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Landscape photography: documentary and the modern sublime

The first photograph was a view from a window; among the early daguerreotypes by the inventor of the process, we see depicted in one, a view of a Parisian boulevard, in another, a still life with artistic or art related objects.  We can therefore state that Nature, and Art and Architecture, were congenial subjects in early photography. Immobile and under sunlight, landscape and architectural subjects were indeed suitable to the initial technical conditions of the medium. 

Romanticism, with its pantheistic view of nature, provided the initial context of ideas and forms of feeling in which the new technological image could at first express, for a century facing the experience of the acceleration of time, the hopes and fears of history itself:  landscape photography both developed and transformed the Romantic sublime. 

As product and process, as, at the same time, instrument and result, photography registered and expressed, as much as it helped to shape, the great structural and cultural transformations brought about in Europe by the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century.  In the late 18th century and early 19th century, Romanticism articulated a reaction, an elaboration and response, in the realm of aesthetic ideas to the radically changed conditions of life, to the experience of the historical upheaval that was the birth of modernity.  

A time of technological developments and accelerated transformations in ways of life, with the growth of the cities and the new urban cultures, with the control and mechanization of life, expressed, in the images of nature, of geography and human geography and time, a kind of  “recollection of things to come” that is, of things to pass.  Landscape photography could re-state the Romantic nostalgia for past conditions, for  "lost nature", at the same time in which the cold precision of the mechanical vision of the camera measured the absolute distance between past and present in modern experience.

In landscape photography and in the photography of nature, the modern sublime was actualized as both the collision and the fusion of the symbolic and the documentary: able at the same time to display a subliminal nostalgia for an “original condition” beyond time, and to constitute the very index and evidence of the irretrievability of the desired or imagined past (that place or condition which is out of the reach of the destructive works of history).

But the 19th century was not just the century of Romanticism; it was also the century of Realism in the arts. We can observe that the desire for reality is not just a desire for the same, the identical; it is also a desire for the other. Realism implied not just the contemplation of reality, the valuation of the here and now as objects of artistic worth or documentary significance, but a pragmatics of seeing and of representation as the appropriation of reality itself.  The real, as process and result, is also what becomes in time.  Realism implied the awareness of transformations, and the awareness of the uses of the real that was stated, in different ways, by the photographers of daily life, by documentary photography, and the portrait as belonging at the same time to the private circle of daily life and to the public persona.  Beyond the established dichotomies of Romanticism and Realism, we can observe that the experience of the modern sublime could as well be expressed in the forms of daily life and documentary photography.

Marcelo Guimaraes Lima

Alexandre Clausel (French, 1802–1884)
Landscape near Troyes, ca. 1855
Daguerreotype; 10.5 x 14.6 cm (4 1/8 x 5 3/4 in.)
George Eastman House, Rochester 

Victor Regnault (1810-78), View of the Seine at Sèvres,
1852, salt print, 31.4 by 42.8 cm

source: Sothebys

Louis-Auguste Bisson (1814-1876) and Auguste-Rosalie Bisson (1826-1900).

Mont Blanc, vu du jardin", 1858.

Album Haute-Savoie. Le mont Blanc et ses glaciers.
Souvenir du voyage de LL. MM. l'empereur et l'impératrice,
par MM. Bisson frères photographes de Sa Majesté l'empereur.

source: Wikimedia

Francis Frith
Crocodile on River bank, Egypt
Albumen print from wet plate negative, 1857

source: Vintage Works

Eadweard Muybridge, Ruins of a Church, Antigua, Guatemala, 1875

Carleton Watkins, Cathedral Rock, Yosemite, c. 1866

Albumen print

Gioacchino Altobelli,
Roman Forum -Night View, c.1870

Albumen print

Afong Lai, Entrance to the Bankers' Glen,
view looking down Yuen-foo River, China 1870.

Marc Ferrez,
Entrance of Guanabara Bay,
Rio de Janeiro 1885


Marc Ferrez
Rio de Janeiro, 1906
Albumen print


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