discoveries in your own.
I have been working on two books while a member of this group, the first published in February 2020 (including a small book party which was the last time some members of our group met in person). The second I started drafting the Spring of 2020. What a time to be writing books, but that is for another essay.1
Being in the Landscape Studies Group reflects itself through shifts in my language, stances, arguments and approaches. They are subtle – not explicitly definable, working instead at a more synthetic level. I was in a place to learn again, thus my ideas were colored and shifted into new territory. The group helped me integrate both new and familiar ideas into the process of writing and editing my two books.
But this essay started as a reflection on the conception of photography, specifically landscape photography, in the time of pandemic and cultural change. So let me return to the early days of the pandemic, as a way to understand how photography can help us attach to the world, or perhaps really to ourselves.
As the reality of the pandemic was closing in, I was corresponding with my editor on a regular basis. My third book had just been accepted by Routledge and we were working out some of the details. By April, when full reality had set in, I was back in my office at home searching through examples of multiple photographic images shared and placed together to describe landscape. I stumbled upon Tacita Dean’s work FILM, finding it through the TATE Modern.2 A short film3 contextualizing Dean’s work on this project was up on the site. I pressed play. I watched, I cried. I forwarded the link to my editor. It was a moment of vulnerability between the two of us.
If we think of film as single photographs quickly put together (thank you Eadweard Muybridge4) Dean’s work is like multiple photographs put together, presenting landscape. These landscapes are charismatic, or perhaps ur, or iconic. Windows, doors, mountains, sunsets, streams. And then interspersed with abstract color and form. Blinking, flashing, changing.
I was alone, upstairs looking out my east-facing window. The squirrel started to work on her nest again in the fir tree across the way. The images pierced through a shell that I had unknowingly already created. I felt something again. That mattered. Dean’s quiet approach to her work felt akin to my own quiet slow work. I felt less alone as these landscape idioms flashed by. They trigged a cascade of my own memories of these kinds of places. As I saw her images, I also saw actual images of my memories in front of me.
Here is where the attachment occurs. Memory melding into (seeing) the actual in the particular photograph. That attachment felt good, real. Necessary.
The image searching continued, instigated by my own research into diverse examples of landscape photography, and the methods and concepts behind them. I ordered books upon books (justifying this cost by telling myself I was going absolutely nowhere; I had come up with a math that one photography book was equal to one mediocre dinner out for two, including drinks; since I did that twice a week in-the-before and zero times a week now, it was a zero-sum change). I attended every single online lecture I could cram into my schedule (thank you Aperture, Photoville, Eastman House, ICP, CCP and Art 21).
And though this research is now part of my second book, and has influenced the framing essays for the third, that whole “consumption” of images was about something much simpler than research for the books, and will last longer (for me at least) than the “life” of those books.
I gave myself a way to be in the world. Landscape photographs were portals through which I could feel. When everything else was causing my brain to put up protective barriers, to not feel in order to make it through – surrounded by threats, as we all were and are, immediate and existential – I could still sit down with a book and look, feel and learn.
I know at this point the words, all the words and concepts about photography abstracting, formularizing, anesthetizing, flattening, aestheticizing, could jump out and end the party.5 Everything has been used up, reproduced, and twisted for our own selfish ends. Right? I can still yell at various news organizations for handing the megaphone to extremists and creating iconographic images of them, blazing. I still have students believe their phones create mechanically objective images6 (this just happened). These instances might persuade me to accept these critiques and put all of my small hopeful thoughts about photography away for good.
But they have not, and will not. Sure, the existential crisis of human existence rages on in my psyche. Yet an intimate experience still occurs each time I seek a photograph of a landscape, and then spend time looking. That moment of looking merges with my own memories, creating attachment. That keeps me going.
Confinement comes in many forms. Now, though hopefully emerging, our confinement is self-imposed. Confinement is self-imposed all of the time, in how we choose to act, feel and, yes, look. But then something happens, and a new place opens. One is invited, welcomed into a group, like our Landscape Studies Group. Or you trip on it, as I did with finding Dean’s FILM. Or you give yourself up to another way, such as ordering books upon books, or taking that walk every day, or creating space for a new unexpected friendship.