Entering the final decade of the millennium, the terror of nuclear war has been joined by a new set of terrors—global warming, acid rain, dead oceans, mutations and cancers caused by radiation and toxic waste. A series of environmental disasters, from Bhopal to Chernobyl, Three Mile Island to the Exxon Valdez, have brought forth an unprecedented array of political forces, from the Green party in Western Europe to Greenpeace and Earth First! activists in the United States.
The fate of the American landscape, its ponds and hollows, its creeks and forests, its prairies, wet glades, and canyons, cannot be addressed solely in terms of "wilderness" or be solved by "wilderness preservation." What we face now in North America—and, of course, elsewhere—is a crisis in land use, in how we regard land.
From the first, photography of the American landscape has been tied up with the politics of the land. The photographs of T. H. O'Sullivan, William Bell, and others who accompanied the geological surveys of the West after the Civil War not only provided pictorial evidence of the regions the survey teams traveled through, but also were used to secure funding for further exploration.
I have frequently noticed that the electric-power companies have chosen the most picturesque locations in America in which to situate their enormous plants. This is likely due to a need for rivers and waterfalls to propel their turbines, or for lakes and oceans to cool their reactors.
Reclaiming History: Richard Misrach and the Politics of Landscape Photography
Interstate 95 from the main gate of the Nevada Test Site, where all the nation's nuclear weapons are tested, to the town of Beatty runs through nearly seventy miles of long vistas and sparse settlement. The day after the big 1990 demonstration against nuclear testing Las Vegas activist Chris Brown drove me along that route, telling me stories that the landscape prompted: about the geologic past evident in the volcanoes and the tilted strata of mountains and mesas, about the brief down-pours of January and long 110-degree days of summer, and about the human strata of mining, ranching, and military operations that have been overlaid on this landscape in the past century.
A Growing Awareness: Environmental Groups and the Media
A half century ago, Mao Zedong taught his followers that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. In the world of the 1990s, however, political and societal change flow through the lens of a camera. Environmentalists learned this lesson long ago.
National parks embody a central paradox in cultural attitudes toward the land: in theory intended to remain forever wild, unsullied by human presence, they are also a government service, and every citizen is assumed to have the implicit right to have access to them and to their restorative powers, whether physical or spiritual.
The notion of the saint in Roman Catholicism calls upon the faithful to stand or kneel before a statue, light a candle, meditate, think, and perhaps whisper some words before departure. Some of these faithful go in peace thinking, "Well, that's covered," and carry on more or less as before.
Squinting across the seared, supine surface of California's Great Central Valley in 1863, William Henry Brewer and other members of the state's geological survey party found themselves traveling "a plain of absolute desolation." Hands cupped over their eyes, they could perceive no mountains, no trees, no relief, only heat so thick it swerved light.
Landscape and scenery are not the same. A landscape is not a plantlike, organic entity that grows and develops and dies according to immutable natural laws, as some environmentalists would have it: it is a man-made composition of structures and spaces designed to serve the needs of its inhabitants, and when those needs—economic, social, ideological—change, then the landscape changes, not always to everyone's satisfaction.
In our era of environmental awareness, Ansel Adams has become the most recognized American landscape photographer. His enormous influence on the photographic world continues even after his death, and there now appears to be a long list of potential successors to his position of influence and fame.
Billing itself as "the most important photographic commission in history," the Mission Photographique draws its historic precedents from the Second Empire's Mission Héliographique of 1851, and, more directly, from the Farm Security Administration (FSA) documentation of New Deal America.
No matter how powerful or subtle a photo may be, there is always something absent, missing. If it is a powerful document, the referent is always hovering under or above it; if a subtle statement of beauty, you seem to slide off its surface, unable to hold on to the porous nature of the aesthetic experience.
JOEL CONNELLY is the National Correspondent for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. EDMUNDO DESNOES is a Cubanborn novelist and the author of Memories of Underdevelopment (NAL). GERALD HASLAM's most recent books are California Stories (University of Nevada Press) and Coming of Age in California (Devil Mountain Books), both of which will be published this spring.
"Beyond Wilderness" owes a great deal to the ideas and suggestions of many people. Barry Lopez, in particular, provided invaluable advice, both practical and philosophical; his concern and insight helped clarify the questions underlying this issue, giving them a focus at once general and specific—and thus doubly useful.
Front cover: photograph by John Pfahl; p. 3 photograph by William Clift; pp. 4-5 photographs by Barbara Bosworth; pp. 6-7 photographs by A. J. Meek; pp. 8—9 photographs by William Clift; pp. 10—11 photographs by Robert Dawson; pp. 11-13 photographs by Alan Tibbetts;