Exercise 5.3



‘Un-pack’ a landscape image of your choice – it may be one you have taken or the work of another photographer or artist. Consider how the image functions and ‘reveals the environmental systems and stories embedded within the landscape’.
● Post the image and your analysis of it to your learning log.
In the recent past, many photographers and artists have turned their gaze to less terrestrial concerns. The sea and ocean have long been observed, recorded and interpreted by the photographic lens. Abigail Susik’s essay (2012) explores some of the connection between art photography and the sea.
“The general consensus seems to be that the palpable pollution of the world’s oceans with non-biodegradable flotsam is a dangerous problem, and yet most of society assumes a passive pose as to what can be done about it. Meanwhile, these shifting surfaces are unceasingly encrusted with a vast array of commodities being transported, ensuring the endurance of this consumption cycle. Several artists from around the globe have recently turned to the realm of the ocean as subject matter for their photographic work, and notably, each of these artists reflect a similar set of sociological conditions in relation to this watery milieu. Echoing what has become the status of nearly every realm of human experience today, it seems, these works stringently comment upon the way in which the world’s seas have become lucid indicators of the omnipresence of global capitalism and the resulting lifestyle of discard.”
Abigail Susik, Convergence Zone: The Aesthetics and Politics of the Ocean in Contemporary Art and Photography (2012) Published in ‘Drain’ magazine.

LP&E, p.175

[23Jul p.175] Let us first note that I am sceptical of there being any objective value to the concept of unpacking, at least as described by Kate Orff, who writes of seeing “phantom stories”. The exercise brief tells us to “[c]onsider how [an] image functions and ‘reveals the environmental systems and stories embedded within the landscape'”, which seems reasonable and innocent enough, but the phrase is taken from the Orff paragraph that includes “phantom stories”: the paragraph in full,

The idea of unpacking really came from Richard [Misrach]’s narrative-rich photographs, where I could see phantom stories within every image, which is sort of an aesthetic reading, but I wanted to know more in terms of understanding the complex web of industrial and ecological and human stories that may have given shape to that image. That’s something that I had been independently exploring on several levels in the office—how to reveal complexity of environmental systems and stories embedded in the landscape.

Kate Orff, quoted in LPE, p.174

I will apply my own version of unpacking which might be termed telling a history through images. The story will be of The Battery, New York. As noted in Exercise 5.2,

Working on Asg.5, and reinforced by Part 5.3 on Agnes Denes’ Wheatfield … (with which I am becoming a little fixated) I am moving towards concentrating throughout Part 5 on Plant Use and Abuse, a theme that I have pursued for years and which broke into this course in EyV Asg.1.

Exercise 5.2

The story centres on Denes and 9/11.

[3Sep] The World Trade Center (WTC) opened in 1974, eight years after the build had started, and comprised seven buildings including the Twin Towers, attacked and destroyed on 11th September 2001. “[O]ne million cubic yards of soil and rock from the site” were dumped “directly west” of the site on what is now Battery Park City (911memorial.org, n.d.).

In 1982, Agnes Denes created a landmark project, Wheatfield – A Confrontation: The Battery Park landfill, Downtown Manhattan. The purpose of the project was to draw attention to issues of inequality, poverty and hunger by growing a food crop on an unused part of Manhattan, land that was notionally worth $4.5 Billion (in 1982 prices). As Denes states on her web site,

Wheatfield was a symbol, a universal concept; it represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, and economics. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger and ecological concerns. It called attention to our misplaced priorities. The harvested grain traveled to twenty-eight cities around the world in an exhibition called “The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger”, organized by the Minnesota Museum of Art (1987-90). The seeds were carried away by people who planted them in many parts of the globe.

Agnes Denes web site, 1982

In 2001, the World Trade Center was destroyed in a terrorist attack. More than 2,700 people were killed (history.com, 2022).

The Battery has been rebuilt as a park and residential area.

There is no need to extrapolate or interpolate, invent narratives or pursue “phantom stories”: the recording of versions of momentary reality is what photography does best. As Bill Jay has stated,

Images do one thing supremely well: they show me what something or someone looked like, under a specific set of conditions, at a particular time. All else is supplied by the viewer.

Hurn & Jay, 2000, p.84

To take the example of Lange’s Migrant Mother… (fig. B1), no phantom stories are needed because the subject is known to be Florence Owens Thompson who later told her story (Mathis, 2022). If fictional narratives of the Dustbelt and the Great Depression are required, then turn to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, 1939. A photograph might encourage viewer to investigate and describe the circumstances which surround it (which Kate Orff in fact did), or encourage them to photograph the current state of the site, or search for archive images. But I baulk at the phrase phantom stories which suggests fictionalisation – this, to a documentarian, ignores and denies the underlying worth of the photograph.

LPE Exercise 5.3 References

911memorial.org (290) title [online]. 911memorial.org. Available from https://www.911memorial.org/learn/resources/digital-exhibitions/world-trade-center-history/world-trade-center-facts-and-figures [Accessed 3 September 2022].

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

Denes, A. (1982) Wheatfield – A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan [online]. agnesdenesstudio.com. Available from http://www.agnesdenesstudio.com/works7.html [Accessed 3 September 2022].

history.com (2022) September 11 Attacks [online]. history.com. Available from https://www.history.com/topics/21st-century/9-11-attacks [Accessed 3 September 2022].

Hurn, D. & Jay, B. (2000) On looking at photographs. NY: Aperture.

Matthis, J. (2022) Dorothea Lange: The Photographer of Depression-Era Rural America [online]. petapixel.com. Available from https://petapixel.com/dorothea-lange/ [Accessed 4 September 2022].