This paper investigates the role of photography in the construction and deconstruction of “visual identities” for the American West (from the wilderness myth to man-altered landscapes), analyzing the power of photographic traces of the past to create a “collective memory” for imaginary identifications, between regional or local characteristics and national or global aspirations.
The practice of re-photography is considered in a wider and plural sense: the precise technique of relocating the exact point of view in order to see the changes in landscapes over time (the projects in the second part of the presentation), but also a form of “boosterism” of Western landscape images that is still present for example in magazines promoting the national parks experience (the section “Wilderness and the American mind”), and a more metaphorical sense of re-photography as re-framing: re-framing of the west from wilderness icons to man-altered landscapes, but also re-framing of photographs of the West in and out the art field (the section “Re-framing the west”).
Taking as a starting point the capacity of photographic representations to capture landscapes in particular historical moments, and at the same time to influence decisions about their preservation or transformation, I focus on their function in reaffirming or challenging perceptions of space and place as well as on the very notion of photographic heritage. Indeed, the idea of a visual inventory of the world, the perspective of a cultural history of photography and the consequences of the “pictorial turn” show the possibility of a visual knowledge and thinking, but also an alteration of the very sense of past and time, further transformed by the more recent digital and web turns. Actually, the fact of knowing if a picture will be printed or uploaded on a website can influence the act of taking it.
From the 19th century expeditions in the West, to the 20th century environmental battles, through the rise of the preservation movement and tourism, landscape photographs have contributed to the construction of the idea of pristine nature as an exceptional American resource to conquer, exploit, protect or enjoy. For example, firstly disseminated to the public through stereographs and postcards and then through magazines like the National Geographic or Arizona Highways, photographs have had an important role in shaping the perception and the understanding of the National Parks.
A new interest in the vernacular landscape and the built environment from around the 50s has come to challenge this idea, through photographic practices that from around the 70s are more concerned with the transformations of landscapes, their experience and historicity (we can take as key moments the exhibitions “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape” and “The Great West: Real/Ideal”, but also some surveys of the 80s and 90s in the Southwest). From the surveys “Second view” and “Third view” (1984, 2004) to the more recent “Reconstructing the View: The Grand Canyon” (2011) and “Oblique Views: Archaeology, Photography and Time” (2015), the practice of re-photography is used in order to see past images as present public history.
Chiara Salari is a 2nd year PhD candidate at the LARCA, working on a thesis on “Contemporary practices of landscape photography in a cross-cultural Euro/American perspective” under the supervision of François Brunet. She has a co-tutelle with Roma 3 University in Italy where she obtained a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in “Cinema, television and multimedia production” before undertaking the Erasmus Mundus Master “Crossways in cultural narratives” between Canada (Guelph) and France (Perpignan).