From Yosemite to the Group of Seven, with Some Flatness in Between
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of mind, and that state of mind can be described only by presenting that natural appearance as its picture.
If the majestic landscape photographs taken by Carleton Watkins, Ansel Adams, William Henry Jackson, Edward Weston, and Timothy O’Sullivan in Yosemite were to correspond to a state of mind, it would be of hardcore mountain-man machismo. The conquering and capturing of the perfect vistas required a tremendous amount of grunt work. The mammoth camera was a monstrous thing. Glass is heavy. These were tough guys.
The mystique of the Yosemite work is pervasive in the history of American photography. It exudes the sublime and pure landscape. This elusive ideal interests me. I’d better go to the park.
The way to Yosemite makes for an odd duck drive. It feels like the drive from Winnipeg to Saskatoon. So flat I can’t imagine how this spectacular landscape will suddenly appear. The ultimate American scapes couldn’t be further removed from this flat, flat land I find myself driving through. The flatness, however, allows everything to be visible. It’s reassuring to see the whole sky, without a bump.
It’s overcast, the colours are popping, and I’m passing dozens of Stephen Shores and Robert Adamses, and a few Joel Sternfelds. The lone palm in a bare brown field, ragged grass-tangled mess heaps, a cheese factory outlet. I pass many a mound: the wood-chip mound of Christmas trees past, the piled-up-dead-orchard-tree sprawling mound, the bits-of-asphalt, used-to-be-a-road mound. I pass yards of Burtynsky-palette towers. Orchard roads, water towers, a fake western town, odd moonscape-ish rocks (I almost stop for that one, but it’s a tricky spot, so I drive on). This photo trip is turning into piles of clichés that I refuse to shoot.
It continues as a truck full of lemons passes. And is that a truck full of bricks or beets? No, it’s fuchsia mulch. Fuchsia mulch and lemons would look amazing together....There goes a fabulously burnt-out orchard of some kind; tangled, gnarly black branches and crispy grass stubble. A sign for Madam Sophia’s palm reading. Whoever photographed the cheese factory sign would surely have stopped there.
What possible new images can be made here? I haven’t even gotten to the park yet....
I arrive at the park, and it’s almost dark. But still light enough to spot one of the views, of the brothers and half dome. It’s odd to know something only through its photography. Most recently seen in the Watkins show; Dialoguing Among Giants, now on at the Getty in LA and then again in the re-photographing wanna-be-a-Watkins-project of Mark Klett. Sadly, Rebecca Solnit was involved is this project. I was surprised that despite all her work on the female perspective in landscape, she would be involved in such a masturbatory mountain-man photo quest.
In her book _As Eve Said to the Serpent _(2003), Solnit wrote that “the word landscape itself is problematic now. Landscape describes the natural world as an aesthetic phenomenon, a department of visual representation: landscape is scenery, scenery is stage decoration, and stage decorations are static backdrops for a drama that is human.” So, I suppose she would love to know that Jackson was only three feet away from where Watkins had photographed, who was fifteen feet away from Adams where Adam photographed, who, in turn, was only a few feet away from where Sullivan had photographed. Solnit and Klett lectured on the project in conjunction with the Waktins show at the Getty. It was mostly a PowerPoint bonanza, zooming and fading in and out of all the photographers’ different point of views, piecing them all together into panoramas, the longer the better.
My entire visit to the park is haunted by the desire to know who had been standing where, photographing what. Paralyzed by the ghosts of these earlier points of view, my monster Linhoff 4 ˟ 5 will likely not make it out of my car unless I decide to make that landscape calendar my Dad’s always harassing me about.
The mystique surrounding Yosemite and its photographers is akin to that associated with Canada’s Group of Seven and the Canadian wilderness captured in their hard-core macho plein-air paintings. If Yosemite had been Canadian, those seven would have painted it. Although Algonquin Park, where they predominantly painted, is a more modestly majestic place. Nature and the elusive Canadian identity are oddly intertwined.
Canada is largely an empty and expansive country. The landscape really is a primary fact of life. Even within urban environments, the vast expanse is not far away.
Embracing the wilderness, the Group of Seven broke away from the pastoral British landscape. In colourful and fluid paintings of trees, lakes, snow and such, people were never depicted. In her book Weird Sex, Snowshoes, and other Canadian Film Phenomena (2001), Katherine Monk describes the creation of an entirely new tradition that reflected the Canadian lifestyle, one that had little in common with the “castrated wilderness canvases from Europe.” She writes that “from the dark clouds over heaving deep blue waves, to stark white snow and black rocks, to the startling contrasts and crisp shadows, to the burning leaves of red and ochre unfolding into abstracted grey clouds, the paintings were as rugged and wild as Canada itself.”
They laid the foundation for a Canadian artistic identity that quickly became synonymous with wilderness and northernness, an identity Canadian artists have been wrestling with ever since. Michael Snow, Peter Doig, and General Idea, to name a few, have directly addressed the Canadian identity via the representation of landscape as seen through the Group of Seven’s paintings.
Death by Landscape is a short story written by Margaret Atwood that centres on a wall of Group of Seven paintings and the retelling of the tragic canoe death of a young girl. She writes that despite the fact that there are no people in the paintings or even animals, it’s as if there is something, or someone, looking back out.
Tom Thomson’s mysterious death by landscape via canoe on 8 July 1917, made him the most famous of the Group of Seven painters. He was last seen canoeing on Canoe Lake. His overturned canoe was found the next day and his body at the bottom of the lake days later. There was much speculation surrounding his death. Foul play was suspected; a love triangle was involved. No one was ever charged. But the Tom Thomson murder mystery game is available at AlgonquinParkHeritage.com for $43.50 CDN through PayPal. “Who killed him? Why? How? Solve one of Canada’s most enduring mysteries.”
Yosemite’s biggest murder case was the Yosemite killer. Apparently it wasn’t much of a mystery, and the handyman who killed four tourists and a guide was sentenced to death in 1999. Hikers and climbers often fall to their deaths off sheer granite cliffs in the park. Someone once was killed by a deer, and ten have been murdered by falling trees. No murder mystery games for death by landscape, although there is the unrelated Sierra Railroad Murder Mystery Dinner Train.
It’s night in the park and there is a serious downpour. The rain and the fog the following day are the only things I shoot. I manage to not be killed by a tree, deer, or handyman. Although while taking my money, a frazzled-looking blonde park cashier stops and stares blankly into nothing for much too long. I imagine this one could snap.
There is a small graveyard in Yosemite, hidden between trees. It’s foggy, and the lichen and moss on the stones are so many shades of vivid green. The Yosemite killer victims are not buried here.
Photography as death is the most overused and obnoxious excuse.
Jeff Wall’s deathscape The Flooded Grave (1998–2000) is, of course, an exception. In Wall’s essay About Making Landscapes (1995) he writes that the image of a cemetery is “theoretically, at least, the perfect type of landscape. The inevitably approaching, yet unapproachable, phenomenon of death.” Wall is very interested in the distance created in a typical landscape. Not where so-and-so stood in relation to so-and-so, but from a sociological point of view. “In making a landscape,” he writes, “we must draw a certain distance—far enough to detach ourselves from the immediate presence of other people, but not so far as to lose the ability to distinguish them as agents in a social space.” I used to draw that distance. Lately its gone.
There is an amazing park placard at Mirror Lake that reads “Selling the Sublime.” I take that. A few feet away a group of giggling girls are walking across rocks in the lake, about to pose for a picture. All of sudden one starts belting out, “you are the wind beneath my wings.” It’s horribly flat with a strained vibrato, but the onlookers all start hooting and clapping. From this vantage point, Adams is about fifteen feet to the left and Watkins twelve feet downstream to the right, Jackson is somewhere behind that tree, and there’s Sullivan right next to me. Thomson’s at the bottom of the lake painting the underwater view.
About the Author
Maegan Hill-Carroll received her BFA from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, where she grew up. Her practice focusses on the search for “pure” wilderness within our culture and the aberrations that one finds instead. She is also interested in pushing the boundaries of photographic practice. Hill-Carroll is currently a second-year MFA candidate at University of California, Los Angeles.