CFP : The American and British Nations in Contemporary Landscape Photography

Workshop, March 28, 2014

‘The American and British Nations in Contemporary Landscape Photography’

Centre de Recherche sur les Identités Nationales et l’Interculturalité
(CRINI)
Faculté des Langues et Cultures Etrangères
Université de Nantes

This second workshop in a series devoted to photography and national
identity will question the way in which landscape as represented through
the specificities of the photographic medium may participate in the
construction of contemporary American and British national identities.

At crossroads between visual arts, geographical and cultural studies or
art history, this interdisciplinary workshop will show how photography
works on the landscape or with the landscape, using it as a backdrop and
more deliberately as a screen upon which the history of a nation, its
dreams and aspirations are projected. What is the power of the image in
framing the nation ? Why and how are some landscape images so powerfully
associated to certain nations exclusively, to the point that they become
metonymies of these nations ? What is photography’s role in articulating,
maintaining, symbolizing, strengthening or perhaps fragmenting the
nation’s cohesion ?

Through photographs, the nation is seen, remembered, imagined. It is
situated in space and time and pictured beyond immediate surroundings. It
makes familiar the abstract and sometimes unfamiliar notion of nation,
shaping the perception of place and identity on a national scale. For
Ernest Renan, nation is a heritage from the past as well as a project for
the future, a vision which echoes Sontag’s postulate on the role of
photography in providing ‘most of the knowledge people have about the look
of the past and the reach of the future’.

The functions of landscape photography are multiple : to inform the viewer
about the (geographical, geological, environmental) specificities of the
space ; about the influence of space on people’s ways of lives ; about the
role played by a certain space in the national history and collective
memory ; to record process of changes ; to provide aesthetic pleasure ; to
create cohesion or to emphasize peculiarities.

If a lot has been written about the way landscape has being appropriated
by the nations while at the same time informing national identities in the
past centuries, little has yet been written on how images reflect
contemporary evolutions or preserve stable values of the nations as they
shape landscapes and are shaped by them.

Both American and English landscape photography were highly influenced by
traditional landscape painting and aesthetics of the 18th and 19th
century. In Britain, the romantic vision of the pastoral with little human
presence was an alternative to crowded and corrupted cities. British
landscape images hovered between the delicacy of the ‘Beautiful’, the
darkness of the ‘Sublime’ (Burke) and the agreeableness of the
‘Pittoresque’ (Gilpin). British landscape photographs in the 20th and 21st
centuries are still rooted in past images, as if nostalgically echoing
them while also mocking them. In the United States, photography arose at
the time of territorial exploration and surveys. The point was to visually
control and order the land (and the natives) by scaling and measuring a
wild territory. Transcendentalism depicted pristine, pure and sublime
environments (borderlands or national parks). The American landscape was
and still is a set of expectations and beliefs about both the environment
and the conventions of its representation that are projected on the world
(subject to historical change / culturally specific). In the 30s and 40s,
conservation values defined nature as a refuge, an escape from urban life.
Pictures from the 60s and 70s reminded the viewer that the environment
wasn’t just the majestic, but also the vacant lot next door. Pollution,
global warming, industrial development affected every part of the
environment, suggesting an anti-romantic redefinition of landscape
photography. Both the US and Britain suffer from a lost Arcadian idyll and
grandiose (imagined) spaces that are menaced or even depleted by modern,
urban encroachment.

Papers are encouraged to focus on either the American or the British
nations, but also on converging ideas shared by the treatment of landscape
in photography in both nations.

Many possible directions can be considered and the following list is by no
means exhaustive.

1) Landscape photography could be seen as a militant act, focusing on
man’s impact (positive or negative) and on the transactions between the
natural and the political (global warming issues, etc.). Landscape can be
shaped as a result of a socio-economic context or material process which
disturb spaces or destroy the pastorale – e.g. landscape that has been
engulfed by the fuming ashes of modernity or war. The impact of the formal
plastic elements of the photograph as well as the natural elements may
participate in the construction of the national mood in landscape
photography (British light and weather, hurricanes and natural
catastrophes).

2) Landscape photography may be considered as a tool to record or preserve
an old view of the city undergoing changes, in the process of
disappearing ; to expose social/economic conditions of urban areas ; to be
viewed as spectacle, whether bizarre, surreal, strange, underground,
perverse, dangerous, violent, invisible or ideal.

3) Landscape photography in movement refers to travel photography
(loitering/flânerie, déambulation, itinérance, errance). Landscape and
tourism is an interesting dyad. Why do tourists take photos at all ? How do
photos build places ? How do they shape and change lives, how do they
create visual narratives reinforcing or decentering the national identity
in the gaze of the foreigner ?

4) The mediums used to diffuse landscape photography could be explored :
everyday objects/ everyday spaces (postcard, wallet, family album),
magazines (travel, fashion, news), corporate advertising (billboards,
television, Internet…), art exhibits (landscape photography as art),
government use (as archives) or tourist photography (amateur).

5) Landscape photography is also a chain of repetitions ; repeated images
(from paintings to the first photographs), that are reproducible,
disseminated, preserved in archives (landscape photography within the
walls – the outside penetrating the inside), or comparable (before / now,
jeu des différences).
Intergenericity (intermediality) focused on how landscape photography
draws from various (painting) genres. Landscape photography may include
romantic moonscapes, skyscapes, seascapes or mountainscapes, aerial
landscapes or cityscapes (verticality v. horizontality), hardscapes
(industrial or streetscapes), countryscapes (old English manors as
emblems of the British tradition, memory) or inscapes (interior
landscapes putting into shape a vision of the nation).

6) Reception theories will focus on the effect of landscape photography on
the viewer. Landscape may lead to contemplation, evoke a sense of freedom,
trigger some (re)action. How the viewer reads and receives the picture
depends on his culture : does he identify, reject, recognize a sense of a
nation in a landscape photograph ? Is pathos or empathy felt at the thought
of a lost space (real vs. imagined) ?
Building a sense of place through photography, a sense of belonging to
that place, or on the contrary of rejection (dé-paysement) may lead to
disorientation.
Placeless landscapes that could be anywhere in the nation (shopping
malls, gas stations, fast food restaurants) might be compared to strongly
identifiable icons like the Twin Towers, which were sublimated,
celebrated and mourned.

We welcome 300-word abstracts in English to be sent together with a short
biographical note via email to jane.bayly@univ-nantes.fr and
julie.morere@univ-nantes.fr.
Deadline for submission : December 15, 2013.