Landscape Photography and the Contemporary Sublime

Landscape Photography and the Contemporary Sublime

Jan 2013, Liverpool John Moores University


Landscape Photography and the Contemporary Sublime

 Constantin Marian Brosteanu





Designed and influenced by the traditional principles of painting, landscape photography depicted the identical scenery that modernist artists were attempting to free from method. Portrayed in black and white the photographic landscape presented a surprising formalism in the representation of the natural space which changed into a composition of light and shadow. This configuration of structure and emptiness blanked out the place which characterised the fundamental aesthetic interest of painted scenery. Landscape photography revealed the precise uniformity that was the strange contradiction which painters desired to produce: landscape for social awareness and its unaware attraction.

The strength of contemporary photography originates not only in its unmediated processes of reflection but from its exclusive visual and political action. Photography is able to use or reject traditional aesthetic classes and purposes combined with the technicalities of the photographic camera.

The connection between the observers and the landscape, once dominant to theoretical aesthetics, just resurfaced in recent times in the art sphere as a matter of importance. Yet the landscape has been the essential preoccupation of the environmental studies since the late twentieth century. Undergoing several major stylistic changes since its inception, the contemporary landscape photography resembles little, if anything, of its traditional approaches and painterly influences.

In 2011 Andreas Gursky’s photograph Rhine II was auctioned for £2.7 million at Christie’s in New York and broke the world prize record in a photography sale. Wide appreciation of the transaction has been opposed by equal disapprobation and criticism, mainly originated in the audience’s lack of critical understanding regarding the New Objectivity aesthetic philosophy.

One aspect worth exploration is the identification of the philosophical aesthetics and theoretical sources which reshaped the photographic illustration of the contemporary landscape photography. Other perspectives of the investigation covers the cultural processes associated to the changes in landscape depiction. Another particularly important aspect to be carried through research and visual investigation is the painterly and photographic approach of the sublime, a concept strongly related to the traditions of the scenery illustrations in art.

This investigation will take the form of a two-part study. Part one is a contextualisation and historicization of the early landscape photography in relation to its painterly and picturesque tradition. The first part of the investigation will try to identify, and locate in photography, the early theoretical definitions of the sublime as formulated by Immanuel Kant and Sigmund Freud and the concept of cultural landscape as presented by W. J. T. Mitchell in his book Landscape and Power. Practitioners to be included in connection to these theories are Timothy O’Sullivan, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, who’s backward and forward approaches from the picturesque to modernist aesthetics indicates the first major visual transformation of the landscape photography.

Part two of the study is focused on the photography of Andreas Gursky, Edward Burtynsky and Robert ParkeHarrison – three of the most important contemporary landscape photographers bringing three different approaches in the illustration of the contemporary sublime. Their work will be considered from the perspective of the theoretical frameworks of Susan Buck-Morss, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Jean-Francois Lyotard and other theoreticians preoccupied with the study of postmodernist aesthetics.

By placing these landscape photographers in the framework of the contemporary philosophy of environment aesthetics, this second part of the study investigates the ways in which the reshaped concept of the modern sublime influenced and modified the contemporary landscape photography.


Chapter 1


Taking its roots from its use as a reference generating tool, allowing painters to record photographic sketches outdoors and for their later use in the studio, photography slowly evolved as an artistic medium in its own right. The slow process originated in the technological limitations of the time as it was impossible to record the optimal light intensity for land or water and sky in one single shot and the relative small size of the print was also of a concern. (Wells, 2011)

At the end of the nineteenth century photographers were preoccupied with allegory and myth rather than scientific observation or documentary. The interest was as a result of the industrialisation process and urban expansion and so the photography of the time turned into a response to the distancing from the rural and associated nostalgia. The accent was on the appreciation of scenery, understanding of perspective and the conception of architecture in the natural world. The picturesque influenced notions of landscape and its depiction celebrates the exceptional or passionate by bringing it into focus. Photography exposes something about our surroundings through abstracting specific phenomena for contemplation.

Aesthetics criticism shows that landscape depictions are not only neutral representations of natural views but also expressions of social and economic determined values. The notion of landscape first developed as a cultural determined visual in relation to the urban development. (Williams, 1973)

Researching the history and persistence of the notions of country and city in relation to the social progress of the dominant methods of production, Raymond Williams reveals how these two concepts persist in different forms throughout history as a result of more permanent human needs.

The political boundary between urban and the country situates the former as industrial and cultural evolution, while assigning the second to an idealised and sentimentalised pastoral past. Williams shows how in the late eighteenth-century city naturalists left the chaotic industrialised urban areas searching for invigorating experiences with unchanged, spectacular landscapes – “the lonely observer who passes, and what he sees is a still life: an image against stress and change” (Williams, 1973, p.130) – tourists and artists who deliberately depicted scenery interpretations in accordance to the aesthetics of the picturesque landscape.

In the early days of tourism the countryside scenery was fetishized as landscape, objectified for the subjects’ visual consumption. In order to perceive the landscape suitably, as paintings, the picturesque wanderers often carried with them a Claude glass which is a tinted curved mirror with double purpose. First to place a frame around the landscape and second, it coloured the sight to look like the golden brown of a painting. (Porteous, 1996)

The pictorial conventions were however entirely transmitted and the new medium rigorously followed the traditional landscape compositional elements in the belief that the picturesque and landscape are conventional “beauty spots” and so should be the painted or photographed landscape. This subjective cultural construct of beauty dominated the landscape photography until the end of the twentieth century when the photographer finally gained his artist status. It was the first major step and again a result of further technological development and it was also the pivoting point where the landscape photographer proved its capabilities as an artist and a topographical image maker at the same time. A relevant example is Rosalind Krauss comparison between the two versions of Timothy O’Sullivan’s pictures of “Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake”. The first image (fig.1a), his personal print, made its way into the art museum while the second version (fig.1b), commissioned as a lithograph for Clarence King’s “Systematic Geology”, was pure informative and had the topographical elements restored losing however the picturesque quality of the museum version. (Wells, 2011)


fig.1a&1b Timothy O’Sullivan. Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake, 1868/1875

The medium gave in this example the possibility to respond in different manners, using one image, accordingly to the different cultural expectations. It also marks the point where the traditional subjective rigour of landscape’s pictorial beauty was readjusted in terms with the scientific objective requests so we can therefore assume the landscape photograph was initially a social construct informed by cultural currencies and subjective memory.

“The content of images may seem natural. But representational and interpretative processes are cultural in that they are anchored in aesthetic conventions. Photographs substitute for direct encounter; they act as surrogates, mediating that which was seen through the camera viewfinder.” (Wells, 2011, p.45)

W.J. T. Mitchell’s comprehensive writings on landscape situates it not as a simple object or fine art genre but as a cultural process and standard through which subjective and social identities are designed – “Landscape is already artifice in the moment of its beholding, long before it becomes the subject of pictorial representation.” (Mitchell, 1994, p.15)

In this sense, the landscape is a socially constructed approach of connecting to environment. The detachment reached by the departure of nature from culture in landscape is constructed on the political departure of the country from the city, delimiting the landscape from the space of our day to day lives. Detached and objectified in scenery depictions, the natural environment is treated as means to an end: human ownership and resource consumption. (Mitchell, 1994)

“Landscapes need to be decoded, they don’t merely signify or symbolise power relations; it is an instrument of cultural power. Landscape is a dynamic medium, in which we live and move and have our being, but also a medium that is itself in motion from one place of time to another. Landscape circulates as a medium of exchange, a site of visual appropriation, a focus for the formation of identity.” (Mitchell, 1994, p.5)

Roland Barthes (1972) describes in Mythologies how the middleclass class “built its power on technical, scientific progress, on an unlimited transformation of nature, and so bourgeois ideology yields in return an unchangeable nature.” (Barthes, 1972, p.142) As Barthes shows these myths are philosophical creations, methods of “depoliticized speech” that are “constituted by the loss of the historical quality of things … giving an historical intention a natural justification.” (Barthes, 1972, p.141) Accordingly, Mitchell defines landscape as “instrument of cultural power” which establishes the progress and propagation of capitalism and explains how this is “enacted in the media of representation we call landscape” (Mitchell, 1994, p.2).

As Edward Weston states the photography has in general a rhetoric character and it is a result of the photographer’s use of strategies in order to record reality but also to highlight their observations. He describes this as “seeing plus” – a reflection of the decisions taken by the photographer in the arrangement of aesthetic and photographic codes.

“Photography as a creative expression – or what you will – must be seeing plus. Seeing alone means factual recording. Photography is not at all seeing in the sense that the eyes see. Our vision is binocular, it is in a continuous state of flux, while the camera captures but a single isolated condition of the moment. Besides, we use lenses of various focal lengths to purposely exaggerate actual seeing; we “overcorrect” colour for the same reason. In printing we carry our wilful distortion of fact – “seeing” – by using papers to intensify the contrast of the original scene or object. This is all legitimate procedure; but it is not seeing literally, it is seeing with intention, with reason.” (Weston, 1932, p.69)

Formalism in landscape photography is associated to studies of the beautiful – the artists bring natural form under scrutiny. Whilst conventions of the picturesque have allowed for construction of imagery that appears orderly and harmonious, beauty is more challenging bringing in elements like colour, texture and shape. Most of the images were created by looking at our environment and portraying characteristics of natural phenomena. However we also have examples of studies of beauty which transcends the formal inviting reflective responses to the portrayed.

Investigating the notion of beauty Immanuel Kant underlines the difference between the sublime and the attractive, describing it in expressions which inspire sensitivity and affection. The interrogation of beauty in Kantian philosophy is closely connected to matters of taste, where taste is described as a social consensus, a subjective social agreement. (Kant, 1987)

“If we wish to discern whether something is beautiful or not, we do not relate the representation of it to its object by means of rational understanding. Instead, we relate the representation through imagination, acting perhaps in conjunction with reason, to the subject and its feeling of pleasure or displeasure. The judgment of taste, therefore, is not a cognitive judgment, is not logical, but is aesthetic – which means that it is one whose determining ground cannot be other than subjective.” (Kant, 1987, p.235)

The use of beauty in conventional photography was not simply ornamental, a valuable formal display. It worked for a precise task, stimulating an irresistible encounter with the artistic visual. The result, for its disciples, was a sobering and overwhelming meeting with the ineffable. This purpose, mainly obvious in the early twentieth century scenery photographs, challenges Kant’s instinct to oppose the beautiful and the sublime. For Kant, the claim of beauty belong to its predisposition to limitation and comforting immovability, while the sublime is a passage which leads to its boundaries. Reaching outside the perceptive, the sublime is described as unrestrained and disillusioning. Kant eventually values the sublime emotion over the temptation of plain beauty. (Lyotard, 2011)

The sublime, in contrast with the picturesque and the beautiful is related to threat and agony, to spaces where calamities happen or things run beyond human control.

Visually, the sublime refers to that which cannot be included within the picture – literally non-picturesque. Sigmund Freud links the sublime to the uncanny, the strange and frightening which leads back to something deep-rooted or primal. There is a direct relation between the sublime in aesthetics and the processes of psychological sublimation. For Freud the subliminal is contained beneath the conscious, informed by the messages transmitted just below the surface of awareness. This repression matches the restraint process involved in representational aspects of environments that feel unsafe or beyond control.

“In relation to land and landscape, very roughly speaking mountains are associated with the sublime, hills with the picturesque; sea with the sublime, rivers and canals with the picturesque. At one level this is a matter of what cannot be brought under control: spring tides at equinox crash against cliffs, demolish ships and drown people.” (Wells, 2011, p.35)

The sublime is therefore unlike the beautiful or picturesque, a psychological construct. It is not inherent in the landscape and it is not a social consensus but the artist’s subjective approach to the environment.

Ansel Adams abandoned the picturesque aesthetic early in his career and founded the Group f/64 opposing the early twentieth century Pictorialist domination and popularity. The movement was supported by the upper hierarchy of the art world, by those who would see photography positioned together with other more traditional fine art media. Initiators included Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and others, who approved with the conventional visuals reached by the f/64 aperture camera setting that can guarantee crystal-like clearness and the highest depth of field. (Wolmer, 1979)

Adams’ images continuously experienced substantial aesthetic change as he tried to find his place in the new modernist world of photography. Noticeable is the move in the direction of the Modernism he saw in Paul Strand’s work of Paul Strand and which started to be apparent by the late 1930s. Regardless of the stylistic clashes of the time, his conscious move to the conventional visual model shows his instincts to return to a lot of the ideologies of the more old-fashioned nineteenth century type of western landscape image making, regardless of the principles defined by the Group f/64’s statement.

“Photography, as an art form, must develop along lines defined by the actualities and limitations of the photographic medium, and must always remain independent of ideological conventions of art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself.” (Peeler, 2002, p.107-110)

John Szarkowski, curator and photography administrator at the MoMA New York, also noticed the backward and forward looking feelings of Adams’ photography. He agreed that Adams was “the last of that line of nineteenth century idealistic landscape artist who glorified the heroic wilderness, and simultaneously one of the sources of a new landscape tradition” (Wolmer, 1979, p.1).

By the 1970s it was easy to see Adams as the last of an older kind of photographer still his reputation continued as an early modernist instead of a late landscape photographer in the traditional style.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the landscape photography practice embraced and rephrased prior conventions of scenery depiction and ways of observing nature (Snyder, 1994). But as Joel Snyder debates in “Territorial Photography,” by character of the technological methods of photo production, the landscape photographer was perceived of as “always honest, truthful, and, above all, neutral,” offering a distributed image “that transcends individual subjectivity and, consequently, individual interest” (Snyder, 1994, p.183). The landscape photographs were regarded as “passive documentations of pre-existing scenes” (Snyder, 1994, p.176) whereas a painting is evidently an artistic depiction of a natural sight. If the landscape itself is, as Mitchell refers to, “an instrument of cultural power,” the photographic camera, a mechanical instrument for constructing apparently impartial, neutral and truthful depictions, could be deployed as its perfect medium.

Photography has occupied an essential part in cultural development and economic advance however, starting the second half on the nineteenth century, the landscape photography has also been engaged in disputes concerning the politics of land protection and administration. For example, the picturesque images by artists such as Ansel Adams from John Muir’s Sierras Club journals helped in the progress of wilderness conservation, producing in the 1970 The American Wilderness Act (Porteous, 1996).

A second generation of landscape photographers appeared in the 1970s, the New Topographics, which involved Lewis Balts and Robert Adams who left behind the documentation of pure wilderness for the depiction of ordinary and unexciting “man altered sceneries” to analyse mythic concepts, such as nature as wilderness (Snyder, 1994). The New Topographics, even though much socially inspired than previous scenery image makers, were quick to confirm a moral detachment from the subject of their photographs, remaining engaged with a formal methodology to landscape depiction and imposing a formal style invested with meanings (Bright, 1992). As a consequence, opponents such as Deborah Bright regarded the movement as inefficient for the reason that the outcome of their formal methodology failed to deliver a social analysis and accurately historicize their topics. Even so, the New Topographics established the grounds for the majority of contemporary conservational and landscape photographers, for instance those involved in Imaging a Shattering Earth.

The majority of the photographers featured in “Imaging a Shattering World”, a major exhibition at the Meadow Brook Art Gallery, document landscape degradation such as contaminated areas, mining sites and industrial centres. In the convention of the New Topographics, the photographers do not describe nature as unchallengeable, but as unstable and injured. Through taking advantage by the formal characteristics of the photographic method and keeping a certain detachment from their subject, these photographers “attempt to convey the big picture” (Baillargeon, 2005, p.26). In the exhibition catalogue, Baillargeon writes: “Predicated on a direct observation of the earth’s altered topography, the selected works (with the notable exception of Shana and Robert ParkeHarrison) share a propensity for objectified landscapes” (Baillargeon, 2005, p.26).

Adams and his colleagues decided to ignore the fabricated landscape by preserving the ideals of the sublime. While a formal change occurred in his work away from nineteenth century Romanticism, he still kept an idealistic vision of nature as pure and untouched. (fig.2)

There are multiple relations between Modernism and Romanticism and it could be said that Adams’ photographs reflect characteristics of this transition. Regardless of using camera’s characteristics such as the visual clarity and the capacity to visually freeze a moment, his images still preserved romantic ideals of the sanctity and majesty of nature. The impact of his success in his work, particularly later in his career, might have led to his continuous illustration of the sublime landscape, but is also possibly revealing of humanity’s desire for this idealised setting. (Peeler, 2002)


fig.2 Ansel Adams. Half-Dome, Merced River, 1938

It could be claimed that Adams’ depictions of environment was successor to that of the Romantic landscape painters. While painters like Caspar David Friedrich considered the nature in relation to the industrial development, it was within the positivisms of post-war America that Ansel Adams produced his most notable photographs.

Romantic representations of the sublime were used in reaction to a certain political climate in the past, starting with the 1789 revolution in France through to the English industrialisation of the countryside, both prompting desires in society to return to a modest life style. Ansel Adams’ photographs contemplated sentimentally on a simpler life closer to natural surroundings. As Deborah Bright (1992) states:

“Adams hoped his photographs would restore a lost experience of nature that had become corrupted by the post-war burgeoning of family tourism and its commercial amenities, rapid suburbanization, road building, and resource development.” (Bright, 1992, p.5)

In Ansel Adams’ photographs there was a strong accent on the purist, unaltered image, which ruled photographic aesthetics into the 1960s. Still in the United States a change followed in line with the wild political situation of the 1960s and it was in this new background that Stephen Shore produced an image, at the same place that Ansel Adams had photographed at decades before, entitled Merced River, YNP, 1979 (fig.3)


fig.3 Stephen Shore. Merced River, Yosemite National Park, 1979

Whereas Ansel Adams desired to describe the marvels of the natural in the form of the sublime intact scenery, the photographers of the New Topographics adopted a much more severe attitude reflecting the complete lack of emotion in their landscapes – Stephen Shore, concentrating on the ordinary American vernacular embedding subtle reflections on civilisation and Robert Adams depicting the nature replace by constructed scenery and the expansion of the consumer society. This change in the illustration of the landscape, which some might understand as an acceptance of what the fabricated environment had come to be, influenced many photographers to raise new questions about the mutable landscape. (Peeler, 2002)


Chapter 2


German artist Andreas Gursky makes photographs of vast places where masses of individuals appear minuscule and agitated, depicted in the space similar to a miniature ant collective. In their firm route, the subjects in his images are showing there is no such thing as environment unexplored by humans. In these natural spaces he reveals the aggressive development of globalisation.

The image is not a calming one and many of his pictures, though beautifully composed and coloured, leave the spectator with an uncomfortable emotion. The nature of this reaction is strongly dependent to the sublime character of the images and the subjective approach of the artist.

“Although his photographs give us images of globalization, Gursky is seeking less to document the phenomenon than to invoke the sublime in it. He freely manipulates his images, altering the architecture of the built and natural environments, creating repetitions, deepening colours, and collapsing time, in order to heighten the sense of the sublime.” (Ohlin, 2002)

Gursky’s images expose human insensitivity exaggerated. It is our selfish condition we are witnessing. This is the reason of our restlessness when looking at his photographs, and the Freudian redefinition of the sublime.

Recreated following the aesthetic ideal and conventions of the picturesque, Engadine would resemble little if anything of Gursky’s photograph. (fig.4) In Fedorovich’s painting (fig.5) people are absent and the nature is presented in its pristine purity. Only a couple of human trails on the snow reminds us that the depicted space within the frame is real. The mountains look repainted in the lake’s calm mirroring surface and the light is of a soft and warm winter sun. Everything is in place just as it should be in accordance to our expectations and social consensus in of how this slice of heavenly natural environment should look like – a beautiful image, an example of objective formalism.


fig.4 Andreas Gursky. Engadin, 1995


fig.5 Ivan Fedorovich Choultse. Wintertag im Engadin, 1910

According to Gilbert-Rolfe (1999) in The Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime by, the contemporary sublime is a technologically one. He notes that the term ‘sublime’ originates from Burke, the sense of the Latin original sublimis (great, superlative) and that of sub limen (getting to the upper threshold)

The ‘upper threshold’ to which the universe of material substances and works of art considered these days as sublime are promoted, is a cosmic threshold. “Beyond the threshold” there expands the margins of the lands of the infinite, of the universe of spatio-temporality, unachievable for humans, reached and intermediated by the current technological progress. (Gilbert-Rolfe, 1999)

This is revealed not only by the practices of astronautics and cosmology, but it is also existing in architecture; in the constantly bigger airports, in the continuously higher skyscrapers, which, as their name indicates, strive for a height reaching the clouds, challenging with the imperative size of the mountains.

Whereas for Burke the most sublime and consequently the most terrible sight, fascinating the mind is the ocean, the imagination of the post science-fiction cinema generations is captivated by the idea of galactic oceans. In this way just like the beautiful and its aesthetics, the sublime can also be located external, separate from the contemporary art. The films by James Cameron and George Lucas or the novels by Isaac Asimov and Ian Arthur C. Clarke are reinforcing Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe’s theory, based on Heidegger and Burke. (Burke, 1998)

This is also attested in such illustrations when nature of a celestial scale and reach appears in the cited works. The intergalactic natural environment is existing only as a background, in order to emphasize and to make observable a specific technological structure in its huge proportions, the sublime attribute of which is also amplified by the aspired and at the same time distressed exoticism of extra-terrestrial intelligence.

While in the example of these figurative arts the cosmic landscape represents the framework of the sublime, today the association between natural and technology is in fact the opposite of this: we identify nature in a universal range, using the framework system of technology. “What the world means for us today is the wondering confusion of technological material, which has taken precedency over the intact physics and has taken its place.” (Heidegger, 1989, p.62)

In the exhibition Imaging a Shattering Earth (2005) the practice of straight reflection is best characterised by Edward Burtynsky, whose photographs are extensively exhibited and involved in contemporary international photography competitions. Burtynsky has accomplished wide recognition for his images of landscapes altered through industrial development. His photographs are documenting the before and after of industry consumption, which usually happens in spaces outside of our regular experiences. The exhibition shows Bao Steel no. 8, Shanghai, China (fig.6), part of his documentation of the China based company, Bao Steel Group.

Using the large format camera and wide angle lenses, he photographs a visually seductive illustration of the site. On the centre stage we are shown concrete blocks darkened by persistent reserves of coal, forming an attractive arrangement similar to a Renaissance composition that retreats into the central ground of the frame where huge coal piles are kept to fuel the factory’s multiple smoke pipes that litter the horizon. (Nickerson, 2007)


fig.6 Edward Burtynsky. Bao Steel #8, 2005

There is a captivating uncertainty to this picture as the laborious straight composition is opposed to the industrialised content, the author searching for subjects that are detailed and of large scale but open in their significance. Burtynsky is suggesting that such a formal style is dominant for causing a certain tension between the formal beauty of the landscape and its disturbing content. The photographer anticipates that the audience will be drawn into the image through instinctual formal desire and subsequently consider the upsetting subject. It is the smart seductive nature of his work that keeps us fascinated. His work suggests that simultaneous “attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear” encourage an influential and creative intellectual conflict in viewers that forces them to modify their environmentally damaging actions (Burtynsky, 2009).

Wide recognition has, however, been opposed by equal disapproval. Critics claim that Burtynsky’s straight approach aestheticizes the negative aspects of his work and fails to deliver a social analysis that historicizes its topics appropriately. Some critics are suggesting that his paradoxically attractive photographs are too confusing and ethically insubstantial, favouring the formal visual at the neglect of the associations of what they document.

“Baillargeon attempts to connect the photographers in the exhibition, who come from different generations and points in their careers, and who employ many different techniques of photography, by calling on the language of the artist as oracle, an understanding of artists as truth-seekers for the larger culture. Words like “vision” and “soul-searching” place these photographers in an elevated position, one which gives them the voice to speak for the world in a universalizing manner, rather than the subjective voice that most artists and photographers today acknowledge. Baillargeon gives the photographers involved the status of keepers of a collective vision without addressing the differences of approach amongst the photographers, or the subjective nature of photography itself.

On the surface, this exhibition asks the viewer to look at images of the environment at their most denotative level, as representations of pollution, irreversible and tragic. In choosing to ignore the issues of aesthetics, of subjectivity, and the camera’s gaze, Baillargeon reinforces the presentation of these works as ‘truth’ documents that are more about the subject addressed than about the artistry involved in their creation. More like a photo essay, or coffee table book published by the Sierra Club, Baillargeon’s exhibition seeks to convince, to persuade with facts rather than artistic fiction.” (McManus, 2009)

According to Nickerson, “this ambiguity allows a myriad of different meanings to be read into his photographs: industry CEOs choose them for their walls; activists point to them as evidence of environmental catastrophe.” (Nickerson, 2007)

Baillargeon (2005) is supporting the image, in the exhibition catalogue, clarifying that the company is the fifth major steel manufacturer in the world and in 2004 consumed “more than seventeen million tons of sulphur and coal, which are main sources of acid rain and smog” (Baillargeon, 2005, p.30).

Yet, lacking such contextualization the significance of the photograph and the social repercussions, the real work in the site and the watching consumer’s complicit concern through their own unrestrained consumption, are potentially uncertain. In relation of conservational aesthetics and morals in Burtynsky’s work, the photographer is never an accomplice in nature; by the traditions of scenery depiction he is a passive spectator, offering impartial images of degradation.

Many theorists involved in environmental aesthetics agree with Buck-Morss’s idea of the aesthetic as a complete and perceptive experience that impacts the way we understand reality and define value (Berleant, 2002). Arnold Berleant explains the environmental aesthetics as aesthetics of involvement and instead of beauty uses the expression “positive experience” to define what should come to be the standard for comprehension of meaning and value (18). Berleant claims that we regard of the location as “a space beyond, which we consider to look at from a certain distance,” and yet, “there is no exterior and nor is there an inner retreat where we can take refuge from hostile external powers” (Berleant, 2002, p.7).

The location is one of the last survivors of body-mind duality. Consequently, we need an example of appreciation for both art and landscape that takes into account the involved and empirical dimensions of landscape, art and life. Instead of the Kantian aesthetic of detached observation – with its detaching and objectifying scrutiny, Berleant suggest for an aesthetics of embodied involvement that reduces the detachment between the object of contemplation and the contemplator (Berleant, 2002).

Both landscape and art must be understood of in a fresh, extended sense, so that an aesthetic of involvement does not consist of simply looking at an external scenery but involves a sense of stability with the forms and courses of nature. This is an aesthetics of awareness, which philosophers such as Rolston (2002) anticipates will affect the care regarding the permanence and beauty of the landscape.

While Burtynsky is depicting industrial altered landscapes, Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison are building allegorical dream worlds that reflect the reality of ecological destruction. The ParkeHarrisons exhibit symbols and not records of decline in the convention of classic documentary landscape. Their series, The Architect Brother is a collection of hand painted prints assembled from several enlarged negatives. In these images Robert plays the character of Everyman, who inhabits a post-apocalyptic wasteland wearing a surrealist business outfit and tries to restore a devastated environment with the help of reimagined technical remnants and fantastic extensions.

For example, in Exchange (fig.7), Everyman offers nutrition to a few remaining but quickly vanishing plants through cylinders coupled to his own veins. In his photographic compositions, Everyman fights conservational combats against incredible odds, giving watchers not only a vision into the progressively distressed reality of environmental degradation, but also much needed motivation for carrying out their own conservational acts.


fig.7 Robert ParkeHarrison. The Exchange, 1999

Tree Stories portrays Everyman surrounded by heaps of chopped trees, patiently recording the accounts of their passing at a typewriter through a wired earphone. Tree Stories (fig.8) was produced by a lengthy method that starts with exploring and drafting image concepts. The supports are then built, a scenery is selected and a set is produced. Finally, the act is executed by Robert and photographed by Shana. After numerous photographs are made, negatives are manipulated in the darkroom and the photomontage is constructed. (Stephan, 2004)

The ParkeHarrison’s is researching into old-fashioned photographic pictorialism. From the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, the pictorialist image makers intended to detach their work from the mechanical aspect of the photographic construction using soft focus and combining printing and darkroom intervention to achieve painterly effects. The rediscovering of old-fashioned photographic approaches is described by Lyle Rexer (2002) as a “new antiquarian avant-garde”; he invented the terminology to outline the mixed intentions of a large spectrum of artists who are consciously re-engaging with photography’s resources and procedures and researching the photography history for symbols and visual motivation.

“The old-process photography embodies approaches very different from those of postmodern artists such as Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall, but it arises from the same cultural circumstances and the same world, generating similar anxieties and intuitions” (Rexer 2002, p.10).

Lyle Rexer states that the antiquarian avant-garde is all but antique: It signifies a mixed reaction to circumstances that undermines the outdated practice of art photography and the idea of the photographic object itself. It is a technique for a varied group of artists, conscious of the questions revolving around photography in the twenty-first century, to reinvent and reinvest in the new contemporary medium of image creation.


fig.8 Robert ParkeHarrison. Tree Stories, 2000

Antiquarian avant-garde photographers reinvest in the photographic resources and methods, pursuing a play between past practises and contemporary issues, in order to readdress the photographic medium outside what they perceive as the theoretical impediment in much postmodern photography. The Architect’s Brother is the example of such antiquarian avant-garde exercise, where the artist researches old procedures and forms while looking for recent ecological realities in a reflexive style. (Rexer, 2002)

Since they modernise the old-fashioned photographic pictorialism, the ParkeHarrison’s images were criticized for their exceedingly aesthetic characteristics. There is a soft component to these photographs that can be described adversely as aesthetically beautiful in the relation to the philosophy of art’s present standard of the anti-aesthetic (Foster, 1998).

The universe of landscape aesthetics proactively examines the roles and attributes that natural beauty and aesthetic standards operates in environmentalism.

Holmes Rolston (2002) has been called the father of the study of environmental ethics and has written lengthily on landscape beauty and natural aesthetics. He defines the dimension of the aesthetic as crucial since “the life without it is aestheticized” (Rolston, 2002, p.139)

Such a concept of aesthetics have equivalents in Susan Buck-Morss’s radical reforming of the notion of visual in connection to physical information under the influence of modernism. Comparable to environmental aesthetics, Buck-Morss is proposing an extended conception of aesthetics that is detached from the boundaries of the art world and given over to the world at large. Returning to the initial connotation of the term aesthetics, which was taken from the Greek word aisthetikos by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, discussing the sensation and sense awareness, Buck-Morss terms aesthetic and beauty understanding as “the sense of having one’s senses affected” (Kester, 1997, p.39). Buck-Morss states this is how the physique perceives reality and is an essentially critical, intellectual experience. She refashions the Kantian concept of aesthetics as impartiality. In the Kantian aesthetic model the desire that art stimulates in us is not deliberate.

Aesthetics, in the somatic acceptation as the body’s form of critical reasoning, is profoundly political and complexly tied to morals. Consequently, Buck-Morss suggests for the assuming of beauty as a principle for art in both political and formal meaning (Kester, 1997).

In the ParkeHarrison’s landscape photography, the authors do not adopt a moral, journalistic detachment from the environment. Their performing exercise permits them to relate with the nature rather than present a devastated landscape, carrying out an aesthetic of involvement. In these photographs, Everyman is engaged in recovery, trying to restore the ecosystem and reconnect with the forces of the nature.

In relation to Burke and in general, with the presence of the contemporary sublime, it is necessary to take into attention the unusually American convention of the sublime.

For example, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe (1999) notes that Barnett Newman’s “images had to be big, so that they could be related to the specifically American sublime, which Harold Bloom speculated on” (Gilbert-Rolfe, 1999, p.23). Yet, this is not an interrogation arising in the case of specific artists or authors, it is formerly related to the American spatial understanding and to American tradition.

Sociologist Richard Sennett observes that the Americans considered the adjacent world as endless, and it followed from this that they did not see the limits of their capacity of conquering and extension either. This environmental experience is depicted most representative in the western, which governs the American folklore. The principal subject of the western is the great, unlimited landscape; there are no frontiers, only huge unpopulated areas. (Sennett, 1997)

“Newman may appear to concentrate on shape and colour, but he insisted that his canvases were charged with symbolic meaning. Like Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich before him, he believed in the spiritual content of abstract art. The very title of this painting – in English, “Man, heroic and sublime” – points to aspirations of transcendence.

Abstract Expressionism is often called “action painting,” but Newman was one of the several Abstract Expressionists who eliminated signs of the action of the painter’s hand, preferring to work with broad, even expanses of deep colour. Vir Heroicus Sublimis is large enough so that when the viewer stands close to it, as Newman intended, it creates an engulfing environment—a vast red field, broken by five thin vertical stripes. Newman admired Alberto Giacometti’s bone-thin sculptures of the human figure, and his stripes, or “zips,” as he called them, may be seen as symbolizing figures against a void. Here they vary in width, colour, and firmness of edge: the white zip at centre left, for example, looks almost like the gap between separate planes, while the maroon zip to its right seems to recede slightly into the red. These subtly differentiated verticals create a division of the canvas that is surprisingly complex, and asymmetrical; right in the middle of the picture, however, they set off a perfect square.” (Moma, 1999, p.195)

However, the particular topographical circumstances showed to be decisive also in the developing of the American self-esteem, of the independence in the new world. In contemporary arts the subject of the sublime gets straight into the forefront in Newman’s work. J.F Lyotard states that his work have its place in the aesthetics of the sublime studies – “Newman read Burke. He found him too surrealist. In spite of this, Burke, in his own way, was determining with respect to Newman’s project” (Lyotard, 2011, p.15). He considered him too surrealist because he considered Burke’s neglecting understanding of painting as being accurate only to such an art which aspires to depict, to portray and to make identification possible. But, as remarked, in Newman’s work takes place the conceptualisation of the indescribable. His life work can be understood as an investigation intended at solving this contemporary paradigm of sublime’s thematization.

Newman was substantially involved with the theoretical dimension of this paradigm. In addition to Burke’s influence, he was also motivated by Jewish spiritual philosophy and the dedicated literature suggested the impact on him of a cabalistic model of creation. We have every reason to consider that he was also affected by the question of the exclusion of illustration. Yet, for him, as a committed painter, this interrogation took place in relation to painting and continued within the frames of this medium. In this manner his results, for instance his work entitled Vir Heroicus Sublimis (fig.9) delivers imposing surfaces, covered with colour, which are not exactly conclusive in this respect. (Gilbert-Rolfe, 1999)

CM Brosteanu Photography Dissertation Barnett Newman Heroicus Sublimis 1950

fig.9 Barnett Newman. Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950-51

A magnificent masterwork of size and wonder, also the symbol of Andreas Gursky’s innovative visual work, Rhein II (fig.10) engages the spectator in the absolute splendour of its display. It is part of a five prints edition presently exhibited in some of the most important gallery collections in the world such as Tate, MoMA and Pinakothek. Strangely for the photographer, the set holds images made on various scales, of which the current print is the biggest. Expanding to limitlessness, the photograph appeals a postmodernist approach of the sublime making use of the amazing precision of colour and line reached in the depiction of a seemingly ordinary scenery. (Duponchelle, 2011)

Resonating in Newman’s pursuit for the immaterial sublime, the artist implements this symbol and relates to it an absolute representative subject in the art history of Germany. He generates an intense and contemplative echo on social condition and our connection to environment. For the artist, the Rhine River is of nearly emblematic importance. Crossing the entire length of the impressive image horizontal, the river’s fascinating setting looks alive with stripes of vivid grass and silvery liquid and the waves on the exterior of the water irradiated with bright hyperrealist elements.


fig.10 Andreas Gursky. Rhein II, 1999

The absolute dominant and reflective illustrations of the Rhine ever produced, the picture’s distinctive size reveals an indescribable connection to the real scenery, alluring the spectator to navigate into its intense depiction. (Ltgens, 1999)

Rhein II marks the culmination of Gursky’s examinations of the Rhineland, which he began as early as 1989 with Angler, Mülheim a.d. Ruhr. For the artist, the river has a unique resonance, being significant both to Düsseldorf and to its distinctive school of photography, which Gursky himself pioneered. In 1996, he created his first iteration of the present work entitled simply Rhein, capturing a stretch of the river visited on his daily jogging route. The image, featured on the front cover of the catalogue for his major touring retrospective at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf in 1998, became instantly iconic. This early, smaller format composition was created using a slightly higher and flatter perspective, the sky appearing to be uniform grey in colour. It was later refined in Rhein II, offering the viewer a more direct, heightened and visually arresting image of the historically significant river. As Peter Galassi has noted, with its unimpeded horizontal and geometric arrangements of color, Rhein II reflects a rich inheritance of reductive aesthetics from Friedrich to Newman to Richter to Donald Judd. Indeed, traces of each of these forebears are visible in the work: Caspar David Friedrich’s open celebration of God’s infinite horizon; Gerhard Richter’s playful subversion of the romantic landscape; Donald Judd’s serialized reflections on the qualities of industrialized society; and Barnett Newman’s invocation of the sublime through abstraction.” (Christies, 2011)

The wonder of Gursky’s landscapes develops from the one formal shape that reappears in almost all of his work – the parallel line. Occasionally Gursky’s parallel lines derive from familiar sights of contemporary life, like supermarket shelves or highways. In some of the photographs they are strange, as in Engadine, where a path of tourists goes parallel to a massive mountain scenery, each resonating the other as they expand from one frame of the image to the other. The lines might be sometimes created and deliberate but other times Gursky’s parallel lines look uncannily found or given, as in Rhein II. Landscape and industry, tourist and mountain ranges, ordinary and mystical, they all resolve into the paired paths of the parallel in Gursky’s universe. (Levine, 2002)

In mathematics, the parallel is illustrated by lines ranging to infinity without meeting. Gursky invites us to visualise that his parallels not only extend forever, but that they are ubiquitous, fundamental not only to the ordered cultural arrangements but also of the unconscious natural environment. His lines propose the infinite beyond the image, an infinity of lines ranging outside the frames of each landscape illustration and entirely beyond purpose and depiction. Regardless of the formal coherences of these images, Gursky’s infinitely ranging parallels evoke the sublime.

Postmodernity has come across and embraced the sublime previously, as theorised in what are today its most characteristic enunciations. J.F. Lyotard (2011) notably places the contemporary sublime against the range of “anything goes.” An authentic postmodernism, declining to value the art corresponding to its profits, promotes a passionate disobedience of conventional practises and beliefs, the wish to “put forward… the unpresentable in presentation itself”. (Lyotard, 2011, p.81) Whilst “for Lyotard the sublime is present in Montaigne as well as in Mille Plateaux” (Levine, 2002, p.3), Fredric Jameson debates for the sublime particular to the development of the gigantic, decentralised ramification of global capitalism. Jameson’s sublime, like Lyotard’s, exposes the limitations of depiction, but it results precisely from the effort to understand the unmanageable entirety of the contemporary global system. (Jameson, 1991)

While Lyotard’s (2011) sublime is suggested by unsuccessful innovation and Jameson’s sublime develops from the infinite planes of a world overwhelmed by materialism, Gursky’s parallel lines seem to propose something older and more metaphysical. In their extension from frame to frame the parallels suggest a constant, a fundamental configuration or structure. As if Andreas Gursky was a faithful reader of Immanuel Kant, his photographs seems to exhibit something like a performing of the Critique of Judgment. His lines propose a prescribed harmony and correspondingly, in their unlimited expanding, they break that harmony.

If it is conceivable to see Gursky as the ambassador of an institution that is now centuries old, we should remember that both Jameson and Lyotard are also tracing their definitions of the sublime from Kant and we can bring Gursky together with these two theorists of postmodernism by admitting that all three propose us the Kantian sublime in connection to world capitalism.

For Jameson the sublime is that which uncovers our incapacity to understand a reality completely overtaken by the infinite faces of materialism. For Lyotard the sublime is that which disturbs the calm stream of the market by presenting something so surprising that it does not offer itself to transaction. And for Gursky the sublime converts the dullness of commodities into the magnificence of the infinite. For all three, the sublime is that which suppress desire and substitutes the insatiability of a wild materialism with a mystifying wonder. (Levine, 2002)




The findings of this study revealed that although aesthetical shifts in the scenery depiction can be found in the early traditional photographic practice, they were simply a result of the medium opportunity to respond in different manners according to different purposes. The camera allowed the photographer to readjust the environment reality and swing from the scientific objectivity to the pictorial beauty.

It wasn’t until Ansel Adams’ photographs experienced a substantial aesthetic change, as he tried to find his place in the new modernist world of photography, that landscape representation was significantly subjected to theories concerning the political and aesthetical dimensions of photography.

The New Topographics movement abandoned the critical extents of the sublime, concentrating on the ordinary American vernacular and embedding subtle reflections on civilisation. The pictorial scenery tradition was rejected and a new critical landscape photography was born, raising new questions about the mutable character of the natural environment and its relation to social and cultural practices.

Displaying together some of the most important contemporary environmental photographers, Imaging a Shattering Earth is the second pivotal exhibition in the history of landscape photography. Artists like Burtynsky and ParkeHarrison are placing the concept of the sublime back in the photography scene through their images, using different visual strategies. It is in this instance a technological sublime, as defined by Gilbert-Rolfe in opposition to Burke’s transcendental theory.

Taking its influences from the theoretical paradigm of the immaterial sublime in Barnett Newman’s paintings, Andreas Gursky draws together the infinite formal shape of the parallel line and the ultimate subject in the German history of art producing a composition that marks the decisive point in the history of landscape photography. Even though JF Lyotard truthfully states that postmodernity has previously embraced attempts of visual sublime redefinition, Gursky’s work seems unswervingly rooted in the traditional Kantian philosophy.

While unconceivable to illustrate the unmeasurably great sublime in a correspondingly manner when it is itself situated outside its inceptions and beyond human somatic perception, what results from the visual and conceptual explorations of the sublime is a new and revolutionary aesthetic dimension of the photographical landscape representation.





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List of Illustrations


1a. Timothy O’Sullivan. Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake, 1868, Gelatin Silver Print
1b. Timothy O’Sullivan. Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake, 1875, Photolitograph
2.  Ansel Adams. Half-Dome, Merced River, 1938, Gelatin Silver Print, 39×49.3cm
3.  Stephen Shore. Merced River, Yosemite National Park, 1979, C-print, 76x97cm
4.  Andreas Gursky. Engadin, 1995, C-print, 160x250cm
5.  Ivan Fedorovich Choultse. Wintertag im Engadin, 1910, oil on canvas, 63x81cm
6.  Edward Burtynsky. Bao Steel #8, 2005, C-print, 100x200cm
7.  Robert ParkeHarrison. The Exchange, 1999, Gelatin silver print, 102x115cm
8.  Robert ParkeHarrison. Tree Stories, 2000, Gelatin silver print, 102x156cm
9.  Barnett Newman. Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950-51, Oil on canvas, 242x541cm
10. Andreas Gursky. Rhein II. 1999, Chromogenic print, 206x357cm


The essay “Landscape Photography and the Contemporary Sublime” by Constantin Marian Brosteanu was published in Jan 2013.

© 2013 Constantin Marian Brosteanu. All rights reserved.