It’s not easy to write about landscape photographs anymore. This is not even getting into too deeply the various degrees of high and low from leftist editorial to large-scale color pictorialism to the plethora of photo magazines littering the stand at your local Barnes & Noble with titles like “B&W Photography,” the kind with copious ads for super pro-camera gadgetry.
With a note or two from painting, the landscape photograph has become one of those standard stand-bys for those bearing cameras. Alongside the portrait or the still-life, the landscape is an endlessly iterated form, one so much so, that for a person who looks too often at too many pictures it appears to be an especially difficult genre to master. But to nail down its modern masters, or what makes one landscape better than another, is tricky. Were Bernd and Hilla Becher landscape photographers, deadpan conceptualists, or just serious enthusiasts for industrial architecture? Does Florian Maier-Aichen take a straightforward landscape photo into the realm of art by digitally manipulating it to make it look otherworldly? Are Chris Jordan’s photos of despoiled landscapes art or a kind of muckraking journalism?
On Alex Maclean’s website (who currently has his exhibition at Robert Koch Gallery) it says: "Alex S. MacLean is an accomplished fine art aerial photographer based in Lincoln, MA.” This is one of those lines that’s probably worth parsing a bit, being so many qualifiers. Why doesn’t it just say Alex MacLean is an artist? Again those fine distinctions.
Alex MacLean, Concentrated Solar, Clark County, Nevada, 2009
The dead give away for me is the terrible title “The American Landscape at the Tipping Point.” One of my New Year’s Resolutions from like 2003 was to avoid anyone who employed the phrase “tipping point” in casual conversation. It’s one of those phrases that has been so thoroughly hijacked by corporate culture it almost deserves its own sad-sackish Dilbert cartoon. “Tipping point” belongs in the graveyard with “paradigm” and “proactive.” But titular offenses to the side, the photographs have that simplicity of all those deadpan photographers, but engage in the kind of beautiful image making that you’d still see people want to hang in their living rooms or have in a big coffee table book.
The cover of the Economist this week heralds the observation that we’re not so much in the Holocene of geologic time as we are in the Anthropocene, the Age of Humans. MacLean’s thesis reads roughly similar: landscape, on a grand scale has changed because of the interventions of people. Shot from above, the tears in the wilderness are always a bit startling but not always bad (I guess this might depend on your politics). The array of B-52s patterned like wallpaper gives one the creeps of wasted money in wasted wars now rotting out in the desert for all time. The crop of photovoltaic cells, its appearance feels abrupt, but one supposes that this is one of the few things that can get us out of some serious environmental messes.
Alex MacLean, Umbrella Territory, Camaiore, Tuscany, Italy, 2010
It’s a notion that, however important, feels like a magazine insert and MacLean’s images feel like that’s where they might find their best home. They have a simple and compelling beauty, but barely break any deeper than aestheticized documentation. They feel a little too simple, too literally what they’re supposed to be. It’s easy to see that MacLean is a talented and accomplished photographer and many of his images fragmentarily capture the spooky modernity of Andreas Gursky at his best, but the work feels more interested in making a good photograph, in that pure and crafty way, than it does in perhaps introducing a troubling idea through perhaps even messy formal aesthetics. Gursky seems to succeed because he eludes beauty, gets very close but refuses us the easy feeling of a pretty picture. The German photographer’s large-scale images of trading floors and dance parties, 99-cent stores and Chinese workers have the all-at-once immersion of large 19th century landscape painting but the sometimes ugly detail of modern photography. To see all the patterns isn’t something like a beautiful wallpaper, but something rather ugly and disconcerting. Looking at the spectacular array of umbrellas in Gursky is to feel a shudder of how many humans beings there are. To see the pattern of umbrellas in MacLean is to only hear a whisper of this kind of quiet terror; mostly it becomes about how nice the pattern is, the formal qualities of the image.
Top Image: Alex MacLean, Guillotined B-52 Bombers at the ‘Bone Yard’, Tuscon, Arizona, 1994. All images courtesy of the artist and Robert Koch Gallery.