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Survey photography and the landscape in 19th century America

Carleton Watkins, The Vernal Fall, from the Yosemite Book, 1868

Carleton Watkins. Yosemite Falls and the Merced River. Yosemite National Park.

View from the Sentinel Dome, Yosemite, by Carleton Watkins

As Ian Jeffrey observed (1),  19th century American landscape photography recorded "virgin" nature in two complementary "modes": in the first, contemplating the novelty, and the magnitude of its subject, the photographer documents vast vistas from the distance, not simply physical distance per se  but a properly visual distance appropriated to handle the unique, novel forms of the subject. In the second, photographic vision "tames" nature and organizes the natural panorama by way of an aesthetic code akin to that of the contemporary landscape painters. 

Survey photography by Weed, Watkins or by Muybridge, O' Sullivan, and others, can be seen as a kind of "second" conquest of the West, the continuation of territorial conquest  "by other means", or, as Ian Jeffery suggests,  explorations of the land with the goal of disclosing future uses and potential developments. In a sense, we can observe that "contemplative" and "active" vision are fused into one in the American imaginary: in the, at the same time objective and energetic portraits of nature by the landscape photographers  the human energies discovering, molding and refashioning the land are also reflected and portrayed.

Marcelo Guimarães Lima

(1) Jeffrey, Ian, Photography, A Concise History, London,  1981, pp.58-60 


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