American Landscapes as Revisionist History: The Frontier Photographs of Mark Klett, John Pfahl, Deborah Bright and Robert Adams
Holly Markovitz Goldstein
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This dissertation positions contemporary photographs of iconic American frontier sites as visual embodiments of revisionist history. Artists Mark Klett, John Pfahl, Deborah Bright, and Robert Adams use photography to re-image and re-write American landscape history; they investigate conflicting narratives of nationhood and reinterpret the legacies of nineteenth-century photographers. Klett and Pfahl ultimately perpetuate the myth of the frontier by suggesting that the nation is as beautiful and rich in resources now as it was in the nineteenth century. By contrast, Bright and Adams depict famous frontier sites as modern ruins, revealing that America's ethnic, class, and gender relations and its ecological health are fragile and unstable. In Chapter One, the Rephotographic Survey Project, created by Klett, JoAnn Verburg and Ellen Manchester, uses geological repeat-photography to evaluate present landscapes against the past; this deliberately banal comparison of "then" and "now" situates the western frontier as a changing indicator of national cultural identity. In Chapter Two, Klett's panoramic photo- collages of Yosemite and the Grand Canyon position the West as a collage of history, created by generations of layered artistic, documentary, and commercial imagery. In Chapter Three, Pfahl's Arcadia Revisited series employs sublime and picturesque aesthetics to depict today's Niagara Falls as the alluring tourist destination it was designed to be a century ago, largely ignoring the region's current ecological devastation. Chapter Four argues that two of Bright's New England-based projects expose biases in conventional American historical narratives: Glacial Erratic reveals Plymouth Rock, a site of imagined patriotic memory, to be heavily inscribed with histories of violence and oppression, and Manifest depicts crumbling stone boundary walls as sites of power and resistance. In Chapter Five, Adams's Turning Back re-examines the Lewis and Clark expedition on the occasion of its bicentennial; photographs depicting ghastly scenes of massive deforestation in the Pacific Northwest reveal an American dream gone awry. Klett and Pfahl's optimistic photographs depict an iconic frontier that continues to attract tourists, inspire artists, and fuel patriotism. Yet Bright's imprisoned Plymouth Rock represents the inconsistencies of American history, and Adams's clear-cut forests expose the tragic aftermath of western exploration.
2009 Public Television documentary series by filmmaker Ken Burns touts America's National Parks system as "America's Best Idea." See http://www.pbs.org/nationalparks/. As discussed below, Anglo Americans constructed their landscape to be the nation's greatest treasure; by contrast, Native Americans suffer from a lack of visibility. 12 Yellowstone National Park, thefirstto be designated in the Parks System, is also one of America's most well-known landscapes, but Yellowstone lacks the
easily-recognizable singular landforms of Niagara, Yosemite (best known for Half Dome), and the Grand Canyon. Yellowstone is included in the greater "American West," the subject of many USGS survey photographs and RSP rephotographs. 11 Toroweap Point, or Yosemite's Half Dome is to photograph "America." Additionally, historical events are often defined and remembered by their physical site of occurrence, and two of America's most significant historical moments are the Pilgrim's landing at
photographic objects. Sandweiss concludes that photographs have convincingly written and upheld narratives of westward expansion; essentially, American landscape photographs give visual shape to the frontier mythology. Landscape as Photograph by Estelle Jussim and Elizabeth Lindquist-Cock offers a less contextual approach, but helpfully suggests broad categories with which to consider landscape photographs.82 Photographs are arranged in categories including, "God," "Fact," "Symbol," "Pure Form,"
(Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1992). 76 and membership organization that supports ecological initiatives.195 Verburg is a prolific artist living in St. Paul, Minnesota; a recent mid-career survey of her photography, "Present Tense: Photographs by JoAnn Verburg," was organized in 2007 by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Verburg's recent large-scale color photographs, which explore home, family, and everyday activities, present a markedly different aesthetic and format than her
emotion. This oversize fine-art publication monumentalizes and memorializes the imposing saguaro cactus, a symbol of both the power and fragility of the American Southwest. Photographed by Klett from the 1980s until the present, the saguaro is depicted alternately as regal, suffocated, limp, comical, anthropomorphized, lively, and scarce (Figures 2.14-2.20). With Saguaros, Klett does not return to the same site over time, but rather to the same subject. Like the American landscape in general, the