The desire to go home that is a desire to be whole, to know where you are, to be the point of intersection of all the lines drawn through all the stars, to be the constellation-maker and the center of the world, that center called love. To awaken from sleep, to rest from awakening, to tame the animal, to let the soul go wild, to shelter in darkness and blaze with light, to cease to speak and be perfectly understood.
― Rebecca Solnit, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics
Social landscape photography portrays the effects of human beings on the earth; it is photography of the human-built or human-altered landscape. It may incorporate the natural landscape, the usual domain of landscape or nature photography—but it is most distinctly not about the natural world. In the more traditional approach human beings, any sign of human beings like roads and cabins, and any human effects on earth are notably absent. I believe this general attitude is a deliberate absence.
Consider the work of the exceptionally talented—and exceptionally limited—photographer, an American icon producing iconic photographs of the American landscape, Ansel Adams. Despite my love of his photos, Adams rarely shows people (and when he does, as in his Manzanar Japanese-American internment camps series, they look like rocks).
Sharply contrasting with Adam’s photos are those from the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. These vividly and intentionally portray the effects of human beings on the earth—sand storms, fleeing farmers, destroyed farms. This is the crux of social landscape photography—how we human beings interact with the earth. This expanding awareness reflects our larger concerns with global climate change.
Social landscape photography has been around since the first photographs—or heliographs as they were first called. Consider the first photographs by Niépce, Daguerre, and Talbot. All involved buildings and people, implicitly the interaction between human beings and the earth.
Consider Eugene Atget at the turn of the last century. Recognizing the massive changes on Paris and environs created by the industrial era—and for other reasons, financial in particular—he assiduously photographed “The City of Light.” Likewise, his contemporary, Jacob Riis, newly emigrated from Denmark to the United States, photographed tenements in New York City which resulted in major changes in housing laws and the end of the most dangerous housing.
For contemporary examples, look at the aerial photos of numerous photographers like Alex McLean; Marilyn Bridges with her book, Markings: Aerial Views of Sacred Landscapes, and the highly popular series called The Earth From Above by Yann Arthus-Bertrand.
In 1975, confirming the need for an expanded sense of landscape photography, the prestigious photographic venue, The George Eastman House, in Rochester NY, presented the startling exhibit, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. Oddly enough, given last names, one of the featured photographers was Robert Adams, no relation to Ansel—a dramatic contrast. Attesting to the importance of this genre, since 1981 various adaptations of the original exhibit have been circulating worldwide. In 2013 Greg Foster-Rice and John Rohrbach edited and published Reframing the New Topographics, which brings the genre up to date.
In my own work and teaching, motivated primarily by the global climate crisis, I detect a clue to my new direction, long nascent, but now more clearly evident: Social Landscape Photography.
The New Topographics, on artsy.net
New Topographics: “Landscape and the West – Irony and Critique in New Topographic Photography” by Kelly Dennis
“Deadpan Geometries: Mapping, Aerial Photography, and the American Landscape” by Kim Sichel
“What is landscape – further thoughts” by Bob Coe
9 thoughts on “What is Social Landscape Photography?”
This is a great treat, Skip, for the mind and eye. As so often, you help us see the world in a new way. Now, the world as it was and is and is becoming. I’m on for the ride.
if by road photography (in translation), which is what in the usa we call street photography, and the difference between it and social landscape, i’d say it is this: street (or road) photography tends to concentrate directly on people, making serendipitous or obvious portraits for instance. whereas social landscape photography is more about how humans change the landscape or environment. robert adams photographs the social landscape, buildings, roads, etc, rarely people. vivian maier, a noted street photographer, is all about people in the street.