Architecture of a New Landscape

Carousel Lights, 2010

I grew up in an era of pantheistic landscape images that through the sheer mastery of printmaking, tried to reflect not only God in nature, but God as nature.  The black and white prints of Ansel Adams, as well as the color prints ofEliot Porter, cross a threshold of emotion that simply cannot be measured with a densitometer, let alone be properly viewed on a state-of-the-art monitor.  Yet we do look at images on monitors and we do try to describe them in mathematical if not formulaic terms.  Or at least that seems to be the methodology of today’s photography forums, which thrive on seemingly endless arguments regarding at which aperture diffraction limits start to appear, and which are nearly always accompanied by tepid images of golden mesas, moss on trees, and fields of flowers—all with horizons cutting through the middle of the frame.

When the FSA sent a phalanx of photographers out in the mid-Nineteen Thirties to document the landscape of the Great Depression, a new era of documentarians such asWalker Evanswent on to influence the next generation, which included photographers as diverse asRobert Frank,O. Winston Link,David Plowden,Stephen Shore, andJoel Meyerowitz.

Neon Night, 2012

Realism replaced majesty, and over time the banal became majestic in itself.  A friend once referred dismissively to William Egglestonas the “lawn furniture” photographer.  Yet the images in Steve Fitch’s “Gone,” along with Richard Misrach’s “Desert Cantos,” and Jeff Brouws’s “Approaching Nowhere,” have signaled a break with the formalism of the past, in which the emptiness of the American landscape speaks to a different sensibility.  The titles themselves are a world apart from Porter’s work, and yet the title of “The Place That No One Knew” could be the title of a Brouws book.  Another group of photographers (I refer to them as the New Topographers), such as Edward Burtynsky, Nicholas Nixonand Andreas Gursky, have made landscape photography into a gentrified art form—Gursky with his large, formal, expansive and expensive urban works, and Nixon and Burtynsky with their abstract visions of environmental destruction.  Rivers of toxic metals, deforested mountains and nearly infinite piles of electronic detritus have supplanted that near-mythic moonrise over a small New Mexican hamlet.  Concurrently, there is a genre of photography as disaster—the apocalyptic, tornadic Great Plains storms of Mitch Dobrownerare just one example.

Refractive Glass, Iceland 2012

Yet color photography still seems to be struggling to define itself, unable to make the move into pure abstraction that so exemplifies the black-and-white work ofAaron SiskindandCarl Chiarenza.  The giraffe loping across a violet and iridescent red landscape inPete Turner’s 1963 breakthrough image (“The Giraffe”), has been lost in a uniformly dense sea of lifeless, pallid pastoral muck that passes for landscape photography.  With few exceptions (the work ofWilliam Neillcomes to  mind), it seldom rises above the metaphorical horizon line between light and dark. Stephen Wilkes’s “Day to Night” series is another bold, deliberate step off the horizon’s edge, or perhaps more ironically, up into the cherry picker’s bucket.  

Rusted Sign, Argentina 2010

The startling, abstract bolts of light and color that informedErnst Haas’s abstracts in the Nineteen Fifties and Sixties are another blip on the radar that passed when he did.  We are in an era where we scan nature with ultra high resolution cameras welded to tripods, tilt-shift lenses and split filters, and make enormous color prints that are technically astounding and dramatic but lack any sense of statement, any sense of going beyond the equipment and the tried and true formulas of every other landscape we’ve been taught is a “landscape”.

Prismatic Skyscraper, 2010

Yet the definition of “landscape” is constantly changing, and as it evolves, and as our society becomes more urban, photographers are all participants in the search for the architecture of a new landscape.  As our cities become more futuristic, as architectural fantasy becomes reality, our very landscapes are defining a new architecture.  It is for photographers to not only document that architecture, but to use it to find a new way of seeing, and to embrace photography as another, valid means of expressing an abstract vision. 

Airport Lounge, London 2005

Trading off grandeur for grit and the dark side of a moonrise is a valid, if expected direction for landscape photography. Color for the sake of color—playing with the color, shape and geometry  of modern architecture—has yet to be explored, for we see landscapes as moving out to a horizon and not vaulting vertically in front of the viewer in two dimensions, emulating a third through the photographer’s vision.  We are uncomfortable with photography as pure abstraction, with little or no apparent regard for subject matter other than the interplay of light and form and color.  But where isMiro?  OrKandinsky?  Photography is without any doubt about realism…or is it?  

All photographs © Eric Meola
January, 2013  

A Biography of Eric Meola

Eric Meola’s graphic use of color has informed his photographs and his distinguished career for more than four decades. As an undergraduate at Syracuse University, he studied color printing and color theory with legendary instructor Tom Richards at the Newhouse School of Journalism before graduating in 1968 with a B.A. in English Literature and then moving to NYC in 1969 to work with Pete Turner as his studio manager.  

Eric’s prints are in several private collections and museums, and he has won numerous awards including the “Advertising Photographer of the Year” award in 1986 from the American Society of Media Photographers. Showcasing a portfolio of his color images in its October 2008 issue, Rangefindermagazine referred to Eric as one of a “handful of color photographers who are true innovators.”

In 1972 he photographed Haiti for Timemagazine, resulting in one of his most famous images, “Coca Kid,” which was included in Lifemagazine’s special 1997 issue “100 Magnificent Images,” as well as the ASMP archive at the International Center of Photography.  His Timecover portrait of opera singer Beverly Sills would later be included in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery.  In 1980 he had his first major exhibit in New York at the “Space” gallery in Carnegie Hall, and his signature red, white and blue image “Promised Land,” was chosen for inclusion in the permanent collection of the George Eastman House. In 1989 he was the only photographer named to Adweekmagazine’s national “Creative All-Star Team”; and that same year he received a “Clio” for a series of images he made in Scotland for a breakthrough campaign featuring the outerwear clothing of the  Timberland company.  “Fire Eater,” his iconic image of the spotlit lips of a woman submerged in a tank of water, and commissioned by Almay cosmetics, was included in Robert Sobieszek’s 1993 book on advertising The Art of Persuasion. He made a spectacular series of panoramic images for the Johnnie Walker Company in 1995, which were included in an exhibit of his work in New York.  A Canon “Explorer of Light,” he has lectured extensively, including at Syracuse University, Rochester Institute of Technology, Brooks (Santa Barbara), the Art Center at Pasadena, Parsons, the Academy of Art College (San Francisco), the George Eastman House, and venues including PPA, WPPI, and ASMP.

In 2004, Graphis Editions published his first book The Last Places on Earth, a look at disappearing tribes and cultures throughout the world.  An exhibition in England of his photographs of Bruce Springsteen, which coincided with the publication of his second book Born to Run: The Unseen Photos(Insight Editions, 2006), was followed in 2008 by INDIA: In Word & Image(Welcome Books, NY), and an exhibit in 2009 at the Art Directors Club of New York.  In 2011, Ormond Yard Press of London published his most unusual book, an oversize (18”x24”, 14 lbs.) edition of photographs of Bruce Springsteen— Born to Run Revisted—that was limited to 500 copies.  Streets of Fire, his fifth book, was published by HarperCollins in September of 2012.