The Phenomenon of Landscape as an Image

It is almost strange that this blog has the sub-title “phenomenology and design,” and yet I have barely talked about phenomenology or design. In fact, I spent 9 weeks talking specifically about 19th century European art, and the weeks prior, looking at broad philosophical inquiries of the meaning of landscape, place, nature, and being human etc. One of the reasons for this is that I’m actually a bit disoriented in the mystery of landscape phenomenology and still trying to figure out my direction in it. The other reason is that from a contemporary Western worldview, the idea of landscape as image cannot be dissociated from landscape as experience. To understand our relationship with landscapes today, it is pertinent that we unravel its formation.

For me, the simplest definition of phenomenology is the study of phenomena as experienced from the 1st person perspective. Despite Husserl’s phenomenology of bracketing experience, there is only so much one can bracket in real life experience. The way we perceive is inevitably affected by culture, knowledge, personality, and intentions. Although most phenomenologist traditions have tried to reject the Cartesian subject-object view of the world, it does not change the fact that, conventionally, the modern world does operate in this way. What occurs is that every experience leads to an objective understanding, judgment, or analysis of the world. Seeing landscape as image would not be described as a traditional phenomenological approach to interpreting landscapes, but it is a predominant way that perception occurs.

Aesthetics, the judgment of beauty, like other judgments of worthiness in the public sphere is a political process. According to Kant, a judgment of beauty is also the application of a subjective judgment towards the universality of other people’s judgments.1 That is, when we judge something as beautiful, we believe that others should pass the same judgment towards the same object. Landscape has acquired through historical and cultural construct a common impression of beauty. In a way, the idea of landscape is already a pre-judgment of beauty,2 which was learnt from the history of Western landscape painting, particularly as landscape paintings became associated with various aspects of society, including status, pleasure, passion, and spirituality.

In addition to its origin in art, landscapes continue to be connected to imagery because of the dominance of vision in modern society. Since the development of perspective in the Renaissance, Western art has portrayed landscape as static, visual representations. What is seen is objectified and reproduced through the mind into the hand. With the invention of photography in the mid-19th century, the process is further simplified. Before needing to objectify landscape in the mind, the camera already does the work. With the invention of film, the experience of spatial movement, something that is not static, can be visualized as a series of still images like the frames of a motion picture. In effect, we are at a point where snapshots are so convenient that every experience is a potential photo image (e.g. Instagram)!

The landscape image as conceptual colonization or agent of change?

Quote from Picturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic, 2015, Art Gallery of Ontario.

At the 2015 Art Gallery of Ontario exhibit Picturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic, I snapped an image of the above quote on the wall. Acknowledging the truth in the statement brings about certain feelings of guilt and dilemma. I am fascinated by the landscape image (from painting to photography) and do not plan to let my enchantment of it to disappear. While there is danger in the image, accepting the predicament, understanding the intent of the image, and learning that there are more to landscapes than images are ways to move forward.

Today, the media chooses a lot of what landscape images are worthy to be considered beautiful. From tourism to environmental activism, each industry has their own agendas to market images of beautiful landscapes. The attitude of nature photography has not departed much since the time of the Romantics. When major environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, emerged in the late 19th century, nature photography expanded its role from recreation to advocacy. Artists such as Ansel Adams (1902-1984) and Eliot Porter (1901-1990) aimed to bring the divinity of nature, articulated in its materiality, to the viewer through the effects of photography.

Ansel Adam, Roaring Mountains, Yellow Stone National Park, 1941, US National Archives and Records Administration. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Influenced by theosophical philosophies,3 Adam’s photographs brought the spirituality of nature and human experience into the material world through landscapes. Alternatively, Porter, reinterpreted the mysteries of nature photography with the use of colour.

Eliot Porter, Birch Trees on Cliff, 1963, Gift of Joseph French and John Wawzonek. (Image Source: International Center of Photography)

Through the art of photography, the viewer perceives more to nature than what was apparent before. Whether it is through faithfulness to the divine, or strategic visual persuasion, the image has the power to change the perception of a landscape and its fate. The landscape image has been used for specific agendas, and often times, for positive change. Whether it is a painting or a photograph, the image is powerful. As architect Juhani Pallasmaa states:

A profound artistic image projects a sense of rootedness, completeness, life and magic. It speaks with the authority of an entire life-experience. It short-circuits our faculties of rational understanding and feeling, as well as the categories of life and knowledge, reality and dream, beauty and meaning.4

1. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. by James Creed Meredith, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, [1790] 1952).
2. T.J. Diffey, “Natural Beauty without Metaphysics,” in Landscape, Natural Beauty and the Arts, eds. by Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 42-64.
3. Anne Hammond, Ansel Adams: Divine Performance, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 14.
4. Juhani Pallasmaa, The Embodied Image: Imagination and Imagery in Architecture, (West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2011), 57.


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