PRINT October 1975

Landscape Permuted: From Painting to Photography

NO STUDY OF NATURE ATTITUDES in 19th-century America can be adequate without considering their late rehearsal in a new medium. Landscape photography extended further the early impulse to capture “undefiled nature.” As might be expected, this was accomplished in the “virgin land” of the West by photographers hot on the heels of the illustrators and artists who had accompanied the earliest expeditions. At a moment when the desire to commune with nature had matured to the point of mellowing, the photographers injected it with a fresh quota of reality and fact, informed on the one hand by a sensitivity to geological science, and on the other by an authentic understanding of the spiritual resonance which, in America, was inseparable from natural fact. They emerged with some of the most compelling landscape images of the 19th century.

Many of these were presented recently at the Albright-Knox Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in “Era of Exploration: The Rise of Landscape Photography in the American West, 1860–1885,” a major contribution to our understanding of the history of photography in this country. It made visible the extraordinary qualities of these early photographs, and, just as important, invited us to compare them to the immensely prolific landscape oeuvre of the American 19th century. If 19th-century visual culture at large was enriched by an American achievement, it was surely in that area.

The exhibition instructed us on the particular situation of the photographer working on the spot, a la prima, as it were, as distinct from the more studied process in time that absorbed the painters. It indicated the dialogue of conventions between both media, and brought us into an area where landscape photography and landscape painting have been converging with each other and with the larger field of American studies. Here, the exhibition, and especially the catalogue (written by Weston Naef and James Wood, with an essay by Therese Thau Heyman) is a pioneering event. The nature attitudes that dominated this period, and the one immediately preceding it, are examined. These attitudes joined art, science and religion in a common cause: recording nature to recover from it meanings which illuminate the culture at large; and through facts, to discover the “end and issue of spirit.”

Scholars delimit the main activity of landscape painting in America from about 1830 to 1865. If we consider landscape photography from the early 1860s to 1880, it is clear that the photographers extended the vitality of a tradition beginning to wane by the Civil War. The units of time we are dealing with are quite narrow: Church’s masterpiece, Niagara, dates from 1857, his Heart of the Andes from 1859. Bierstadt’s reputation rested for years on his Rocky Mountains of 1863. Lane offered luminist masterpieces until his death in 1865, while Heade’s best luminist contributions were still issuing strong in the late 1860s. Moran’s important paintings of Yellowstone date from the early 1870s.

Moran’s works, to my mind, represent the end point of a tradition, even in color resembling an overripe fruit. They could be said to issue the last wail of the “old sublime.” W. H. Jackson’s direct photographs of Yellowstone, by contrast, expose in Moran an affectation of manner we would prefer not to find, just as Watkins and Muybridge expose the coloristic and painterly stylizations of Bierstadt at Yosemite. Thomas Cole, earlier, had been right when he claimed that one advantage of the daguerreotype was that it would reveal the painters of “false views.”

The masses of mountains and rocks, the sharpness of foreground detail and clarity of space in many of these photographs are paralleled only by a few luminist images and some aspects of Church’s works in South America, in which detail and effect are sharply articulated. Even more than with pictorial luminism, the camera eye maintains an anonymity; stroke does not intercept image, nor is it superimposed upon it.

The photograph, by definition, replaces the artist’s hand with the so-called pencil of nature. For the camera operates not only as a mechanical device but as a medium for Mind, which could serve as an instrument of the photographer’s intention. For those of us trained on paintings, the never-touched surface of the photograph is elusively impersonal; its smooth tonality baffles our usual anxious readings. The image has a factual lucidity that holds the surface. This instrument, with its new “truth,” in many ways fulfilled a mid-19th-century injunction against “manner.” Subject to the same proscriptions as painting, narrowly bounded on the one side by manner and on the other by the “merely mechanical,” photography complied with the necessities of contemporary esthetics even as it transformed them.

This transformation took place well within the context of contemporary nature attitudes. The photographs often utilize familiar structural modes designed by the painters to convey large ideas about nature, God and time that concerned them. We can recognize the more conventional “view” derived from Claude and carrying connotations of the pastoral ideal in some of Watkins’s photographs. In Three Brothers, 4,480 Ft., Yosemite, the stock Claudian components are literally mimicked by the composition: the trees framing the lateral edges, the water in the foreground, the mountain looming in the distance. The Claudian conventions were used so frequently by the painters that they are among the most durable clichés of the period. The compositional stamp of the “pastorale” carried with it an elegiac sense of Eden, and on this tired reference viewers could heap a burden of meaning which had to do with American nature as a garden, with ideal nature as a locus between wilderness and culture that could accommodate man’s intrusion.

The photographs often recharge the cliché with some of its original conviction. With discreet spatial modifications, the Claudian stamp (via Turner) carried some of the awesome connotations of the 18th-century sublime. Church’s South American spaces have a natural counterpart in the American West. The vantage points assumed by the camera emphasize Whitman’s “sublime” statistics.1 Church’s paintings were Humboldtean syntheses, compositions reflectively put together in the studio after the fact. The photographs represent the single choice of a site that would convey the same synthetic meaning Humboldt had stressed in Cosmos: "the grandeur and vast expanse of nature, revealing to the soul, by a mysterious inspiration, the existence of laws that regulate the forces of the universe:”2 To make viewers sense that, Watkins, with scores of images like View of the Yosemite Valley from Mariposa Trail, literally transported the observing eye to the tops of the mountains.

Yet on the whole, these Western photographs hush their scenes with a quietude that is hardly rhetorical. Frequently they register a gentler insight that sounds the profoundest nature feeling of the age. In painting, the “new sublime” (as I have called it elsewhere),3 can be fathomed in the luminist canvases of Lane, Heade, Kensett, Gifford, and sometimes less typically in those of Church, Bierstadt and other figures. Luminist conventions of classic structure contribute to a quietistic mood in the works of all the photographers represented here: Watkins, Russell, O’Sullivan, Muybridge and Jackson.

The comparisons that can be made with luminist paintings are almost too many to dwell on. Watkins’s Storm on Lake Tahoe is a luminist picture, as is Bierstadt’s painting of Lake Tahoe. O’Sullivan’s Black Canyon, Colorado River from Camp 8, Looking Above (Arizona) is an uncannily strong photographic equivalent of Lane’s Brace’s Rock or Heade’s Stranded Boat. A number of others can be cited for the record: Watkins’s Cape Horn, Oregon, and Winter View of Cape Horn from Bridal Veil, Oregon; O’Sullivan’s Volcanic Islands, Mono Lake, California and Black Canyon, Colorado River looking Below, Near Camp 7, (Arizona); Muybridge’s Fort Tongass from Across the Channel, Alaska, Shipping in Sitka Harbor, Alaska and Mirror Lake, Valley of the Yosemite, No. 25; Russell’s Ripple Lake, White Pine Canyon, (Nevada?); Jackson’s The Upper Twin Lake (Colorado).

Often in the luminist photographs, reflections dominate. In Muybridge’s Kee-Koo-Too-Yem (Water Asleep) Mirror Lake, Valley of the Yosemite, the reflection occupies about three-fourths of the surface image, assuming a tangibility that recalls the Swedenborgian world of correspondences that so dominated the mid-century. We are dealing here with Thoreau’s forest mirror:

Sky water . . . a mirror which no stone can crack, whose quicksilver will never wear off, whose gilding Nature continually repairs; no storms, no dust, can dim its surface ever fresh;—a mirror in which all impurity presented to it sinks, swept and dusted by the sun’s hazy brush,—this the light dust-cloth,—which retains no breath that is breathed on it, but sends its own to float as clouds high above its surface, and be reflected in its bosom still.4

On these glistening surfaces, the visible world, transcended, could become Emerson’s “dial plate of the invisible.”5 The period, which found a basic moral virtue in the nature experience, could recognize the literal embodiment here of his famous comment: “the laws of moral nature answer to those of matter as face to face in a glass.”6

Emerson had also seen man’s “own beautiful nature” in the tranquil landscape, especially in the distant line of the horizon. The luminist image countered the indulgent sentimentalism of the age with a spare classicism that offered the tranquil landscape as physical evidence of Swedenborg’s contention that God is order, or Thoreau’s that “all nature is classic and akin to art.”’ The calm structures of the luminist photographs (Watkins’s Castle Rock, Columbia River, Oregon, Jackson’s View on the Sweetwater (Wyoming), or O’Sullivan’s Alkaline Lake, Carson Desert, (Nevada) fortify silence. Thoreau had commented that “silence is best adapted to the acoustics of space.”8 Those acoustics were there in abundance in the western landscape.

I’ve stressed painterly parallels here only to show how much the photographers were part of an integral vision, not to detract from their art, or to imply that they worked only through already established schemata. Quite the contrary. If they revitalized a waning landscape tradition, they brought to its deeply felt attitudes toward nature, God and science the tempering of properties intrinsic to their medium.

One of these was a pragmatism that disrupted received pictorial codes. Nowhere is the 19th-century conflict between the conventional and the empirical more sharply joined than here, in the frisson generated by a new medium as it enters a relatively new landscape. We could talk of occasional painterly counterparts: Durand’s remarkable “happened upon” nature studies of the mid-1850s. But their spontaneity seems more exceptional in painting, while it is common in photography. These landscape photographs raise the problem of how it is they can urge on us the context of ideas that gave the old conventions their authority while moving away from those conventions.

It is our conceit to see some of these photographs as “modern,” to respond instinctively to the inspired casualness that fixes natural data with such powerful simplicity. In doing this, we may be retroactively substituting some of the habits of our own era. To some degree it would be proper to see these photographs as pioneering exercises in the establishment of new modes, urgently discovered in the empirical heat of perceiving a strange territory. Sometimes, however, nature itself donates the form of the photograph, the task of which is now to record as exactly as it can—to isolate the subject with each detail apprehended, the scale occasionally measured by a standing figure.

The photographer who most fully confirms this reading is Timothy O’Sullivan; he produced whole series of photographs for which we can find no parallels in the painting of his time. They seem to arise without the intervention of ideas about “art,” from a one-to-one encounter of camera and nature. The artist’s control, though convention-free, is of course present, but often in the most informal way, as if the photographs were taking themselves. A theme declares itself here. O’Sullivan turned geological striations into abstractions which convey a time component not so much derived from conceptual association as it is implicit: Rock Carved by Drifting Sand, Below Fortification Rock, Arizona, or Ancient Ruins in the Canyon de Chelle, New Mexico. The six exposures of Green River, Colorado isolate time with a precision that, in 1872, precedes Monet. The changes of light modulate and alter the landscape, surveying its basic forms and harvesting a rich variety of moods from a single subject. O’Sullivan’s curiosity here is unusual both in its degree and quality. Some images speak for more than their subject, and he must have been conscious of this. What was he looking for? Perhaps Vermillion Creek Canyon, Utah gives us as much of an answer as we are likely to get. The subject is almost unrecognizable, as the sky becomes a positive space biting into the silhouettes below. Presented here is not a locale so much as an idea, perhaps an abstract one, forced into a new meaning by the intersection of structure and expression.

The photographs in this exhibition, even more than the rhetorical paintings of Moran and Bierstadt, embody the exploratory energies that vitalized the Western expeditions. They were the issue of pragmatism and an idealism so intrinsic to the culture that it was an unconscious part of the equipment of the photographers who perceived these wonders. Landscape photography rarely had this rich matrix of technical, spiritual and perceptual resources informing its exertions. Artists and photographers accompanied these expeditions to assist science, to record, to register images of a nature that was virgin to most American eyes. By documenting the unknown, they were making it readable, intelligible—above all, usable. But there was, I feel, another impulse, closer to their deepest feelings, and very much a part of their cultural context: a tropism toward the silence and solitude that characterized the first moment of encounter with primal nature, an encounter that carried the promise of spiritual renewal. The world’s “serene order . . . inviolable by us” was, as Emerson put it, “the present expositor of the divine mind.”9 Emerson’s wise silence, like Eckhart’s central silence, was the vehicle through which God might enter. Clarence King, who conducted the geological survey that included O’Sullivan as photographer, found on Mount Tyndall:

a silence which gratefully contrasting with the surrounding tumult of form conveyed to me a new sentiment . . . there is around these summits the soundlessness of a vacuum. The sea stillness is that of sleep . . . the desert of death, this silence is like the waveless calm of space.10

King’s commitment, as a geologist, to catastrophism was really a conservative one in that Darwinian age.“ Uniformitarianism had been the enlightened geological attitude at least since the advent of Lyell. And Lyell, in 1830, with his Principles of Geology, had altered the concept of the earth’s age as violently as the atom altered our concept of its structure. Lyell managed to change the idea of the earth’s age from the Biblical 6,000 years to millions, thereby fortifying with scientific ”truth" all the romantic yearnings for the primordial that had been developing among artists and writers since the late 18th century. But though Biblical truths were challenged in this pre-Darwinian period, the idea of God as nature and God in nature remained firm. The painters, all during the time that an American landscape art was developing, were acutely aware of geological time, which they eagerly converted back into spiritual and religious currency.

It really comes as no surprise then, that the main intellectual commitment, on the part of Emerson, Thoreau, the artists and the photographers, seems to have been to Darwin’s arch-rival and antagonist, Louis Agassiz. For Agassiz had restated the importance of Mind, always crucial to the mid-19th century, and his idea of the world created by a thought in the mind of God was much more compatible with the prevailing belief that science, like art, would be a route to God.

Even Darwin, I am quite sure, didn’t mean to strike the hammer blow to religion that followed the publication of The Origin of the Species in 1859. The two decades after Origin, exactly those in which the photographers undertook to document God’s still undefiled nature, desperately sought to reconcile science and religion. Church had on his bookshelves at Olana books such as John Fiske’s The Idea of God as Affected by Modern Knowledge, written as late as 1892, in which the author claimed: “Although it was the Darwinian theory of natural selection which overthrew the argument for design, . . . when thoroughly understood it will be found to replace as much teleology as it destroys . . .”12

This reference to design, still alive in the minds of many so long after William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) had popularized the concept that “there is no design without a designer,” is an indication of the powerful tenacity with which such ideas survived in 19th-century America. The photographs, presumably scientific in intent, registered geological effects. But those effects were somehow transmuted by the photographers into larger ideas which, through awe, silence, solitude and infinite time, summoned the universal Mind that obsessed the age.

We tend to identify many of these ideas more readily with New England Transcendentalism. Yet it is important to recognize them in the West, where the possibility of that primal encounter motivated artists, photographers and scientists alike. Underneath it all, they seem to have been searching, like de Toqueville, for

those rare moments in life when physical well-being prepares the way for calm of soul, and the universe seems before your eyes to have reached a perfect equilibrium; then the soul, half asleep, hovers between the present and the future, between the real and the possible, while with natural beauty all around and the air tranquil and mild, at peace with himself in the midst of universal peace, man listens to the even beating of his arteries that seems to him to mark the passage of time flowing drop by drop through eternity.13

Barbara Novak is chairman of the Department of Art History at Barnard College and author of American Painting of the Nineteenth Century.

“Era of Exploration” was organized jointly by the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is currently on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., through November 10; thereafter at the Oakland Museum (January 5–February 15, 1976). The exhibition is accompanied by an extensively illustrated catalogue with text by Weston J. Naef, James N. Wood and Therese Thau Heyman (New York Graphic Society).



1. I’ve appropriated the idea of sublime statistics from Whitman, who used it specifically in reference to the Western prairies in Specimen Days, when he suggested “Even their simplest statistics are sublime.” (The Portable Walt Whitman, New York, 1974, p. 575.) I use it here to refer to the vastness of Western space in general.

2. Alexander Von Humboldt, Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe, New York, 1850, Vol. I, p. 25.

3. I have contrasted the idea of a quietistic or new sublime, which manifested itself in the mid-19th century, with the more awesome sublime which derived from the 18th century in “American Landscape; Changing Concepts of the Sublime,” The American Art Journal, Spring 1972, pp. 36–42. Whitman’s sublime, quoted above, may be read as a reference to the new sublime.

4. Henry David Thoreau, Walden, New York, 1953, p. 129.

5. Alfred Kazin and Daniel Aaron, eds., Emerson: A Modern Anthology, Boston, 1958, p. 110.

6. Ibid.

7. Carl Bode, ed., The Selected Journals of Henry David Thoreau, New York, 1967, p 81.

8. Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen, eds., The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, New York, 1962, Vol. I, p. 62.

9. Kazin and Aaron, p. 130.

10. Clarence King, Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, Boston, 1872, p. 80.

11. The catalogue essay, p. 57, notes that King “would now be considered very conservative scientifically, compared to a Darwinian like Harvard’s Asa Gray, but in his time King’s words and deeds had the ring of progress.” I would tend to disagree with this. Although the conservatives were anti-Darwinian, most of them seem to have at least accepted Uniformitarianism over Catastrophism, so that even to them, King must have sounded a bit behind the times. Though the problem is complicated by our present understanding of what is, and is not, progress, William H. Goetzmann, in Exploration & Empire, (New York, 1966) would seem to have a truer grasp of the way King’s colleagues received his catastrophism speech to the class of 1877 of the Sheffield Scientific School: “It appeared that in the heightened emotion of a lune afternoon’s commencement, King, a humanist at heart, had overreached himself,” and “King’s brave sally was for the most part greeted by his scientific friends with embarrassment, though Henry Adams came to base much of his philosophy of history upon it.” (p. 465).

12. John Fiske, The Idea of God as Affected by Modern Knowledge, New York, 1892, p. 158.

13. Alexis de Tocqueville, Journey to America, Garden City, 1971, p. 398.