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“The Altered Landscape:

The Carol Franc Buck Collection”

Even fans of American art would admit that much of the stuff is, if not necessarily ugly, then about ugliness. Certainly for the past 150 years or so. Forget the unintentionally kitschy views of the Hudson River painters, as derided as they’ve been over the years. Picture instead the gloomy streetscapes of the Ashcan School, the jagged abstractions of Kline and Motherwell, the psychosexual dramas of Eric Fischl, the slave-trade silhouettes of Kara Walker, and so on and so on. You could call such unflinching depictions a byproduct of modernity, but that might not be too different from calling them a byproduct of Americanness.

Historically, photography has been especially well-positioned for expressing both conditions. It matured into more or less its present technological form just in time to document both the carnage of the Civil War and the rocky, windswept landscape of the expansionist West. And despite the potential for kitsch inherent in the latter subject, it’s one of the medium’s most enduring. Indeed, the lands first documented on glass plates by Alexander Gardner, William Henry Jackson, and Timothy O’Sullivan are still such a draw for photographers that the Nevada Museum of Art had an excess of material to work with when it assembled the precursor of the National Academy of Sciences’ current show, “The Altered Landscape: The Carol Franc Buck Collection.”

Featuring 65 images by more than two dozen photographers, the exhibition turns on the question of whether a landscape that’s shaped by—or even despoiled by—mankind can be as beautiful as the nature that existed before man arrived. It’s a fair query, but in posing it, the curators display a surprisingly loose grasp of history. The opening wall texts even proclaim that Western landscape photographs “traditionally…promulgated the idea of a beautiful and pristine nature—an essentially romanticized view of the environment…that persisted until relatively recently.”

It’s true that mid-20th-century photographic giants such as Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter, both of whom had strong ties to the then-nascent environmental movement, tended to equate beauty with untrammeled nature. But look back a few decades further and it becomes clear that the beauty-vs.-ugliness divide in Western landscape photography is a false dichotomy.

Whereas those Hudson River School paintings of the mid 19th century are notable for their lush valleys, roaring rivers, and over-the-top sunsets, photographers on the American frontier were not averse to chronicling the scars made by industrialization. The era’s photographers—then perceived as working men as much as artists—typically had no quarrel with railroad, mining, and timber interests. If they weren’t directly contracted by these industries, then they were at least dependent on them for survival in what was then a thinly settled corner of the world. The same went for photographers doing work for the federal government: In those days, federal policy was much more oriented toward economic development than land conservation. (It wasn’t until 1872, for example, that Yellowstone became our first national park.)

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This is not an obscure theory; the point was made emphatically in the exhibition “Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception,” which appeared across town at the National Gallery of Art just five years ago. The show assigned equal space, and merit, to the photographic pioneer’s works on nature and industry. For every depiction of a striking vista, there was a monumental print of a mine, dam, or logging operation. As curator Douglas Nickel wrote in the catalog, it is wrong to argue that “the photographer’s muse was Nature herself….Watkins’ subject as a whole was never really ‘nature’ so much as it was ‘natural resources and their development.’”

What “The Altered Landscape”’s organizers may have intended to communicate is not that it’s a relatively new idea to apply their medium’s beautifying techniques and effects to something most of us would consider ugly, but that artists are increasingly doing so self-consciously, daring viewers to choose sides on a difficult question. This approach is most closely associated with Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz, both of whom have works from the 1970s in “The Altered Landscape.” Adams’ piece captures a black cloud of burning oil sludge against a white sky and snow; the 12 images from Baltz’s groundbreaking Nevada Portfolio include one of the angular wooden skeleton of a house under construction, seen in the moonlight amidst the more organic shapes of the surrounding mountains. Mankind out of harmony with nature? Sure. Visually compelling? That, too.

The descendants of Adams and Baltz have found continued success with this approach. Timothy Hearsum’s Bagdad, California (1992) updates the ubiquitous locomotive imagery of the old Western photographers by documenting a speeding train as it passes a forlorn track-side sign, distant mountains reflecting off its sleek windows. Terry Falke photographed the Hoover Dam at dusk, catching the unnatural structure under a gorgeous indigo sky and a web of electric lights. Edward Burtynsky, a Canadian who’s been attracting major buzz in the art world over the past few years, contributed several works to the exhibition, including a jaw-dropping image of horrendous contamination: a river of nickel tailings rolling through a severely charred landscape. It’s an image that wouldn’t have seemed out of place among John Martin’s Paradise Lost– inspired illustrations of Hell 180 years ago.

Perhaps that’s because, like Martin, Burtynsky traffics in images that are more Romantic than romanticized. In the aesthetics of the era, his works are not beautiful but sublime. As the philosopher Edmund Burke wrote in 1757, “beauty should be smooth and polished; the [sublime], rugged and negligent;…beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy: beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive.” Beauty, Burke argued, is founded on pleasure; the sublime—though it can produce pleasurable sensations when represented—is founded on pain. The modern American landscape, bearing the impact of habitation, industrialization, and pollution, undoubtedly belongs in the latter category.

Nonetheless, a few of the exhibition’s images are conventionally beautiful, such as Peter de Lory’s depiction of a spindly lightning bolt against a looming sky or Terry Evans’ aerial photograph of haystacks looking like fabric buttons sewn onto a piece of velour. But the remainder of the show, a mixture of visual oddities and hit-or-miss conceptual art, offers a clear challenge to the idea that the Western landscape photograph is—or, really, ever has been—all about unaltered natural beauty.

Christo’s well-known Valley Curtain of 1970– 1972 is documented here, as is a series of not very compelling photographs of the “measured landscape”—minimalist earth art using pieces of tape, string, rope, or foil arranged with precision in natural settings. A more provocative riff on the same theme comes from D.C. native Jim Sanborn, who projected geometric patterns of light on monumental rocks and then photographed them. Patrick Nagatani, too, makes an intriguing statement about artistic representation as intrusion, with a photograph of hands holding a photograph of a more natural vista that’s presumably somewhere nearby.

Len Jenshel photographed a portion of a lodge in Monument Valley, Utah, during a brilliant, purple-and-peach-hued sunset, but its classically Western wood fence and wagon wheels are visually counterbalanced by the presence of two bright-orange traffic cones. And Robert Dawson presents viewers with a black-and-white image of an easily circumvented gate on a lakefront dock and another of a California spillway that’s notable for a perfectly circular hole that allows water to rush downward. The latter is one of “The Altered Landscape”’s most compelling pictures, because it mixes natural and manmade forms in a way that doesn’t condescend to either.

But the works that most effectively connect the show’s content with the Western photography of the 19th century do so less because of subject matter than because of sheer conceptual craftiness. Mark Klett contributed two images of an intriguingly twisted cactus made by the photogravure process—a contrast-heavy technique that reached its height of popularity in the late 1800s. And two photographers, Peter Goin and Mark Ruwedel, appended titles to the bottom of their images in old-fashioned textured fonts, making them look like vintage cabinet cards. It’s a small touch, but it makes for a worthy homage—and illustrates that, even if they diverge from their wagon-riding predecessors in some ways, today’s Western landscapists are taking pictures of the same old ugly scenery.CP