Roundtable Viewfinding: A Discussion of Photography, Landscape, and Historical Memory

AHA Session 73
Friday, January 4, 2013: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Salon 828 (Sheraton New Orleans)
Cindy Ott, Saint Louis University

Session Abstract

Standing in a field in front of the Ahwahnee Hotel, Ansel Adams took what is perhaps the most famous landscape photograph ever taken. “Moon and Half Dome” has become such an integral part of Americans’ understanding of the park that, for many visitors, re-enacting the “Ansel Adams View” has become as important as seeing the monolith itself. Dozens of web sites now give the technical information and instructions on the best environmental conditions in which to recreate Adams’ photograph. “Moon and Half Dome” has thus become a guide; it prescribes not just what a visitor should see when they visit Yosemite National Park, but how he or she should see it.

This topical discussion will investigate the role of “the guide” in the cultural construction of historic American landscapes through the medium of photography.  With discussants from the academic fields of art history and history, as well as public historians and artists, this panel explores ways in which photography has acted as a guide in the cultural imaginings of the American landscape and how these imaginings, in turn, have affected future photographic projects. How do photographs construct, embody, confirm, or conflict with other values and imaginings we have attached to American landscapes?

David Bernstein uses a literal guide—the “Ohio Guide,” a publication created by the Federal Writers Project as part of the New Deal—to explore the intersection of historical memory and landscape change in Ohio. By creating a contemporary photographic survey of the touring routes in the Progressive Era guide, Bernstein investigates the change in both the physical landscape and its memorialization.

Art historian Kate Palmer Albers also uses contemporary photography as a window into the construction of historical landscape. Her project situates American photographer Joel Sternfeld's work as a “guide” to now unseen histories of American violence. In his 1996 series On this Site: Landscape in Memoriam, Sternfeld revisited the sites of violent crime across the United States, ranging from national tragedies such as Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis to lesser known horrors such as the kidnapping of a young girl in Des Moines, Iowa. Albers demonstrates how Sternfeld challenges our conventional notions of historical memory through the medium of photography.

How those conventions operated in national park landscapes is the focus of Emily Greenwald’s work. She examines how visitors’ visual relationships with the landscape were guided by photographs, travel literature, and park infrastructure. By capturing the same monumental and depopulated views with their own cameras, visitors helped create a distinct visual ethic, one that became so firmly entrenched after repeated reenactment that it affects our present visual expectations and environmental perceptions.

Jon Voss, from the award-winning Historypin project, will discuss a digital guide he created in partnership with the Historic New Orleans Collection.  Using GPS information from a hand-held device, Voss’s “app” allows a user to compare their existing view in the real world with the same location photographed as many as 140 years earlier.

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