Activism might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you see an image of a stark mountain range or a ghostly forest, but the role of landscape photography in activism was the central focus of a lecture last Tuesday, Mar. 8, by renowned art critic Lucy Lippard. The lecture, hosted at Benson Auditorium as part of Pitzer College’s Unsettled Landscapes program, was titled “Critical Landscape Photography: Beauty or the Beast?” The program is being funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Art and Environment Grant.
Lippard is well known for her written and curatorial work. She also cofounded Printed Matter an artistically-oriented, New York-based book shop, and the Feminist Heresies Collective, the group behind the arts magazine Heresies. Lippard has authored 23 books, among which is an influential text titled Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America.
The lecture addressed the potential manifestations and applications of landscape photography, particularly the integration of the man-made into the natural. The photographs shown at the talk featured striking visual crosses of human constructions within geological structures, and played visually and thematically with the idea of imbalance.
The sense of unease inspired by the photographs goes hand in hand with the qualities of the genre itself. “Aesthetes will ask: but is it art?” Lippard said during her lecture. To this she responded adamantly, “Who cares?”
Lippard referenced the debate surrounding the status of critical photography. In many respects, this genre is documentary, but it is also deeply artistic. Lippart argued that both can be achieved simultaneously. Lippard mentioned her interest in “art that escapes the art world and elopes with life,” tying back to her point that landscape photography can produce strong images that “outlast memory of lived experience.”
Lippard also discussed the significance of critical landscape photography to environmental activism. She referenced—with words and photographic examples—events such as the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the controversial Wyoming ban on the photography of environmental degradation.
Within this discussion, Lippard expressed a degree of concern as to whether the use of harsh imagery in environmental activism results in a social desensitization to the damage depicted. She cited photographs such as the trope image of a polar bear on a melting iceberg in her discussion of how such photographs may be “aestheticizing disaster.” As to whether this should limit the use of photography as a tool in activism—“If shallow change is all we can manage, we’re going to be all the more susceptible to the deep change that is coming,” Lippard said.
After the lecture, Lippard answered questions from the audience, many of which pertained to her influence and activity in untraditional artistic ventures, especially with respect to spaces and collectives. Some of the questions also addressed issues such as the sorts of mediums that might be used for the successful proliferation of landscape photography, as well as the mass marketing of equipment enabling everyday photography, such as smartphones.
Whether it is an Ansel Adams-style masterpiece or a photo snapped on your mobile device, images of nature interacting with culture can be powerful pathways for activism.