The Power of Place

The Power of Place

French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) is credited as the creator of the first landscape photograph. In 1826, he made a heliograph of the courtyard, outbuildings and trees surrounding his family home in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes with the camera obscura. The process took days of sunlight exposure and eventually resulted in a blurry but recognisabe print. Since then, camera technology has come a long way and, today, we get to experience a variety of landscape photography, from the pink salt lakes of Kherson in Yevhen Samuchenko work to Henri Prestes’ moody twilight scenes to Diane Tuft’s aerial shots of the Chesapeake Bay, Florida Keys and Marshall Islands. Now, Worcester Art Museum presents a show dedicated to the genre. New Terrain focuses on contemporary lens-based artists who explore diverse settings. It’s a group show comprising around 30 artworks created over the past 20 years. Alongside investigating the style, this show celebrates ways practitioners have reinvented the medium.

Visitors are guided through four loose thematic sections, beginning with non-traditional applications of photo-based processes. Here, we find the work of American artist Meghann Riepenhoff (b. 1979), who is known for striking cameraless cynotypes. Her series Littoral Drift #3 (2015) hangs on the gallery walls, showing an abstract explosion of white against varying shades of blue. The title refers to the transportation of sediment – such as sand and pebbles – along a coast parallel to the shoreline, giving us a clue at the subject matter. Riepenhoff’s made the piece by dipping light-sensitive cyanotype paper into the ocean. The result maintains the dynamism of crashing waves despite being forever frozen in time and space. Riepenhoff’s piece is arguably more representative of a seascape than a vista captured through more conventional photographic practices because of its direct relationship with the ocean.

In the next section, which explores history and memory, we find Penelope Umbrico’s (b. 1957) Range: of Masters of Photography (2014). Here are 36 individually framed pigment prints of mountains. Umbrico sourced them through the internet, using the iconic shots available to many of us through a quick google image search. She then edits them using an iPhone camera app and transforms them into new images through layers and filters. Today, we are seeing more and more artists engage with the plethora of images available at our fingertips – with an average of 1.8 billion more uploaded every day – such as Caroline Jane Harris, Harriet Moutsopoulos and Trevor Paglen. In this series, Umbrico disrupts typical associations of these landforms with stability by showing the many ways in which they can be manipulated and minimised.

History and memory connect the pieces in the next section. This part of the New Terrain includes work by American image-maker David Maisel (b. 1961). His contribution is the Terminal Mirage series, a project that examines the impact of human intervention in nature and the large-scale consequences that scar our landscapes. Maisel traveled around the periphery of Utah’s Great Salt Lake to capture aerial photographs and record the damage and pollution inflicted by humans. The bird’s-eye view is a perspective more and more photographers have employed to highlight not only the beauty of sprawling natural vistas but humanity’s far-reaching damage to the environment. Maisel’s work brings to mind other key photographers, such as Edward Burtynsky and Diane Tuft, whose work brings audiences face to face with the realities of pollution. It’s a way to see the impact of the climate emergency right before our eyes.

The final section looks at identity and features the work of Dawoud Bey and Sarah Sense. In this way, attendees are reminded of humanity’s relationship with the environment before leaving the show. This aligns with the broader aim of New Terrain: to inspire reflection. These innovative shots and camera techniques leave a lasting impact on the viewer that causes us to see the world in a new light. Images are entry points into deeper narratives about climate change, history, identity, political activism and technology. This is what makes the contemporary approach to such a time-honoured subject so impactful.

Worcester Art Museum, New Terrain: 21st Century Landscape Photography | Until 7 July

Image Credits:

  1. David Maisel, Terminal Mirage #12, 2005. Chromogenic print sheet: 121.9 x 121.9 cm (48 x 48 in.) frame: 128 x 128 cm (50.40 x 50.40 in.) Gift of David Maisel 2005.220.
  2. Julian Charrière, Buried Sunshines Burn | HZK.B4P, 2023. Heliography on high-polished stainless steel plate, aluminum sub -frame, stainless steel frame, museum glass. Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly, New York/Los Angeles.