From the birth of photography, landscapes often found themselves the subject of the experimental process. Early photography was arguably more time consuming than that of its painting counterpart. A photograph required a more complex process for success causing a greater exposure to chemicals more dangerous than egg yolks and pigment for tempera paint. A landscape was the subject of the very first photograph ever created by its inventor, Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 whose process required eight hours to develop an image. Much like the reasons behind landscape paintings, landscapes tend to stay stationary and do not require a break during sessions like other models, withstanding the long developmental process. In the latest major exhibition at the RISD Museum, America in View: Landscape Photography 1865 to Now, we stand witness of a visual history of our own country told through images of both physical and manmade infrastructure as well as the evolution as the photography process.
The exhibition starts during a time when photography was being used to document both the majestic wilderness west of the Mississippi River and the horrors of the Civil War. Early photographs in this exhibition also capture the era of Reconstruction following the war. It is impossible to pass over the early history of the photograph without acknowledging Mathew Brady, the credited "father" of photojournalism. After the war, many of his glass plate negatives were lost or destroyed, so it is a great wonder to see one of his less gruesome images, Flirtation Walk taken in 1865.
Brady is not the only rock star name in this exhibition when we see work by other photography pioneers like Walker Evans, Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, and Sally Mann. Even though we can all be hypnotized by the majesty seen in one of their photographs, the exhibition’s lead curator, Jan Howard shows us the work of artists who brought their own perspective to the concept of landscape. This includes younger living artists like Millee Tibbs, William Lamson, Annie Langan, Josephine Sittenfeld, and Lucas Foglia, who is also the youngest artist in the show. Showing their work alongside the work of their forbearers is not only a wonderful opportunity for these artists, but a true reflection of the museum and their constant underlying mission to be a teaching museum. Imagine the amount of inspiration that current RISD underclassman can acquire when they wander around the exhibition and see that some of the artists in the show are not much older than themselves and already exhibiting in a noted museum .
There is one name in the exhibition that truly trumps all others, and not because it is a name attached to a photograph that had the highest auction price or because they were forced into bankruptcy. Joe Deal was a celebrated artist who devoted his life to the subject of American landscapes, but also to his students. He came to work at RISD in 1999 as the school’s provost until 2005 and taught up until the year before he passed away from cancer. American Landscape is an exhibition that celebrates Deal’s contributions to not just the art community but also to RISD as Deal, his widow, and the many friends he left behind made significant donations to the Museum in his name. Deal’s works present our landscape with a gritty realness of our surroundings that we recognize today, reminding us of the shift where we are making the impact on our land, instead of the land making an impact on us. The night of the opening reception this past fall there was a buzzing energy in the room. It is a nice thought to know that Joe would have been extremely pleased with the show.
America in View: Landscape Photography 1865 to Now is on view through January 13, 2013 at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art.
All images are courtesy of the artists and the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art.