New York

Roger Fenton, Francis Frith, Clarence Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, William Bell, Timothy O'Sullivan, William Henry Jackson, Frederick Sommer, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Paul Caponigro, William Dane, Henry Wessel, Jr., and Gary L. Hallman

Emily Lowe Gallery, Hofstra University

Landscape and Discovery, at the Emily Lowe Gallery, Hofstra University, presented a clear, informative view of landscape photography, at least for those somewhat unfamiliar with its extensive history and development, of which I am one. The 100-odd photographs by 14 19th- and 20th-century photographers trace the development of photography from a purely documentary use to one which is increasingly personal, though not necessarily more esthetic. What remains clear is that, despite technical developments, also clearly delineated in this exhibition, and despite an increasingly personal use of the medium, the craft and esthetic of each individual photographer is always more or less apparent.

The exhibition, installed chronologically, began with work from the 1850s by Roger Fenton, a British photographer sent to document the Crimean War, and Francis Frith whose photographs of the pyramids of Egypt were very popular in England. In America, during the last half of the 19th century, photography also introduced the American public to the wonders of the Western territories, or else recorded and documented them for scientific reasons. The work of Clarence Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge reveals the mountains and trees of Yosemite with detail and scale which make the painting of Bierstadt look exiguous by comparison. William Bell, Timothy O’Sullivan, and William Henry Jackson were official photographers for various government surveys during the late 1860s and ’70s, so that their work served a more scientific function than that of Muybridge and Watkins, who worked independently. It concentrates more on specific geological formations, often with a human being or even a ruler included to make the scale clear. Even so, their work is impressive, although it does not achieve the epic grandeur of Watkins or Muybridge. In all the work from the 19th century, one senses the responsibility each photographer felt to record unfamiliar geography and geology with a newly invented tool in order to make them accessible either to scientists or the general public.

This sense of responsibility is not so visible in the 20th-century photography included in this exhibition. Frederick Sommer, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston express more personal visions and senses of discovery. Sommer’s photographs of the American Southwest have no horizon line and, consequently, reveal only the continuous texture of desert brush and rocks, with no clue, until closely examined, to the scale or space of the scene. They are strange studies of surface. Adams, on the other hand, is completely involved with the extreme effects of light upon the landscape; every inch of his often crowded scenes are in either bright light or dark shadows, usually the former. His work is dazzling and melodramatic, but it is interesting that it would not have been technically possible in the previous century. The 19th-century—photographs, despite their detailed images, have only blank skies, never any clouds, while Adams’ skies are crowded with them and attendant sunbeams and rays of light. Weston’s treatment of landscape is relatively austere and subdued: the rows of a bean field, a lettuce ranch. Like Sommer’s, his work is modest but unerringly concerned with formal, almost abstract, qualities of its subject.

Paul Caponigro’s photographs of Stonehenge and various stone circles in Ireland seem more straightforward and documentary than those of his 20th-century predecessors. He seems more interested in recording both a place and the sense of that place, less interested in either the technical possibilities of his camera or the abstract possibilities of his subject. In this he seems closer to Watkins or Jackson.

The youngest photographers, William Dane, Henry Wessel, Jr., and Gary L. Hallman are the least interesting in the exhibition. Wessel’s photographs of highways are often amusing, as in one of a large boulder flanked by two no parking signs. Dane makes postcards out of his rather random shots of the landscape which he sends to friends. Hallman works on selectively toned paper to achieve soft, out-of-focus prints (close-ups of a rose garden, a curb). The process of development is recorded as much as the landscape in this final manipulation of the medium and parallels with less interest what various artists are currently doing with film and video. It also, ironically, completes the circle by suggesting the earliest, most primitive beginnings of photography.

Roberta Pancoast Smith