The student is asked to read the essay ‘Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men’ by Deborah Bright and then note the key points of interest and any personal reflections from the essay.
Bright’s essay was written in 1985, the midpoint in the Regan Presidency when corporate America and Reaganomics were the driving power behind the American ascendancy. The third opening of American manifest destiny was possible, the American dream, of expansion into space and leading the world into a new future. The first Manifest destiny had passed and was now a distant memory kept alive on TV screens playing old John Ford movies and in the advertisement ego of the Marlboro man; the last stand of the cowboy in the middle of the US, along with his horse and his cigarettes, alone in what remains of the American landscape around him (usually the high plains or Arizona’s painted desert.
Bright is correct in framing the Marlboro man images as proto-political landscapes, these images are redolent of the geographical photography of O’Sullivan, Adams and Weston, all of them missing any feminine point of view or interest. After all, Landscape painting was a male-dominated domain, one which in the 17th and 18th centuries were not welcoming to women, who were thought not to be intelligent enough to understand or produce worthy landscapes. Marlboro man’s version of the American pioneer completely erases the pioneering women who successfully drove west with the wagon trains and made a substantial contribution to American life and to American history.
As was pointed out, in Andrews ‘Landscape and Western Art’, pp 166, Landscape painting, while attempting to reflect a certain amount of scientific accuracy, was also a constructed text of selected subjects. Thus, as in the case in Constable’s Hay Wain where the workers have no faces or real detail, they are background figures, happily performing their duties. In reality, the workers in the fields were rioting due to a lack of work and income, partially due to war and partially due to the start of industrialisation and the industrial revolution which would render a vast number of these workers’ jobs as redundant. Constable did not include these social and political changes and upheaval as they were unsuitable subjects for a gentile landscape painting. Constable deliberately chose which parts of the landscape he wanted to represent and through that choice, disregarded the rest.
This very same choice was being made and driven within American Landscape photography from the 1940s onwards. With the growth of tourism, advertising was the biggest manufacturer of landscape images, ditching the landscape representation of change through human interaction and instead presenting the characteristic image of the wide-open America, a landscape which stretches on for miles, unexplored but yet ready and prepared to welcome tourists with roadside lodges and all modern amenities available. The marketing of the male gaze of the landscape, by the same marketing men as the Marlboro man, created the idea of the ‘back to nature’ trip, where for a short period of time, people would harken back to the nostalgia of the rigours of the pioneer life, but without the danger. These trips would, of course, be captured on camera as a memory of the holiday – nature fit for human consumption.
Certainly, within this aesthetic, the landscape of America was treated as the unexplored wilderness of Ansel Adams Eden-like interpretation. Very much like Constable’s Hay Wain, the political landscape is ignored in favour of the spectacular but sanitised view of the subject. Bright in the same way, points to Szarkowski whom she suggests lifted the works of O’Sullivan and Weston out of context and repackaged them ‘as the indisputable sires’ of landscape photography.
As a counterpoint, Bright suggests that the work of the New Topographics photographers was the start of a movement of social critique within landscape photography. It was a limited movement Bright details due to a lack of understanding and expectation on what should be critiqued and how. Certainly, the 1970s was not the hotbed of social activism and revolution that we see today, and now the barricade to keep art free from ‘overt politics’ has been broken down.
Bright is correct in saying that the artist themselves influences the final image, through their own practice and perceptions, both social and political. Bright is also correct in stating that in the 1980s, there was a lack of support for Landscape created by female photographers and artists and by using methods of mass production and low costs, female artists had replicated the methods used by male marketing teams to make their work available to the larger public. Therefore, circumventing the interwoven gallery-led market for art, which has allowed them to articulate their ideas and politics through their landscape imagery.
In closing, Bright suggests that women may eventually break the idea that Landscape photography is the sole domain of white male photographers, who like the Marlboro man, are explorer, guide, hunter and preserver, solely responsible for the land. It can be seen outside of America that this is already happening with the work of Artists such as Fay Godwin, Susan Derges, and Vanessa Winship. It can be seen as Bright wanted, that breakthroughs are happening, for example, the work of Lois Connor whose use of large format platinum prints, creates exemplary monochrome landscapes of beauty. Connors imagery of Utah, South Dakota and China are as resplendent as the work of Adams or O’Sullivan, in my opinion.
Bright, D. (1985) ‘Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men An Inquiry Into the Cultural Meanings of Landscape Photography’, , (), pp. [Online]. Available at: http://www.deborahbright.net/PDF/Bright-Marlboro.pdf (Accessed: 1st May 2019).
Andrews, M. (1999) Landscape and Western Art, Reprint edn., Oxford: OUP.
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