Cultural Landscapes

A Review from Gerald Stiebel: Missives from the Art World.
Project Statement
November 8, 2018

I am fascinated by how people and landscapes interact. I agree with the views of art historian W.J.T. Mitchell, who argued, in his book Landscape and Power (1994), that the human constructs of space/place/landscape are a unified problem that requires study and exploration.

Landscape is a big subject. Many different disciplines examine it and think about it. Geographers, artists, poets, philosophers, psychogeographers, landscape designers, urban planners and others have written about landscape. I sample and appropriate from them all, but the work of a number of geographers has been most influential for me.

The term “cultural landscape” is frequently bantered about, referencing various socio-political issues and ideas. However, in the field of geography, the term has a specific meaning. In 1908 German geographer Otto Schlüter, following the work of the founders of modern geography, Carl Ritter and Alexander von Humboldt, coined the expression kulturlandschaft. This phrase was translated as “cultural landscape” by the leading 20th-century American geographer, Carl O. Sauer. Sauer explores the meaning of cultural landscape in his seminal 1925 essay, “The Morphology of Landscape”. Here Sauer redefined the primary subject of geography as “the study of areal or habitat differentiation of the earth, or chorology”. My work focuses on chorology—the study of the evolving, iterative relationship between human beings and place.

People have been affecting the natural landscape for eons, but the study of those effects is surprisingly new. In 1872 George P. Marsh’s influential book, Man and Nature: Or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (1864) was translated into Italian. Subsequently, the Italian geographer Antonio Stoppani (1824-1891) framed the specter of an Anthropozoic era, acknowledging the increasing power and impact of humanity on nature. Some hundred and fifty years later, we clearly live in the Anthropocene, a geographical epoch in which the relationship between man and nature has changed. Nature is no longer omnipotent.

In the current Anthropocene epoch, the entire planet has been fundamentally altered by people, and the cultural landscape is omnipresent. These pictures narrow this omnipresent scope with a subtle focus on several socio-political concerns: globalization, consumer-capitalism, and energy production.

Some of the pictures in this book are selections from larger groups of photographs, including the series Jersey Electric, which explores the 175,000 pole mounted solar panels in New Jersey; Future Obsolescence, which considers the six coal-burning power plants that encircle Berlin; and a work-in-progress, TRUCK || STOP, which considers the current status of the American trucking industry, an enterprise that will change in dramatic ways in coming decades.

Photographs are traditionally tied to a single moment of time, but artists have explored a number of ways to see and represent motion. In my work, repeating figures moving through the landscapes embody the everyday dance experienced by us all. They remind the viewer that, although these are photographs of a “real place”, they are manufactured landscapes with a temporal narrative. The repeating figures are often humorous and uncanny. By layering multiple exposures, multiple decisive moments coexist.

Yi-Fu Tuan (born in 1930), an American professor of geography, is considered by some as the most important originator of Humanistic Geography. Tuan has written with great authority and insight on the subject of space in his book, Space and Place (1977). Tuan states that people can only appreciate and understand space through movement. It is by moving through a space that place is established.

The prominent American geographer J.B. Jackson (1909-1996) wrote extensively about the evolving American landscape of the mid- to late-20th century. He placed a high value on the study of the vernacular, the everyday landscape. Jackson saw landscape art that depicts vernacular scenes as evocative representations of what a culture values at a particular socio-political moment.

Many of these maximized panoramic pictures consider vernacular landscapes. They invite the viewer to consider the globalized commonality of the human experience in different places and certain non-places, as defined by Marc Augé in his book, Non-places: Introduction to the Anthropology of Supermodernity (2000).

These pictures present the beauty, motion and sounds that transcend their locales. The vernacular, for all of its banality, presents a truth about our cultural position in a very particular historic moment–even if that in-between space has been expanded through an expression of time, by combining multiple exposures in a single picture.
Visual art and photography in particular frequently trigger memories. Soundscapes can do this on a more visceral plane. Some of my pictures include soundscapes that provide an emotionally laden path to position the viewer more closely in the common experience with a place.

The Technical Process

My technical methods are not the most important aspect of my practice, but, whenever people look at these pictures, they always ask, “How did you do that?” And so, in brief, here is the process.

After identifying a location and deciding on the camera angle, I mount the camera on a leveled tripod with a head that offsets the lens to mitigate parallax. Multiple photographs are made, panning and tilting the head at a fixed number of degrees, depending on the focal length of the lens, to assure an overlap of about 30 percent. These pictures will create the background, or stage set, for the final picture. The camera must be in manual mode so the exposure does not change, since a change in aperture would change the optical relationship of each frame.

Once the background is photographed, I remain in the same location—sometimes for over an hour—and make additional photographs of people coming and going. Since the exposure cannot be changed, the light needs to be steady throughout this process, so I must pay close attention to the weather and sometimes need to wait for a cloud to pass.

All of these digital negatives are brought into the Adobe Lightroom application. Here I select which ones will be used in the final picture. After editing, the digital negatives are processed and exported as TIF files. The TIF files are imported into PTGui, an image-stitching application, where the pictures are combined into a panorama with all of the pictures registered – including all of the multiple exposures. The PTGui output includes a blended background, and all of the individual frames as layers with a mask.

This very large file is imported into Photoshop. I then go through each frame, painting in the people I want to include. When this is done, the layers of this large Photoshop file are flattened to a 16-bit file. All color and brightness corrections are made on an 8-bit version. Those corrections are then pasted onto the 16-bit flattened file for final retouching, sharpening and printing.

All the pictures in this book have a level of resolution capable of making very large prints. The first accompanying exhibition includes eight of these pictures, each printed 24 high and up to 90 inches wide, as Archival Pigment Prints. They can be made bigger without upsampling or interpolation.

Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Gerald Stiebel

Love Dumbo and East Orange, maybe even more. Somehow they create fantasy out of reality, like i could join the party without being seen!

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
Scroll to Top