18 December 2006

The Political Uses of the Sublime

This afternoon I've been moving bunches of books to and fro in the house and, in the process, discovered this one which I bought a year or so ago and then never actually read. It is Natural Visions: The Power of Images in American Environmental Reform (University of Chicago Press), written by historian Finis Dunaway.

The book explores what its subtitle announces over the first seven decades of the 20th Century. Dunaway attributes the power of images to the efforts of environmentalists to establish and re-establish connections between nature and the sublime, the sense of overwhelming awe and wonder. More specifically, he focuses on the "political uses of the sublime" in three different periods. For the Progressives the sublime was "romantic" and photographers like Herbert Gleason (1855-1937) focused on majestic mountains, thundering falls and towering cliffs. During the New Deal the sublime became "catastrophic" in the face of destructive floods and droughts. In the post-WWII era the sublime shifted yet again in the sense that photographers like Eliot Porter (1901–1990) sought to induce "a sense of surprise and wonder" among viewers not just in the panoramic manner of Ansel Adams (1902-84) but in response to much more intimate scenes.

For me, Dunaway's thesis has terrific resonance. He calls into question the conventional distinction between the aesthetic strategies of landscape photography and the purposes of "documentary," especially the endeavor by various "art" photographers over the course of seventy years to place "the camera in the service of politics hoping that images could galvanize concern for their reform efforts at the national level." One might question whether environmentalists have adopted effective strategies, but one can hardly deny their aims. Once again, adhering too tightly to conventional dichotomies leads us astray when we try to assess the uses of photography.

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