Exercise 2.1: Territorial photography

Notes on Snyder (1):

  • landscape photography in 1850’s to 1880’s was evolving to meet the demands of an increasingly mobile middle class market
  • photographs, being thought of as a mechanical production, could not capture the experience of a place and therefore had no aesthetic merit
  • in the mid 1850’s the ideal photographic print was established as one with the appearance of having come from a production line, being infinitely reproducible
  • by the early 1860’s a landscape photographer had to meet two standards: an image that was photographic in the sense of truthful and realistic, yet still beautiful enough to be marketable
  • ironically because photography was seen as truthful, painters could point to landscape photographs as validation of the way they constructed their works, which in turn created “the way of looking at nature”. “These photographs did not escape landscape conventions; they adopted and reformulated them.”
  • Carleton Watkins is discussed as an example of this form of landscape photography. In particular his commissions for the mining and railway industries, which reinforced the pre-existing ideals of his viewers, and “address the expectations of an audience”.
  • Contrasted is Timothy H. O’Sullivan, whose work doesn’t the spirit of the time but instead portrays the landscape as “a bleak, inhospitable land”. O’Sullivan wasn’t trying to sell his images, which provides one possible explanation for the distinction. It has been argued that he was making scientific images, but Snyder denies this on the basis that he was accompanied by draftsmen for scientific purposes. Snyder asserts that the images were to be “descriptive” rather than scientific.
  • “O’Sullivan’s illustrations provide visual, photographic proof of the unknown character of the land and imply the need to gain power over it by coming to know it.”



Carleton Watkins (American, 1829 – 1916) [The Devil’s Slide, Utah], 1873 – 1874, Albumen silver print 52.1 x 39.1 cm (20 1/2 x 15 3/8 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The image above exemplifies much of what Snyder describes in his essay. The grand mountains fill the frame, whilst the steam train provides foreground interest. The small scale of the train emphasizes the sublime nature of the landscape, whilst simultaneously providing a sense of human control – echoing the tenets of picturesque landscape paintings. Although the high detail in the textures on the mountain and the associated tonal gradations are very much indicative of the photographic realism that Snyder suggests was aspired to at this time, the structure of the image is in the picturesque tradition, which Snyder suggests reinforces this way of viewing the landscape as reflecting the truth.

The vast natural “slide” leads the viewer’s eye down to the steam train and back up, just as the gaze of the passengers on the train would be out at this tourist spectacle. This suggests that the landscape is there for our enjoyment, to be viewed and tamed by visitors. The train is symbolic of travel, of bringing far flung landscapes within the reach of tourists. For me the steam train is also a positive image of a bygone era, it feels comforting, but for contemporaries of Watkins the train was more a symbol of adventure and progress. In its way it is as dynamic as the vast mountains, a powerful force creating new paths through the landscape. The fact that it is rendered in as much detail as the mountain behind gives each equal prominence; they work together and do not compete. Snyder notes this welcoming of progress into the landscape; a modern photographer might mourn the loss of the natural landscape, but for Watkins (and his audience) the train was a positive influence on the land.

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Timothy H. O’Sullivan. Canon de Chelle. Walls of the Grand Canon about 1200 Feet in Height. (1873)

Snyder suggests that in contrast to Watkins, O’Sullivan presented the American landscape as “inhospitable”, an area to be explored by science and not yet tamed by progress. He also suggests that O’Sullivan denied the picturesque influences in favour of a more sublime feel (which would support the eerieness and fear that Snyder reads in his work). However I confess that I don’t see the contrast as strongly as Snyder. The above image does have a touch of the sublime in the vast scale of the canyon, but this is a landscape bathed in sunshine and I sense no fear or foreboding in it. There are what appear to be tents in the middle ground – whilst providing a sense of scale these also indicate human interaction with the landscape in much the same way as Watkins’ train. The extent of human intrusion is certainly less; the tents indicate a first incursion into the landscape, and this reflects the nature of O’Sullivan’s brief, but the overall sense of nature being explored, exploited and controlled by mankind is in my view present in both images. Pop a trio of cows next to those tents and this could be a picturesque painting.

The titles of the images present an interesting contrast. O’Sullivan’s image has a very scientific styled title, purely factual. This reinforces both the scientific nature of his travels, and the view of photography as presenting the truth of a scene. Watkins’ image, “The Devil’s Slide” is far more emotive – I assume that this was a name given to the location prior to this photography, but nevertheless it again indicates human control over the landscape, naming features as a way of neutralising their danger. This is cartoon style “mild peril” – giving a dangerous sounding name to something piques the interest of the tourist, creating a sense of adventure within a secure environment.

This idea of naming locations is something that interests me; to finish off assignment one I am hoping to visit a viewpoint called “Temple of the Winds” which sounds too appealing to miss. The impact of a name on a place can be significant and I think this is something worth exploring further.


(1) Territorial Photography, from Mitchell, W. J. T. (ed) (2002) Landscape and Power. The University of Chicago Press.


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