Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Alan Ward's Designed Landscapes

[Note: This morning (May 17th), my previous post on Alan Ward was restored by Blogger, after having been "removed" inadvertently a couple of days ago, and then reinstated in its incomplete draft state. I'm leaving both posts up, just in case either one is "lost" again. -CF]

Alan Ward's book, Designed Landscapes, was published in 1998 by the Spacemaker Press [Washington D.C., and Cambridge, Massachusetts] which specializes in books on landscape architecture. Ward himself is both an architect and a landscape architect by training, but he had been photographing gardens and landscape for 20 years when this book was published. The book might be treated either as a documentation of landscape design, or as a pure landscape photography monograph.

In my case, I have a degree in landscape architecture, and am also a committed landscape photographer as well, so my interest in this work is at least twofold. Landscape design and landscape photography come together as different expressions of the same matter, but it's important not to confuse the two disciplines. Designing a landscape for use, is not at all the same thing as making an image of a finished landscape (or a wild landscape). The way a landscape "works" in reality, as a space one moves through or rests within, has really not much to do with the way it is "seen" photographically. Part of the confusion about why, for instance, the International Style, in architecture, was so persuasive and astonishing to its first audiences, seems to have had more to do with the canonical images which were made of its earliest iconic examples (i.e., Mies's Barcelona Pavilion, or Le Corbusier's Savoy Villa), than the actual experience of seeing and and being inside these structures in person.

Photographs are not reality. They present a certain view of space, from a certain vantage, in the moment of their taking, the light and atmospheric conditions varying according to the case, and they may seem more or less "true" to the actual space they depict, than the experience of literally being inside those spaces. Photographic space is a kind of "virtual" space, in which objects and perspective and tonal range are organized by the lens, and by the composer (photographer) to achieve a two dimensional construction which behaves according to the laws of representation. Being in a space is a much more complex phenomena, including, as it does, the other senses (than the visual) and the sensation of movement through it, its smells, sounds, felt textures, subtle shades of color, and so on.

All of which, by way of preface, suggests that I regard landscape photography as a poor stepsister of practical landscape architecture; as, indeed, the process of landscape design is a much more involved and laborious exercise in imagining and realizing arrangements and rearrangements of space and matter. But considered alone, landscape photography is its own art, which--though it depends upon the pre-existence of a landscape or a "garden" or cemetery or park--deserves to be treated as an art on its own, almost without reference or dependence upon its subject.

Ward's photographs in Designed Landscapes are arranged according to a series of eighteen specific sites, i.e., University of Virginia, Dumbarton Oaks, Blue Ridge Parkway, etc., with a set of plates devoted to each space. The work is exclusively black and white, and thus tends to emphasize the visual relationships and gradations of tone, rather than the interplay of colors, which would tend to detract from a purely abstract appreciation of the imagery. Again, it's important to understand that photographs, as I say, are not actual spaces, but only versions derived from them, and as such, black and white photographs are better able to define the qualities of visual definition which often may seem to trump the meaning inherent in objects and spaces in context. Colors (chromatography) have their own language and associations which relate to qualities outside the frame of any given image. And aside from this, the experience of black and white (monochromatic) imagery carries its own special interest.

I have reproduced five images from Ward's book--the first one of which is of Mount Auburn Cemetery, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I've never been to this place, but it appears to be a fairly woodsy space, compared to most cemeteries which I've seen. Sylvan settings are typical of traditional cemeteries, though usually more of the space is given over to the grave stones and monuments than to trees, shrubs and turf, than seems to be the case here. What I particularly like about this composition, is the magical light which seems to highlight the little classical pedimented rotunda to the right center of the scene. It lends a vaguely elegaic mood. When I visit cemeteries (or "graveyards" as we call them), I seldom am moved to consider the lives of those buried there. Instead, I tend to think poetic thoughts about nature, which may be the point. We would rather think of pleasant pastoral things in places dedicated to the dead, though decay itself--which one often sees in really old cemeteries--may become the overriding impression.

One of the considerations of photography like this, is its evident static quality, as if all activity and "accidental" occurrence had been removed from it. I often hear people criticize landscape photographs, because they're "sterile" or "emptied of life." Landscape photography is, however, primarily a contemplative art, which emphasizes control and precision above accident and chance. A dog achieving a frisbee at the height of a graceful jump may be a miraculous image, but it has nothing to do with the careful arrangement of objects in space--it's the expedient capture of an evanescent occurrence, all action and response and energy.

This quality--of purified perspectives and arithmetical precision of line and scope--characteristic of the best architectural photographers, such as Cervin Robinson or Ezra Stoller or Yukio Futagawa--asks that we perceive such imagery as the timeless vision of man's control over nature and materials. Art may be both an imposition and an augmentation of the order inherent in wild nature, and the resulting integration of natural forms and man-made (conceived) forms may be the perfect marriage.

Biltmore - South Terrace and Wisteria Arbor at Sunset
Ashville, North Carolina

This sense of integration between inside (man made) and outside (nature) is nowhere more apparent than in this view into the garden space at Dumbarton Oaks, where the external world seems to beckon through opened doors, a symbolic seduction which carries the metaphorical implication of departure, or exile, or even mortality. Inside and outside are poised at the threshold of decision, just at the point of release. The sense of classical balance, of stasis, calm, and certainty are overwhelming, almost as if one could stop time.

Dumbarton Oaks - View from inside the Orangery

In rural settings, the arrangement of space into a meaningful balance has different implications. Blue Ridge Parkway, in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia [below], bears the hand of man as deliberately as Dumbarton Oaks, but less oppressively. Land which may once have been given over mostly to agricultural use, fades gracefully into the picturesque, as a caricature of pastoral values. We visit our past, as surely as we visit our future (as with cemeteries), knowing full well that the meanings we deduce from it are as tremulous and fugitive as our dreams.

I often think that the sensation of light falling, from above, onto a space signifies a sort of benediction--though not in any strict religious sense--but perhaps in the same sense we have of rainbows, or the Northern Lights, a mystical happenstance of light and atmosphere. Such moments are several times less common in photographs than they are in real life, since they happen so infrequently, that the likelihood of their being caught on film may elevate them to the status of small miracles. An annunciation--of the arrival of the sun's light, or of its inclination just at a specific angle and instant--may be like the sound of a trumpet fanfare. Or, as below, quietly breathtaking.

Miller Garden, Columbus, Indiana

1 comment:

Kirby Olson said...

Landscapes have a designer but they also have large committees, groundskeepers, gardeners, and so on.

Saw a neat Japanese documentary on PBS this evening about how they love to collect insects! Not just crickets, but all kinds of insects. They're out with nets bagging them and selling them for hundreds of bucks a pop. Weirdest thing ever.

Kids just love insects in Japan!

Lafcadio Hearn was all bug-eyed about it!

What kind of a population goes bug-eyed over bugs! I came away wanting to own some bugs, too.

They are incredible. I was always frightened of them before this documentary. I nearly threw up when some kind of white moth fought its way out of a cocoon. What a gooey soggy mess!