Photography and Nature

June 20th - August 15th


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Watkins, C. E., photographer. (ca. 1865) Three Brothers. California Yosemite National Park, ca. 1865. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Photography's relationship with nature runs very deep. In 2008 I saw a terrific exhibition of Carleton Watkins at the Getty Museum. I was so impressed by the artistry and quietness in his work and how the vast landscapes felt at peace. It's also pretty staggering to imagine what it took to bring his favorite camera, a plate camera that took 18" x 22" glass plate negatives into the wilderness. In July of 1861 he took a trip to Yosemite and came back with some of the first photographs taken of the valley: 30 plates and 100 stereoscopic images.  A few years later Congress and President Lincoln signed legislation that would protect the valley - strange to think that all of this was happening during the American Civil War.  His work and the work of Ansel Adams are two of the best known in the drive to conserve and protect Yosemite. Here's a terrific podcast on Watkins and his work in the west. 

In my introduction to critical thinking class, I asked my students to compare Ansel Adams’ Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California, 1944 with David Hockney’s Pearblossom Highway, 1986. These two images made a great “contrast and compare” set and served as a good example for how photography has changed over those forty plus years. Both are masterful in their own right, but they each speak to different beliefs as to what photography should be.


For me, Hockney’s work was a revelation in many ways, creating an escape route from the rigid photographic training I was undergoing at Art Center…which was much more in the Adams' camp at that point. Not only was it a collage ("joiner") but more importantly, it demonstrated how a photograph could be so much more than simply its appearance - that meaning and visual content could be quite different and still inform each other. While Hockney might not have considered it a photograph, I do, and feel it expanded my ideas about how we could interact with the natural world.


Each of the six artists featured here  have a very thoughtful partnership with nature. Some of the work has been a response to our last year, the forced isolation that we all found ourselves under and turning to nature as an inspirational resource. Others seek to connect us to nature’s magical world, or draw our awareness to the consequences of our actions. Throughout the showcase, there is an understanding that the world/space we inhabit is important and should be honored.

Recently I came upon a quote that connected me to why photographers still turn to nature.

"In the face of all the present turmoil and unrest and unhappiness…what can a photographer, a writer, a curator do? …To make people aware of the eternal things, to show the relationship of man to nature, to make clear the importance of our heritage, is a task that no one should consider insignificant. These are days when eloquent statements are needed.”
Beaumont Newhall in a letter to Ansel Adams, 3rd May 1954