Artist’s Talk || The Panorama and Vernacular Cultural Landscapes

A talk presented to the 26th Conference Of The International Panorama Council; The Queens Museum – Sunday October 1, 2017

This is written as spoken language. The “XX” indicates the transition to the next powerpoint slide or page of this pdf.

I would first like to thank the IPC Secretariat Ruby Carlson, and any others that may have been involved in permitting me to speak. It’s an honor.

I don’t know how many artist’s talks you may have heard, but from my experience, broadly speaking, there are two kinds.

One is when the artist presents the trajectory of their work. The second type of artist’s talk is when the artist wants the audience to understand certain core concepts and ideas … Things that might be helpful for the audience to learn.

This presentation is a hybrid. I will show you the trajectory of my work that lead up to me making panoramic pictures. And I will share some of the academic research that provides an underpinning to this work.

I know that many of you have traveled great distances to be here. I must say, that the most valuable information I’m going to share is to let you know that I’ve lived in this great city for over 40-years.

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If you need any tips on finding the best food from Uzbekistan — which happens to be about 20-minutes from here – or if you want any other travel tips – please just ask me.

I am an older person, but a young or as some would say – an emerging artist. I was very engaged with photography as an artist in the 1970s. I have a Bachelor’s of Fine Art from Rochester Institute of Technology – class of 1974. Shortly after, I moved to New York and became the eleventh employee at the newly established International Center of Photography. From 1980 until 2013 I worked in film and television as a director, producer, and media executive. In 2013, I stepped away from moving pictures – built a new portfolio of still photographs and in July 2016 completed a Masters in Fine Art from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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My talk is titled, “The Panorama and Vernacular Cultural Landscapes”. For me each of these words have particular meanings.

I’m interested in what other artists, art historians, and people in other academic disciplines say about the meaning and function of landscapes. Beyond an on-going study of art history, this has lead me to a study of urban design, psychogeography, landscape architecture, map making and the field of geography.

The expression, ‘cultural landscape’ – not unlike the word, panorama, is bantered about, and used in many different disciplines. However, in the field of geography, it has a specific meaning.
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Carl O. Sauer was a prominent American professor of geography in the first half of the 20th-century. He is sometimes attributed to having coined the term, ‘cultural landscape’ but he acknowledged that it was first used by the German geographer,

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Otto Schlüter. Schlüter, first used the term Kulturlandschaft or cultural landscape in 1908.

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In Sauer’s seminal 1925 essay, The Morphology of Landscape, Sauer redefined the primary subject of geography as an academic field when he said that geography is “the study of areal or habitat differentiation of the earth, or chorology”. Chorology being the study of the relationships between geographical phenomena and the people who live in a particular place.

Sauer redefined the field of geography and gave it a subject matter shared by no other discipline. Geography became the study of ‘original’ landscape – before humanity changed it, and ‘cultural’ landscape, the result of human interactions with the land. Sauer said, “The cultural landscape is fashioned from a natural landscape by a cultural group. Culture is the agent, the natural area is the medium, the cultural landscape is the result.”

Today, in the anthropocene, the cultural landscape is an interactive place formed by how human decisions affects the environment. My work stems from the belief that cultural landscape is iterative, still chorological, but more cause-effect-cause-effect without one – people verses nature – being more dominant than the other.

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Let’s consider the modifier; “vernacular” … in speech, vernacular is plainly spoken language — the language of ordinary people in everyday use. In architecture, it is a style exemplified by the most common techniques, materials and decorative features. It is – everyday landscape.

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J.B. Jackson, one of America’s great scholars of human geography, focused his attention on what he called “vernacular landscapes” – the everyday built environment. Jackson, published a magazine from 1951 to 1968 called Landscape: Magazine of Human Geography . This magazine and his writing influenced the conceptual artist Edward Ruscha, the land artist Robert Smithson, the early 1970s photographers that formed the New Topographics movement — and me.

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A key take away of the New Topographic photographic movement was that it ‘naturalized’ the vernacular landscape, raising pictures of places found at the edges of highways, industrial zones

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or pictures of suburban sprawl

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to be relevant and meaningful subject matter for artists.

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This was a significant break from earlier photographic landscape subject matter of people like Carleton E Watkins and Ansel Adams.

For Jackson, with his focus on the vernacular – he thought landscape art presents what are permanent values at a particular moment in socio-political history and by doing so the picture creates a temporal identity for the artist, patron and the viewer.

Finally, for this audience, I don’t believe I need to define a panorama – right? But, I should say, that I have no issues considering pictures that are less than 360 degrees to be panoramic views.

So, what lead me to making panoramic landscapes? Let’s trace that trajectory.

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In the spring of 2015, I took a family trip to Florida. I don’t like Florida very much. It is topographically and with a few exceptions, culturally flat. As always, I looked at Google maps before I went and found what I thought was an amazing place — but really it is just a vernacular middle class trailer park called Ridgewood Motor Homes.

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The map immediately made me think of the famous work, The Spiral Jetty, by the land artist, Robert Smithson.

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I took my camera and was startled by how people had taken these factory made homes —

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these tube houses —

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and customized them – reflecting their individual personalities …

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making them into their own cultural landscapes.

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But I also know that as the sea rises, these people will have invested all of this personal creativity and work making homes that will likely end up underwater. The FEMA flood map makes this clear in a state that does not permit the inclusion of the term “Climate Change” in any official documents.

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My photographs and some of the contextual reference points were assembled and presented as a grid.

You might have noted how each pictures is very carefully framed — what is included or excluded by the edges of the pictures is very intentional. The color and brightness is also tightly controlled. This is a style derivative of the New Topographic photographers, but it is also characteristic of an approach to making photographic pictures going back to the earliest days of the medium.

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The first photograph that didn’t fade in light was an abstracted cultural landscape of a courtyard by Niépce in circa 1826. This abstracting of the cultural landscape was a motivation for me to exhibit last December in a gallery in New York, a series I called, “RETRO”.

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In this show, I presented 27 pictures made between

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October 2013 and June 2016.

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These landscapes where made in many different locations around the world,

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and yet they have a commonality in tone, spirit and emotional weight.

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Again — they are very tightly framed and controlled.

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As I was making these photographs – so derivative of a long tradition –

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a couple of things started to happen.

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One, people began to populate my pictures and two,

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I felt like I needed to react to the

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very tightly controlled compositions, and

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almost minimalist use of color and line.

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I need to react to this kind of formal minimalism.

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While hunting and gather pictures in Newark, New Jersey, I noticed something odd.

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There were solar panels mounted on electric power poles everywhere …

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This launched my first panoramic project: Jersey Electric.

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These pictures pushed the deployment of 174,000 solar panels, which constitutes the world’s largest distributed solar electric system, back into the vernacular cultural landscape.

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It seemed to be appropriate to have the solar panels appear diminutive.

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They became a visual corollary to their negligible effect on our consumption of fossil fuels.

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The pictures also include figures – some repeating. People are added or multiplied with the use multiple exposures.

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This changed the classic ‘captured moment’ quality of photography – and these works consider a different marking of time. This approach was also a reaction against my earlier more minimalist work – they take on a more maximalist quality. Instead of “less is more” … they are saying “more is more”.

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Because of the wide angle of view and the process of stitching frames, it became impossible to control the edges of the frame.

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In the field I just couldn’t tell precisely were the edge of the final picture would be. So, they became looser … more organic and less controlled. This is also a reaction against the more formalistic approach of my earlier work.

I found all of this pretty exciting.

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While in Berlin last year I made a series I called “Future Obsolescence”.

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As you likely know, Germany is a world leader in deploying renewable energy, but Berlin is surround by a string of six coal fired electric plants.

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I thought this ironic, but then also understood that eventually, Germany would find a way to make these plants obsolete.

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I was also struck by how these power plants are located in the fabric of Berlin’s vernacular cultural landscape. I photographed all six plants.

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While in Berlin, I was also thinking a lot about what the French anthropologist, Marc Augé called “non-places”. These are super-modern places that are typically transience spaces that do not hold enough memory to be regarded as “places”. Like airports, hotel lobbies and the edges of highways.

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I was also thinking about how these ideas about non-spaces aligned with J.B. Jackson’s thoughts on the vernacular landscape with his appreciation for everyday places – and the worldwide commonality of the experiences people have in certain places.

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I made, “The Stranger’s Path” — which documents the walkway, also know as the “tunnel”, at Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport.

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In my home town of Brooklyn — this past fall, I made “The Palisades” — this again is a kind of non-place – it is just another urban park, with people doing what people do around the world in urban parks.

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I was also attracted to the layered geology of the landscape – which should remind the viewer that although this is a cultural landscape consequentially impacted by human construction there is still a clear reminder of the original natural shape of the land.

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Since this past spring, I’ve been working on a series of landscape photographs of truck stops.

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Today, there isn’t time to fully explain the underpinnings of this new body of work. And frankly, I’m not entirely sure how successful it will be …

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or how it might go, although tomorrow I plan to be back on the road to photograph more trucks stops.

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So, there are a number of esthetic issues related to making large panoramic photographs.

For me, making pans freed me in some ways from a formalistic desire to tightly control the edge of the photographic frame. Hence, the in-the-field editing process that every photographer must consider became looser and less constricting. And, of course, it also allowed me to see a much wider view of my subjects – expanding the visual context beyond the work characterized by the New Topographical photographers and others.

It also gave me a different way to consider the passage of time and how we remember and identify ourselves in a place. This is accomplished with the additional and repeating figures included in my work.

My work is not visually arresting or impressive. It doesn’t rely on dramatic lighting, but rather it is maximized … it requires the viewer to worker harder – to look closely at our everyday world and consider what we have built – not as a great landmark, but as an everyday cultural landscape.

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In closing, what is the importance or value of an artist doing this kind of research? For me it is an underpinning and a rationalization — a permission slip — not to make pictures of the great ruins in Europe, the amazing natural beauty of the new world — or to take photographs of important cultural landmarks, but rather — to focus my picture making work on the vernacular – the everyday landscape – as a way of showing that by looking closely, these landscapes will speak softly, but clearly about who we are and what we value.

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