Into the Landscape
As a genre, landscape is attracting renewed interest. One possible reason for this is that, as a genre, it has become so hackneyed and over-exploited. Another might be that we can no longer take nature for granted.
Beyond a doubt, in the visual arts landscape has been used as a symbol of power, status, escape or as a space for dreaming and contemplation. Is landscape something we should view with nostalgia, or should we approach it with an alert and conscious attitude?
To perceive a landscape as beautiful, sublime or picturesque presupposes a distance between the viewer and the nature that is seen. At the same time, for something to be viewed as aesthetic we have to assume that the viewer has some opinion about what is beautiful and what is ugly. Even if we suppose the gaze to be individual, both the era and the culture we live in will influence our gaze. The way people looked at landscapes during the renaissance was different from how they viewed them in the romantic period, and we today view them yet differently.
The museum's collection has been supplied by loans from artists home and abroad, collectors and institutions like Norsk Industriarbeidermuseum, Drammens museum, Die Photographische Sammlung – August Sander Archiv og Collection C. F. D. R, Paris gjennom gb agency, Paris.
- Per Berntsen (NO 1953-)
- Elina Brotherus (FI 1972-)
- Hans Peter Chr. Dahm (NO 1787-1844)
- Ilkka Halso (FI 1965 -)
- Brødrene Henry (FR 1848-1905/1849-1903)
- Axel Hütte (DE 1951-)
- Anders Kjær (NO 1940-)
- Halvard Kjærvik (NO 1946-)
- Axel Lindahl (SE 1841-96)
- Bård Løken (NO 1964-)
- Léonard Misonne (BE 1870-1943)
- Raymond Mosken (NO 1957-)
- Ragnar Mørk (NO 1906-2002)
- Normanns Kunstforlag (NO)
- Jorma Puranen (FI 1951-)
- Ed Ruscha (US 1937-)
- August Sander (DE 1876-1964)
- Mari Slaattelid (NO 1960-)
- Stiftelsen Norsk Landskap (NO)
- Per Olav Torgnesskar (NO 1966-)
- Underwood & Underwood (US)
- Fjellanger Widerøe (NO)
- Rolf M. Aagaard (NO 1945-)
From vistas and topography to documentary and concept art
In the early days of photography, two forms of landscape painting existed in Norway – the vista and the romantic landscape. Vista painting, the oldest form of landscape representation in Norway, served primarily to depict a specific landscape in a straightforward and sober manner, like a portrait. This form of landscape depiction was closely associated with land ownership and financial interests. In Norway its popularity was greatest from the late 18th century through until photography took over the task.
It was thanks not least to Danish painters that the Norwegian landscape was “discovered” and began to be appreciated as interesting. At the academy exhibition of 1794, Danish landscape painting enjoyed a breakthrough that brought the Norwegian landscape into focus, making it into a destination for artists and tourists. Several such vistas were published as so-called Voyages pittoresques, travel accounts in pictures.
The two vistas by Hans Peter Chr. Dahm (1787–1844) on display here belong to this tradition. Dahm was one of the first painters to settle in Drammen, where he drew and painted views of the town between 1810 and 1820. Dahm’s paintings provide an impression of the verdant valley and the expanding town. From the very beginning, the fascination of photography was associated with its perceived quality of transparency – a picture seen in virtue of what happened to be in front of the camera lens at the moment the image was taken. It was therefore natural for photography to take the place of vista painting.
At the same time it was with the former landscape painting that photography was initially compared. The picture that aspired to beauty was the romantic painting. It is therefore hardly surprising that photographers took pictures that were closely modelled on familiar romantic motifs in painting. Knud Knudsen (1832–1915) was one photographer whose work extended the tradition of vista painting; he was the first to photograph Norway systematically, building up an archive that covered the country from Kristiansand to the North Cape. In his work, photography develops into a medium that no longer offers a mere second rate and cheap copy of a painting.
As early as the 1840s, people were attempting to take astronomical daguerreotypes, but it was not until much later in the century, when the collodion and, later, the gelatin-silver processes became established, that astronomical photography really got going. Two astronomers employed at the observatory in Paris, the brothers Paul and Prosper Henry (1848–1905; 1849–1903), began using photography in 1884 and commissioned the production of a special lens that made it possible to study the Milky Way.
Astronomical photography is perhaps not the first thing that comes to mind in conjunction with landscape. It is a kind of photography with a gaze directed beyond the immediate environment, which is often employed in the service of research. But it is precisely these characteristics that provided new aesthetic impulses that could be pursued by artists.
Just as the exploration of outer space spawned a new type of image, aerial photography was used from early on to map the earth from above. The Frenchman Nadar was the first to take pictures from a hot air balloon back in 1858. The firm Widerøes Flyveselskap A/S (later Fjellanger Widerøe Foto AS) was set up by five flying enthusiasts centred around Viggo Widerøe in 1934, and has been a leading producer of aerial photography in Norway since 1935. From the outset, this firm produced panorama pictures and mapped the country for private individuals, local authorities and institutions, serving cartographical purposes, documentation and decoration. The landscape photographs from the 1950s shown here are typical examples of what are known as oblique aerial photographs.
Several artists have seen potential in aerial photography as a form of expression. One example is the American Edward Ruscha (1937–), who has made considerable use of aerial photography to develop projects that map out repetitive forms and render them apparent. Ruscha’s analytic approach employs photography as a cataloguing tool, but it also highlights the aesthetics and uniformity of our consumer society. The series Parking Lots (1967) takes as its subject matter the functional landscapes and the simple patterns imposed on our environment by our dependence on cars; the bird’s-eye view is ideally suited to reveal the raster-like aspects of such localities.
Another exemplar of aerial photography is Raymond Mosken (1957–), but in contrast to Ruscha, Mosken does not use the serial method. Mosken’s photographs exist at the intersection between documentary and art, with powerful associations to mechanical surveillance on the one hand and to modernism and its aesthetics on the other.
Landscape photography as art
From the earliest days of photography, its practitioners sought to be taken seriously as artists, but the practical dimension of their medium and its increasingly industrial character made recognition difficult to achieve. In it pure form, landscape painting has been a genre of high status in northern Europe since the turn of the 19th century. It was therefore only natural that photographers who were interested in landscape for reasons other that cartography and documentation looked to painting in order to elevate the status of their images.
No less important were attempts to formulate a theory of photography as an art along the lines of theories of painting. In some circles camera clubs were established, which mounted regular exhibitions, published journals, organised training and cultivated contacts beyond national borders. These clubs advocated a new style – pictorialism – which reached its highpoint around 1900.
In many ways, the Belgian Léonard Misonne (1870–1943) holds a unique position in the history of pictorialism. Throughout his career of almost 50 years, he worked almost exclusively with landscapes. Misonne’s landscapes are peaceful, full of light, potential meeting places for people. From 1901 onwards Misonne made use almost exclusively of the Fresson technique, a direct carbon process invented by the Fresson firm, in addition to which he made extensive use of toning. On his own admission he disliked manipulation and limited it to what was absolutely necessary, preferring instead to take his photographs at moments when the light rendered details obscure or foggy and hence somewhat mystical.
Camera clubs also existed in Norway in this period, although it was not until the 1920s that they became well established. Ragnar Mørk (1906–2002) trained as a pharmacist, loved outdoor life and was an ardent amateur photographer. Mørk’s photographs reveal his sense of harmonic composition and good copying. The picture series on display here is from the 1930s and was taken during a holiday trip. The photographer’s wife features recurrently in his landscapes.Even so, she is not the romantic figure with her back turned to the viewer so typical of early 19th century painting.
In the context of the tradition concerned with the dialogue between painting and photography, it is interesting to consider two very different image makers: Rolf M. Aagaard (1945–) and Anders Kjær (1940–). Whereas the former is a press photographer who has also done artistic work, the latter is a painter and graphic artist who has long been interested in the newer possibilities of photography. In Aagaard’s large landscape Snø, Hardangervidda (2002), the gaze is personal and hence detached from space and locality.The landscape lies there as a vague association in the background, like something we might not notice were it not for the title.
Anders Kjær adopts a very different approach. He is one of a small number of Norwegian artists to have made notable use of the photographic medium, with which he has worked since he was a member of the artist group GRAS in the early 1970s. The series on show in this exhibition leaves us in no doubt that photography provides the starting point for the graphic design. At the same time we see subtle effects such as several superimposed motifs and retouchings that distance the landscapes from their photographic point of departure.
The landscape as deconstructed battlefield
In recent years several artists have used photography as a means to investigate sensory perception and the relation between art history and art. Are there similarities in contemporary society’s attitudes towards art on the one hand and landscape on the other? When everything is a matter of rapid consumption and entertainment, both often get reduced to pure status symbols, or they take on a fetishistic aspect. In this context, the two photographs Scene #1 and #2 (Romantic Backdrop) by Mari Slaattelid (1960–) are interesting.
These are part of the artist’s investigation into what the painter Lars Hertervig (1830–1902) and traditional painting in general have meant to her. From early on, rules were established for how works of art should be photographed, the aim being for the photographer to remain as inconspicuous as possible. More recently, photographers and painters, Slaattelid among them, have used photography precisely in order to point out what the contemplation and appreciation of art involves. By allowing a reflection of the camera flash to appear on the surface of Lars Hertervig’s paintings, she makes us aware not only of brushstrokes and craquelure, but also of the photograph as such. The flash bleaches out the painting so that we see it not as it was intended or really is, but as the lens of Slaattelid’s camera sees it.
The series The New Painting (started 2000) by the Finn Elina Brotherus also takes art history as its point of departure, or more precisely, it looks at the role of art history as a filter in the ways we view ourselves and the world about us. In addition, it questions the influence of older art – with its rules of composition, colour use, perspective and space – on young artists seeking to create something new.
The German Axel Hütte (1951–) has always worked with landscapes and with large-format cameras that produce 8"x10" negatives. Such an apparatus rules out the possibility of spontaneous snapshots, demanding instead careful planning for every picture. In the series Portrait, he presents the picture turned on its head, as it appears on the focusing screen. By means of this inversion the person reflected in the water stands out against the landscape as in a standard full-figure portrait, despite the fact that the reflection was in fact upside down at the time of exposure. In other words, it is a reflection he has photographed, not the person.
The tricks that nature can play on our senses and the manipulations of experience are also a focal theme for the Finn Jorma Puranen (1951–). In the series Icy Prospects, facts, imaginings, geographic fantasies and mental landscapes are all interwoven. The photographs of landscapes reflected in highly polished wooden surfaces prompt a multitude of responses and thoughts. These images are both beautiful and disturbing. They are beautiful because they give scope for meditation and dreams – Puranen himself tells us that it was tourists at the North Cape staring into the fog in search of utopian landscapes in the ice that inspired him to create this series. And they are disturbing because they force us to acknowledge the extent to which our gaze is culturally determined.
The photographic project of another Finn, Ilkka Halso (1965–) approaches the landscape from a very different angle. By means of extensive staging and, more recently, of digital manipulation, he portrays nature as an isolated object in need of protection, as something that can be placed in a museum or repaired. In the pictures of the series Restoration (2000), he has committed nature to a field hospital. Here we see trees and plants in confinement and undergoing repairs, subjected to artificial support and illumination.
Landscape documentary and new topography as art
Just as Knudsen photographed Norway, travel photographers around the world documented landscapes and local photographers documented changes to their local environments. Although this activity was rarely regarded as art, it often had a platform of its own in the form of postcards, books, magazines and individually marketed pictures. In the 1920s there was a new campaign to get photography accepted as an art form. With some justification one can say there were two directions. One movement arose in Europe among artists whose backgrounds were not first and foremost in photography, another in the US among so-called “straight” photographers.
The German photographer August Sander (1876–1964), best known for series of portraits in which he catalogues human types, worked with the landscape of the Rhine valley, primarily between 1929 and 1946, a landscape shaped by human activity, and often by quite brutal industrial exploitation. But the views he selects are panoramas seen from a distance, which therefore take on a conciliatory aspect. Although Sander’s industrial landscapes show little formal innovation, they do represent a style that in many ways records the transition from painterly interest to modern direct photography.
Many contemporary artists also like to use an investigative, serial approach in the same “straight” tradition as Sander. The aim often seems to be to reveal changes, everyday shapes and urban landscapes as alternatives to the unspoilt nature of romanticism, or to landscape as a historic locality. One such practitioner who has already been mentioned is Raymond Mosken; two others are Halvard Kjærvik (1946–) and Per Berntsen (1953–).
Berntsen’s project Forandringer (Changes; 2004–05) is a “rephotographic” project inspired by the Rephotographic Survey Project in the US (1970s). In this project he starts out from old photographs of Rjukan but then uses an approach that deviates slightly from the American model. Since he did not have access to the original negatives, he has produced new copies of the images on the same paper and with the same dimensions as the new photographs he himself has taken.
Halvard Kjærvik belongs to a generation that grew up steeped in stories about World War II. For many years he has documented historic traces of the war in the Norwegian landscape – remains of prison camps, bunkers, war memorials, or quite simply places where people were killed, or where the battleship Tirpitz was once anchored. His landscape photographs are small and intimate in their format and cropping, in striking contrast to the central place in communal memory of the events they describe. In several pictures we also see clear or subtle traces of the photographer’s presence: a section of a car, an open car door, or a camera.
The history of photography in Norway does not include many collective projects. One of the few is Stiftelsen Norsk Landskap (1987). All four of the photographers involved had worked with landscape as a motif before setting out in the summer of 1987 with a shared 8"x10" camera. They were inspired by the tradition of topographic photography in America, and were critical of the glorified and idealised landscape imagery typical of earlier painters, the tourist industry and postcard photographers.
Instead, this group pointed their camera at the mundane landscape they encountered along their travel route, in an endeavour to update conceptions of Norway. The project emphasised the group’s communal aspect, requiring that all participants should approve what was being photographed and that no one photographer should claim responsibility for the individual pictures, as is common in exhibition contexts.
Per Olav Torgnesskar (1966–) is another who was preoccupied with the Norwegian landscape in the 1990s. His projects have dealt systematically with the contrast between viewing reality directly and seeing it through a medium such as photography or video. The project shown here would seem to belong in the same documentational, topographic tradition as that of Stiftelsen Norsk Landskap, but at the same time, his works offer an entirely new angle, namely of the road movie. By means of movement and sound, he conveys the spirit of the times, their social democratic optimism, yet also the unheroic routines of everyday life.
The use and consumption of the landscape
Norway is not the only country to have experienced an improved quality of life in and since the 19th century. Right across Europe, modernisation, trade and industrial growth led to increased mobility for many sectors of the population. One result of these changes was the transformation of the upper class Grand Tour into tourism available to a burgeoning middle class, and eventually, in the post World War II period, into an annual ritual for the great majority of people.
In 1882 the publisher Richard Andvord engaged the Swedish photographer Axel Lindahl (1841–96) to photograph Norway. In the course of the time he spent in Norway, Lindahl crisscrossed the country building up an archive of negatives encompassing some 3000 images, similar to that compiled by his Norwegian contemporary Knud Knudsen. Several of Lindahl’s photographs are so similar to those of Knudsen as to make it probable that he studied the Norwegian’s work before embarking on his trip. But Lindahl was no plagiarist. In many cases his pictures are fresher than Knudsen’s, and he also had an eye for motifs that were of little interest to his Norwegian counterpart, such as the tourists.
In 1880 the brothers Elmer and Bert Underwood set up the firm Underwood & Underwood in Ottawa, Kansas, USA. The brothers began their business selling stereoscopic photographs from door to door. Stereoscopic photographs involve two almost identical pictures which, when viewed through a stereoscope, appear to merge into a three-dimensional image.
Norway was an exotic country, and it featured in several series of images produced for the sizeable Norwegian immigrant community in the US, who formed a solid customer group. In 1907 a book of 100 pictures was published, arranged as a journey around Norway, with maps and descriptions of every image. The photographs on display here are from this series. They combine familiar tourist landscapes, spectacular views, scenes of rural and traditional village life, with urban elements such as steamboats, market squares and notable attractions. Postcards were a popular medium from the outset. In the early years of the 20th century, they were produced photographically, but with the advent of the printed card, and especially of colour printing, production runs had to be increased in order to be profitable.
This tended to limit target consumers and choices of motifs to those associated with major hotels, popular towns and tourist attractions and, with the gradual increase in motorised tourism, also camping sites.
Normanns Kunstforlag is one such producer of postcards. This printing house was founded in 1906 by Carl Normann (1887–1960). As an art publisher the firm produced and marketed postcards of Norwegian landscapes. In the early days the photographer’s means of getting around was by bicycle, but from the 1920s onwards, the car took over as means of transport and also began to appear in the pictures. The car frequently became a central pictorial element, posing as a means of conquest, which those who bought the postcards could dream that they themselves were driving.
Photographers also incorporated traces of their presence, or even included themselves in their pictures by means of timed shutter release. These postcard landscapes show the modern country, whose landscape was being conquered and exploited for recreation. By the 1970s cars had become so commonplace that they lost their function as a status symbol, eventually disappearing from postcards as a conspicuous pictorial element.
In the great flood of landscape images produced today in conjunction with the tourist industry, there are few high points. The landscapes are delightful, but merely help to reinforce the old national romantic conception of the landscape as a reflection of its inhabitants.
Bård Løken (1964–) is one of the exceptions among this plethora of image producers. Løken’s landscapes combine several traditions, and it is this that makes them relevant. They are beautiful and could be compared without difficulty to pictures in tourist brochures, but in many he shows an eye for details that illustrate human activities. It might be a bathing ladder, a signpost, rubbish or something else that causes a jolt in a slightly humorous manner. He does not go to the extremes of certain other photographers who seek to expose modern consumerism or bad taste. His gaze is more conciliatory, yet at the same time more ambivalent, for it isn’t always clear whether the disturbing elements in his pictures should move us to laughter or tears.