Exercise 4.4

Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men

Read Deborah Bright’s essay ‘ Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men ’, available online, noting key points of interest and your personal reflections in your learning log.
As well as writing widely on photography, Bright is also an established practitioner. This text was written in 1985, and some of the things Bright argues for have been achieved. The text provides a contextual insight (particularly in relation to American photography) and an interesting sense of the climate from which much critical practice has emerged.

LP&E, pp.157-58

There is a value-added version of Bright’s 1985 essay here, on the Exposure magazine website — they republished a series of their most renowned articles to celebrate their 50th anniversary. This version includes a 2019 introduction by Bright and correspondence from William Jenkins (curator of the 1975 New Topographics exhibition, which Bright discusses at length in her essay) arising from the 1985 publication.

[12May22] Jenkins’ final comment in his 1986 letter to the editor of Exposure is, “The first part of Bright’s essay eloquently sets forth a view of the history of landscape imagery as a process of acquisition through picturing; an aggressive, imperialistic, masculine process. This was the beginning of an essay which could have been very much to the point. Alas.” There is considerable truth in this remark and Bright’s 2019 introduction is also noteworthy for its skewering of John Szarkowski’s strengths and weaknesses,

The New Topographics had launched a decade earlier at George Eastman House, at the apogee of MoMA curator John Szarkowski’s influence and championship of a highly selective method of “photographic seeing” that prioritized an image’s formal qualities and style over its content. While Szarkowski proposed a very teachable model for making graphically sophisticated pictures, his formula elided any discussion of what the pictures actually showed (the freaks! the naked girl on the floor under a stack of pancakes! the interracial couple with baby chimps!). This omission, which was not an oversight but a strategy, would be addressed using the new tools of what came to be called theory 1.

Bright 2019

Bright also notes that at the time of the original essay’s publication she had just started teaching a course in landscape theory in photography and cites her sources as Jackson & Meinig (1979), Nash (1967) and Shepard (1967). The influence of Allan Sekula, Martha Rosler, Anne McCauley, Christopher Phillips, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, and Sally Stein, “who believed that photography scholarship must be grounded in an understanding of the culture and period when the images were made, as well as how the photographs were received and used by their makers and intended audiences” is acknowledged.

The principal points that Bright makes in this long (7,000 word) essay are 1. the poor deal given to women landscape photographers, 2. the shortcomings of Jenkins’ New Topographics exhibition and its participants; 3. the limitations of Szarkowski’s approach and, consequentially, his exhibitions.

Bright observes in her introduction that, at the time of the essay, little critical attention was given to landscape photography: it concentrated, rather, on “the body within the contexts of gender politics and consumerism, ethnic oppression and colonialism, police and criminal typologies, medical and scientific uses of photography and domestic scenes/family photographs”. Bright’s initiative was part of the shift in critical attention to landscape photography.

And so to the essay itself. Bright traces the development of the landscape tradition in painting and suggests that attributing the appeal of landscapes (painted or photographed) to the US public at the time when she was writing (1985) to its evocation of traditional, pioneer spirit and the pleasant distraction it offered from the national and world events is too simplistic. MainstreetSmalltown America, while it might be the bedrock of many cultural transactions,

its urban natives and refugees (including blacks, Hispanics, homosexuals, Jews) — [find] no positive reflection but instead oppression

Bright, 1985

In Bright’s view, photographers should be more aware and more wary of the societal stereotypes the are in danger of reinforcing. She regards landscaped urban parks and national parks as similarly patronising concepts, tamed nature for the gullible – and some sectors of the U.S. public flocked to them, first by rail and then by car as these became increasingly available — “[n]ature was redesigned, we might say, for middle-class convenience and efficiency” and glossy, anodyne advertising supported this. The cinema showed a similar tale with depiction of the cowboy ethos that would lead to Marlboro ads and Richard Prince’s appropriation thereof.

Bright then announces her intention to “assess some of the inadequacies in traditional landscape photography” and then “speculate on strategies photographers might use to reveal landscape’s cultural construction”.

• The tamed wilderness aesthetic was deployed by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston and their cultural descendants have perpetuated this, “celebrat[ing] the same sanitized conception of the natural world that Walt Disney promoted in his wildlife films”.

• Minor White began Aperture in 1952, his stated ethos drawing on Stieglitz and Steichen). “Aperture could routinely publish portfolios as stylistically diverse as those of Robert Frank and Frederick Sommer, for “the final form of the image was of less importance than its evocative meaning.” 2 It was on this slippery beachhead that the Aperture forces were eventually challenged and overwhelmed by John Szarkowski’s curatorial juggernaut in the 1960s and 70s.”

• And so to Szarkowski, whose formula for understanding photographs (thing, detail, frame, time vantage point) Bright criticises for ignoring “significant issues of patronage, audience, means of reproduction and distribution”.

• Peter Galassi (Szarkowski’s protégé at MoMA) and his exhibition and book Before Photography (1981) are criticised for perpetuating Sz’s inevitable a History of Art as History of Great Men: Bright paraphrases Abigail Solomon-Gadeau’s reaction, “selective raids on the art history slide-library can be used to support any proposition, no matter how absurd”.

• Bright bemoans the power of publicity and patronage that his “bully-pulpit” at MoMA allowed him, citing his 1981 American Landscapes, “a roll call of the canonical masters” and “only two women … — Laura Gilpin and Dorothea Lange — both of whom are dead”.

• And so to New Topographics: Photographs of a Manaltered Landscape (with effectively only half a woman, Hilla as one of the Becher pairing): NT:PMA is discussed at length elsewhere. Bright describes the NT approach, neatly but rather dismissively as,

shun[ning] all the conventional norms of beauty and sentiment to which art and kitsch landscape photography appeals. Rather, they present themselves as self-consciously knowing “naifs”, artless artists working within the tradition Szarkowski has constructed for those nineteenth-century expeditionary photographers who worked “without precedent”, without style.

Bright, 1985

Bright suggests that the general critical esteem for the NTers social insights is more a result of the critics’ “impoverished expectations” that the quality of the work.
She goes on to illustrate the imprecise, inchoate nature of the work by contrasting the various labels given to a Stephen Shore image in that and later exhibitions.
The next in line of fire is Robert Adams, who fails in Bright’s view to sufficiently confront the social issues manifest in what he photographs, of Our Lives and Our Children, Photographs Taken Near the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant (1984), which she describes as,

an excellent case study of the poverty of dominant art photographic practice in speaking to specific, material concerns. Photographs seeking to construct social concerns without reference to their status as historical objects become diminished by their “universalized’’ status as art objects.

Bright, 1985

and she regards the art institutions as complicit in this failure “both through action — control of funding, endowments, curatorial practice, art historical scholarship, etc. — and through selfrepresentation”.

[Note that the extended version of this essay that I am working from includes a response from William Jenkins, the curator of NT and a reply from Bright.]

• Moving on from Sz and NT, Bright asks “what can photographs of landscapes tell us about how we construct our sense of the world?” and contrasts two examples to show “the difference between landscape work committed to questioning the conventions of landscape photography and an art photography that merely perpetuates or dissolves them into barren irony”.

• John Pfahl’s Power Places is a series of attractive landscape photographs that include power plants (fig. A1), one being on Three Mile Island, of which Bright states, “Every critic who has assessed John Pfahl’s widely-published portfolio Power Places has expressed astonishment and some confusion about his apparent lack of political consciousness in making such lush, large-format, beautiful pictures of nuclear power-plants” (Bright, 2020).
In its 2020 obituary, the NY Times described his ” reputation as a masterly if quirky landscape photographer over more than 40 years. In addition to his manipulations, he found beauty in peculiar vistas like the belching smoke of a coke plant in Lackawanna, N.Y., the rotting fruit and vegetables of his compost pile, and a stately hill of road salt — often as statements about the environmental impact of industrialization” (Sandomir, 2020).

• But “Lisa Lewenz’s Three Mile Island Calendar (1984, fig. A2)uses photographs of that power plant within a very consciously-constructed political context, wittily appropriating the vernacular Christmas-calendar format as a foil for her serious message” (Bright, 2020).
Abigail Solomon-Godeau, in Photography at the dock (1994, p.183) includes Lewenz in a list of “a new generation of photographers who are committed to rethinking documentary in a rigorous and serious way”.

Box A
1. John Pfahl, Trojan Nuclear Plant, Columbia River, Oregon” , 1982, from Power Places, 1982.
2. Lisa Lewenz from Three Mile Island Calendar, 1984
3. Google Books search for Three Mile Island Calendar
4. Aperture, Spring 1985, contents page.
5. Installation shot, Vision of Nature exhibition, Photography Department of The Art Institute of Chicago, 1985
© the artists, their agents or their estates
image sources: 1. NYT; 2, 5. Exposure; 3. Google, 4. Jstor.

Bright does not appreciate subtlety, indeed, she seems to mistrust it. Pfahl (whom Bright recognises as perhaps deploying irony), to me, treats his potential viewers as informed adults and creates a portfolio of ostensibly tradition, attractive landscapes, relying on his audience’s knowledge of what happened (or nearly happened) at TMI LINK to make their own associations and choose whether to be uneasy about man’s (!) destructive capability. It is a grown up approach. That said, Lewenz’s interpretation of the subject is cleverly conceived and well executed.
Bright also contrasts the high prices of Pfahl’s prints with Lewenz’s “mass-producing her-calendar and selling it for an affordable $6 instead of issuing her photographs as limited-edition, archivally-printed art objects priced in the hundreds or thousands” (Bright, 1985). I looked for a copy of the calendar on sale in the hope of a demonstration of 20-20 hindsight, but could find none: it is listed on Google Books (fig. A3), but with no copies on sale.

• Bright is now in the home straight and states her final questions to improve 1985-current landscape photography: what should it be looking at, who should be doing it, on what terms, and how and why?

The who solution is more women, fewer men (if this is assumed to be a zero sum game). Bright looks at three examples (we already have a body count for NT:PMA ):
Starting with her own list of usual suspects, “Porter, Caponigro, Strand, Plowden, Tice, Clift, both Adamses, Baltz, Deal, Divola, Klett — the roster of landscape photography’s acknowledged masters could go on and on”.
Lustrum Press’ Landscape: Theory (1980), edited by Carol Di Grappa featured essays by ten men, Adams (Robert), Baltz, Callahan, Caponigro, Fulton, Garnett, Porter, Sinsabaugh, Tice and Weston (Brett).
The Spring, 1985 Aperture survey of Western landscape photography featured eleven men, 1 woman and NASA. The photographers (or publishers) listed on the contents page (fig. A4) were: by David Avison, Richard Misrach, Art Sinsabaugh, Frank Gohlke, Robert Adams, Edward Ranney, Lawrence McFarland, The Rephotographic Survey, Mark Klett, Marilyn Bridges, Terry Husebye, David Hockney, NASA, Emmet Gowen.
The Photography Department of The Art Institute of Chicago had recently mounted an exhibition A Vision of Nature (fig. A5) in which, “[t]he curator not only excluded women from his retrospective, but set up a dubious historical account promoting the genius of the six masters represented — Adams (A.), Porter, Stieglitz, Strand, Weston, and White” (Bright, 2020).
One woman landscaper that Bright does mention is Linda Connor, although she is critical of Connor’s seeming willingness to accept a designation of woman photographer with particular sensibilities rather than demanding equality with her male counterparts, “an old, pan-cultural assumption that has been used throughout history to devalue women and their cultural production” (Bright, 1985). Anthropologist Sherry B. Ortner and psychologist Nancy Chodorow are cited in support of Bright’s equalitative view.

William Jenkins (curator of NT:PMA ) responded specifically on the preponderance of men in that show, “The fact is that, until very recently, there have not been many women making landscape photographs. If there have, Bright does not mention them.” (Jenkins, 1986). And Bright replied to Jenkins, asking “How hard did Jenkins search for women landscape photographers in 1975? The fact that these photographers were/ are obscure and difficult to locate does not relieve curators and critics of the responsibility to find us” (Bright, 1986). This is a rather unedifying aspect of the exchange that does no credit to either side.

What and the remaining Ws
Given Bright’s opinion on formalism (or, perhaps, her particular interpretation of formalism), it is no surprise that the new vanguard of women photographers should concentrate on content and context. She has pilloried the NTers for their “aesthetic arrangement, having nothing to do with the cultural meaning” (Bright, 1985) (William Jenkins took particular exception to this section of the essay), but she also requires changes in the “museum/gallery system” and undergraduate photography courses (op. cit.) because the encourage and perpetuate the status quo. She deplores the market in superficially striking but anodyne landscape images, giving the examples of “the strong forms of a Chicago or Pittsburgh blast furnace”: they would be admired on boardroom walls because they “say nothing about the tragedy of massive unemployment in the Rust Belt or the profit-motive of a corporation that rends the social fabric of a company town” (op. cit.). Landscapes, in Bright’s view, should expose social inequalities. This is a similar outlook to Fay Godwin’s on picturesque postcards, explored in Part 3.

Bright asks two fundamental questions about landscape photography, who should be doing it and with what purpose. On the first she concludes, quite reasonably that women photographers should be included on an equal basis as men and not as particular, sensitive interpreters of certain subjects. This is unequivocally correct as privileged patriarchies are inappropriate in any context. On the matter of purpose, Bright favours the depiction of social issues and mentions some feminist issues in particular. This is a subjective matter of choice: subjects and stances are entirely a matter for the individual photographer, viewer or commentator to decide.

The question states that “some of the things Bright argues for have been achieved” in the nearly 40 years since Bright wrote the essay. The course material has evidenced this with Part 4.4 examining the increasing role of women, “Barbara Kruger, Karen Nor, Rossini Kempton, Susan Trimaran, Elian Brothers, and Helen Sear” as, “just a few female practitioners who have, in one form or another, engaged with feminist politics in relation to the landscape and the concept of nature, as well as the male gaze” (Alexander et al, 2019, pp. 154-5)”. Part 3.4 looked at photography’s engagement with ecological issues, featuring Epstein, Bursty, Lindberg and Also and Part 5 also deals with this issue.


1 Bright notes that she is referring in this paragraph to the work of Arbus, Krims and Winogrand. And the techniques of theory she has in mind are, “the diverse critical filters that may be used to analyze how a photograph or archive of photographs has meaning as a visual object and as a text. These filters are selectively applied to a given problem raised for the viewer/critic by the text/photograph at hand. Such filters can include a photograph’s historical, cultural, and economic contexts; its semiotic maps; its gendered, sexual, racial, and class coding; and its psychoanalytic inferences”.

2 My copy of Bright is missing the citation for this quote.

LPE Exc 4.4 References

Alexander, J, Conroy, A, Hughes, A, & Lundy, G (2019) Landscape, Place and Environment [LPE]. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Aperture (1985) Western Spaces. Aperture. no. 98, pp. 1. [online]. jstor.org. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24471470 [Accessed 25 May 2022].

Bright, D. (1985, 1986, 2020) Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men, by Deborah Bright (1985) [online]. medium.com/. Available from https://medium.com/exposure-magazine/re-exposure-of-mother-nature-and-marlboro-men-201dc897fc6c [Accessed 10 May 2022].

Di Grappa, C. (ed.) (1980) Landscape: Theory. NY: Lustrum Press.

Jackson, JB. &. Meinig, DW (19779) The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, W. (1986), response to Bright’s Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men. [online]. medium.com/. Available from https://medium.com/exposure-magazine/re-exposure-of-mother-nature-and-marlboro-men-201dc897fc6c [Accessed 26 May 2022].

Nash, R. (1967) Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sandomir, R. (2020) John Pfahl, Photographer Who Played With Landscapes, Dies at 81 [online]. nytimes.com. Available from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/23/arts/john-pfahl-photographer-who-played-with-landscapes-dies-at-81.html [Accessed 25 May 2022].

Shepard, P. (1967) Man in the Landscape. New York: Knopf.