It makes perfect sense that the photographic collection Altered Landscape, founded in the early 1990s, is the seminal photography collection at the Nevada Museum of Art, in Reno. Though New Yorker’s might complain as their skyline and neighborhoods change, the vast landscape of the west cannot conceal the overwhelming changes our society has brought upon it. The Nevada Museum of Art’s collection, made possible by Carol Franc Buck, is personal in concept but universal in experience. Buck, raised in northern California, witnessed the changes sprawling suburbs brought to her once agricultural town, just as I watched as the grassy pastures of my childhood were replaced with big box stores like Walmart and Big 5. Regardless of where you grow up, however, we all have stories like these regarding the land we grew up on. “The term altered landscape in this context is sensibly understood to mean that it has changed relatively recently, and not necessarily for the better,” the critic Lucy Lippard writes of this collection.
Altered Landscape is a collection of over 900 photographs, spanning the last fifty years, by hundreds of contemporary photographers, all of whom have helped to redefine contemporary landscape photography. Leaving behind notions of pristine and idyllic nature, so popular in the early 20th century, contemporary photographers now question the disturbing consequences of modern life. Taking their cue from the New Topographic photographers and the Dusseldorf School of the 1970s, and greatly influenced by the industrial German photography team Bernd and Hilla Becher, contemporary landscape photographers have embraced the German model of objectivity. Many of the photographs in the Altered Landscape collection turn a coldly objective camera onto the landscape we inhabit, scar, deface and pollute. Collectively these photographs represent a bleakly dispassionate survey of landscape photography.
The catalogue for this collection, and a recent exhibition of it at the Nevada Museum of Art (September 2011 through January 2012), is titled Altered Landscapes: Photographs of a Changing Environment (2011). It’s a big, beautiful, heavy book over a foot long in each direction, and almost 300 pages in length; it’s too heavy to look at comfortably, but is engaging because of how large and seductive the reproductions are. It’s also a book consisting almost entirely of photographs. The four essays in the middle of the book, demarcated by bright orange, are powerful but short, the introduction is to the point, and the explanation for each photographer’s work is succinct to non-existent. Provocative quotes from each author’s essay are taken out of context and float throughout the book in large, brightly colored letters. These quotes are unnecessary and give the catalogue a coffee table appearance it would otherwise lack.
The publishers (Skira Rizzoli), however, do seem aware of the fact that the artists need little explanation, making Skira Rizzoli smart enough to let the photographs in the collection speak for themselves. The book, arranged by the museum’s curator of exhibitions and collections Ann Wolfe, is designed to give a kind of visual continuity to the massive collection of images. Falling back on formal minimalism, Wolfe has arranged the photographs by line, color and composition, where one photograph often leads directly into another. The most obvious and distracting moments of the layout are when the photographs are grouped by subject — a spread of pipelines, gas stations or suburban houses. This forces us to rank images that have no similarities outside of their subject matter, in a sort of if-you’ve-seen-one-gas station-you’ve-seen-them-all manner. It becomes easy to dismiss images simply because they happen to feel repetitious, which does not benefit this catalogue or our impression of the collection.
Despite Wolfe’s awkward attempt at organization, the Altered Landscape collection is incredibly and impressively diverse. It includes photographers who analyze the landscape from every possible perspective, and who harbor an overwhelming diversity of intent. There are the detached and epic photographers who allow the landscape itself to overwhelm their viewers. This is seen in images like Victoria Sambunaris sweeping photograph of the Alaskan oil pipeline that snakes through the breathtaking mountain range and valley of the Atigun Pass, or in Edward Burtynsky’s sea of car tires in Westly, California.
There are the photographers who document the residential footprint we are more familiar and comfortable with, though it’s doubtful if it is any less destructive. Lee Friedlander, snapping photographs from his car window of American towns and cities, and Robert Adams, who voyeuristically peers his lens into residential homes and windows, both address concerns surrounding our built landscapes, be they urban or suburban. There are earth artists who see the landscape itself as a material. Robert Smithson’s infamous Spiral Jetty, Christo and Jeanne–Claude’s manmade interventions and Andy Goldsworthy’s ingenious contributions, like his trench-like “Red River” dug where a real river used to run, are a few of the collections photographed earthworks. Though in the minority, a few photographers in the collection favor a less literal, more abstract and constructed approach. David Maisel’s aerial photographs look less like geometric agro patterns, and more like painterly fields of abstract color, and Amy Stein’s cover photograph of a howling coyote beneath a nighttime, suburban streetlamp is actually stuffed.
It’s hard to group the work of so many artists together, and to describe the overall intent of this kind of collection, but the purpose is to bring our attention to the environment, and awareness to the hand we collectively have in the destruction of it. Many of the photographers in Altered Landscapes utilize breathtaking ugliness to achieve this, and the collection functions almost like the antidote to the National Geographic style of saturated landscape that we are so used to seeing. As Lucy Lippard states in her catalogue essay titled Neutered Landscapes, “whether or not the artists were focused on aesthetic illumination or harbored activist intent, their images are wake-up calls.”
The most interesting aspect of this collection is that while most of the photographers in Altered Landscapes are well known and familiar, the result of seeing them altogether changes their work. It’s almost as though Altered Landscapes should only be seen and discussed as a collection, as it’s own body of work, as something new made from individual images. The power of the collection comes precisely from looking at so many different viewpoints, techniques and styles. Paging through Altered Landscapes we constantly struggle to define and redefine the photographs in it, to discover the meaning of the collection rather than each individual image. The collection is confusing more than it is depressing, complicated more than it is reductive, as though the problem of our environment has many different contributors, and the solution has many possibilities. As Ann Wolfe states in her essay, “these images suggest that the earth’s surface offers an irrefutable record of some of human civilization’s most impressive endeavors — as well as its worst failures.”