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From the earliest forms of expression through Renaissance art, and up to the twenty-firstcentury's vision and interpretation, nature and the landscape have preoccupied humankind. Nature has not only become a vehicle in the search for existential meaning and the exploration of the human condition, it has also informed artistic creation, inspiring artists and leading them to confront aesthetic issues of form, color, and beauty. Within this tradition, many artists focused on images which not only intended to capture an actual physical likeness, but sought to render the sense of power and mystery of nature and the communion with it as a spiritual experience, often addressing the mythical and magic attributes of nature from a mystical or cultic point of view. Landscape in art and especially in photography becomes an issue which extends well beyond the canvas or the print. Besides the self-sufficientaesthetic object with artistic merits they also carry a considerable social weight and undeniable cultural, intellectual, and political connotations.

Landscape photography, one of the most popular and allegedly "facile" genres in the art, and one that Laura Gilpin considered among the most challenging, has to some extent been overlooked, perhaps even intentionally neglected in the general history of the medium. In the more recent histories this genre has been ignored, or addressed, if at all, in the most perfunctory manner. One of the reasons could be the extensive use, or even abuse of such photography not only by serious professionals and artists, but especially through the inflationof such imagery so easily created by amateur camera owners whose aim is simply to preserve memories of occasional experiences of natural beauty, and in time recreate the "magic" of such a moment. In order to restore its status as part of the creative arsenal of photographers, the practice needs a serious reconsideration and reassessment.

Landscape photography is as old as the medium itself, and already in pre-photographic days, Daguerre's paintings for the Dioramas were in a sense the precursors of landscape photography. Often considered as superficial,repetitive,boring, and accessible to every camera owner, this genre and tradition have nevertheless survived even the contempt of recent generations thanks to the work of serious nature photographers.


Achille Quinet, French, died 1900
Rocks at Fontainebleau, ca. 1875
Albumen print, 19.5x24.9 cm
Collection of Gerard Levy, Paris

Early nineteenth century photography devoted significantattentiontothispracticeduringits formative years partly because of the technical limitations of the medium while it was still maturing towards the development of its distinct vernacular. Although the stillness of the landscape was most opportune to long exposures, it evolved mainly under the influenceof the landscape tradition in painting which became an independent genre only towards the end of the eighteenth century. From Neo-Classicism to Romanticism, and through the Barbizon School, all possible artistic currents and influentialfiguresinarthavedeeplymarkedthe progress of landscape photography at its various stages. Furthermore, many of the early practitioners of the art were formerly landscape painters - even if of lesser talent. In one of his many biting remarks on photography Baudelaire qualifiedphotographyas"therefugeoffailedpainters with too little talent."


Idit Greenberg, Israeli, born 1965
Untitled, 2002
Lambda digital print, 65x40.5 cm
Purchase, Marion and Guy Naggar Fund, London

The era of the daguerreotype witnessed scant emotional involvement with landscape imagery, as this was still the stage of mechanical, objective, and truthful representation of the real world, largely devoid of sentimentality. Soon enough, the traditional canons of landscape composition derived from painting were applied to the new medium. With the emergence of the calotype, the direct and informative nature of the daguerreotype was supplanted by the technical limitations of the paper negative, which suppressed detail. This imposed new aesthetic qualities, especially since the atmospheric and artistic renditions of nature in the new technique were closer in aspect to lithographs and aquatints, and propitious to a more interpretive approach. Impressionism and the aesthetic of the calotype are unquestionably and uniquely connected both at the visual and conceptual level.

Following the technological developments in the field,theeraoftheglassplateandthelarge-format negative, landscape photography from the mid- to late nineteenth century went through the documentary/topographic phase. It culminated especially in the new genre of grandiose landscapes of the American West which eventually became a tradition, and continued through the Pictorialist approach survived until the first decades of the twentieth century.

In the 1920s, with the emergence of Precisionist photography as a reaction to Pictorialism and the revival of the great tradition of views of the American West, artists turned again to photographing landscapes, especially from a spiritual approach, as in Ansel Adams's majestic views. The popularity of the genre declined abruptly with the outbreak of World War II.

In the decades following World War II, landscape photography rose again to a central place on the scene with, at times, even a mystical approach as epitomized in the photography of Minor White and his followers, and later in the century with the work of the New Topographers. Their work opened the way to the younger generations of the last decades who are highly motivated by ecological and environmental concerns. Such an agenda led many artists to turn again to the documentation of nature, often in awe and respect, and with a well-conceived, reverent, and socially conscious universal message. The wounds of earth and nature as inflictedby humankind became the central focus of attention with an obvious critical approach. The intellectual ecological approach in contemporary landscape photography has become a new and different manner of worshiping nature often labeled as a new religion by the critics of the environmentalist movement. The images produced in this approach are often harsh, shocking and devoid of the traditional concern for beauty. As Erwin Panofsky stated: "When it comes to ecological issues, the depiction of nature takes a step back, and in its political context prefers verisimilitude to beauty."

Nowadays, nature has gained extreme "visual accessibility" via the media, and especially television through which one "travels" instantly to faraway places - much like the nineteenth century "armchair traveling" through the stereoscope. This facility, which offers a mediated experience of distant lands and "beautiful" and exotic nature (e.g. National Geographic), has also caused a notable vulgarization of nature and a depreciation of the experience of the landscape.

The "framing" of nature in art is in itself an essentially sacrilegious act, equivalent to slicing in finity in to small portions and packing it for consumption. The importance of the work should lie well beyond the details represented, in their aura and the degree of success the artist was capable of achieving in interpreting and presenting an emotional/spiritual experience. The visual artist should be skillful enough to do in pictures what William Blake expressed in the first stanza of "Auguries of Innocence":
"To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower"


Gustave Le Gray, French, 1820-1882
Marine, 1856
Albumen print, 30x40.2 cm
Gift of Anne Ehrenkranz, New York,to American Friends of the Israel Museum

What makes landscape photographs so often unique and special? Unlike other art forms, and especially painting, photography does not imitate nature. It is holistic in nature since it allows the artist to isolate only a portion of the world in an image, but does not permit the "peeling off" of components of nature as painting would do, selecting, as Jose Ortega Y Gasset wrote, the elements of the universe suitable to be translated onto the canvas and the class of phenomena which are pictorially essential. This synthetic approach in painting is practically impossible and inapplicable in photography, as through the camera the artist has to observe, analyze, and merely detach a slice of the world. Photography implies the recognition of the spiritual in a scene, rather than its "re-creation" or interpretation through layers of paint.


Edward Weston, American, 1886-1958
Oceano, 1936
Gelatin silver print, 18.5x25 cm
Gift of Lee D. Witkin, New York

If not executed in situ, painting often becomes a mere recollection of nature, while the photograph is direct and immediate. It conveys the first-handexperienceoftheartistaslivedin the scene. In both cases the viewer receives an impression brought to him by the artist who is simultaneously actor and spectator in nature. The impression he creates from the scene is tainted by a multitude of factors, from the environmental, cultural, and local context, to the maker's personal, psychological, religious profile.Naturally,everyperiodinhistoryhasyielded a different view of nature and landscape based on the thought, philosophy, and cultural environment of its time.

The selection of images, almost all devoid of human presence, is meant to illustrate the spiritual dimension of landscape photography as informed by local, cultural, and historical factors through the observation of the symbols and myths of our natural environment as definedby our civilization and shaped by our identity. The works of the artists assembled in this exhibition are an informal group that project diversity of cultural and geographic background, approach, and use of techniques.

As a result, these photography-based images also reflectthe variety of concerns about nature, and the different ideologies - from aesthetic to political - governing such creation through the individual interpretations of landscape. In addition, via the artist/photographer's interpretation these images transcend nature itself. By purposefully omitting a narrative, they become statements about deeply personal experiences which cannot be translated into words. They convey an essentially different experience of landscape than that which laymen undergo, as the poetic dimension and spiritual symbolism they infuse into the work of art endow them with qualities that become a representation of the human psyche. They offer a secondary visual experience: one of raw vision and extreme emotion.

A distinction should be made between the record of nature and its wonders (or maybe its oddities) and the spiritual approach to landscape as a mystic experience, where the finalimageistheresult of the communion between the artist's soul and the environment. As American writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau claimed, it is not what one looks at, but what one sees.

 

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