Exercise 2.1: Territorial Photography

Brief: Read Snyder's essay 'Territorial Photography'. Summarise Snyder's key points.
Then, find and evaluate two photographs by any of the photographers Snyder mentions, but not specific examples that he addresses in the essay.

Joel Snyder's (2002) essay, 'Territorial Photography', begins by referring to the 'variety of photographic landscape practices in the period between the 1850s and the late 1870s'. This era included the debate around trying to define what 'photography' was, whether it was art or merely a tool for observing and documenting. 

The 'mechanical' nature of the camera meant that an image could be re-printed over and over again, unlike other forms of picture-making. The 'high finish and endless detail' (Snyder, 2002) of these prints reinforced the notion of accurately depicting a scene. Therefore the photographer could be considered to be an 'operator' rather than a 'creator'. After all, it is the camera that creates the picture, the photographer just presses the button. However another view would be that the photographer consciously decides to position the camera at a particular subject, choosing the angle of view, focal length, aperture and shutter speed.

A possible explanation for this conflict of interests was that:

the motive for distancing established pictorial practice from the daily production of photographers by...critics and painters was their perception of a threat to their immediate economic interests...
Snyder, 2002, p. 175

Photography shared its infancy with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. This era lead to the increase in the middle class population, which demanded more photographs. The revolution also brought about the need for efficiency and uniformity. Photography offered an ideal method of image making that could respond to the demands of an expanding market.

Snyder (2002, p. 176) claims that the purpose of his essay is to 'probe the motivating factors behind two American western landscape practices of the 1860s and 1870s in order to come to some understanding of why these photographic landscapes look the way they do.' From the outset Snyder claims that these practices were successful, in that they satisfied the need of their intended audience. 

The author defines his essay's aim as being 'to probe the motivating factors behind two American western landscape practices of the 1860s and 1870s.  Snyder then proceeds to categorise each period as being dominated by pictorial conventions (1840s to early 1850s) and then evolving to a large definable market for landscape photographs (late 1850s). 

Snyder attributes one explanation for this shift in availability to the viewer as being the creation of mass production techniques, whereby images could be reproduced in vast quantities. Landscape photographs were made to:

 "meet the demands of a growing middle-class audience" (Snyder, 2002 p. 179).

early landscape photographers came from privileged backgrounds. They would have been used to painted landscapes adorning the walls of places that they frequented. Furthermore, they will have been exposed to picturesque views. Therefore it would be natural to assume that they would want to replicate these views in a photograph.  

Following this, I was intrigued to read Snyder's (2002, p. 180) view that "...at least a picture with aesthetic merit, implicates the maker of the picture, expresses his or her own sensiblity, represents something essential about how the scene was experienced." This explains how I felt whilst producing the sublime images for my first assignment. Whilst at Glenveagh I felt a sense of isolation and trepidation. I could not have planned the resulting images in advance. My photographs were a response to how I perceived the situation at the time.  

In his article Joel Snyder refers to Lady Elizabeth Eastlake's view that the mechanical nature of how the camera captures the image means the photographer is disconnected from the result. Whereas an artist considers every brushstroke and palette change.  

Throughout the 1850s there was an increase in the number of photographers from 'less-educated ranks'. Additionally, advancements in technology enabled detailed, precise photographs to be created, instead of the suggestive nature of the picturesque. Snyder (2002, p.182) defined this as a move 'away from the aesthetics of suggestion and [move] toward articulation'. It was the detail that mattered in landscape photography, with photographers free of the constraints of convention that they had experienced whilst creating picturesque scenes. The photographic quality of scenic views were based on their accuracy to nature and lifelikeness. 

Therefore the culmination of these expectations for photographers meant that they had to:

devise an approach to the production of landscape pictures that appeared to escape the generally sanctioned motifs and formulae of landscape depiction, while emphasising, at the same time, those qualities that were increasingly taken by their audience to be indices of photography...

(Snyder, 2002, p. 182)

 By the 1860s, photographers were expected to produce realistic images in an artistic way, which Snyder summarised as a combination of 'scientific laws and photographic craft'. One of the photographers, who was able to combine these factors was Carleton Watkins. The San Franciscan set the standard for commercial landscape photographers of the American West by producing detailed images of Yosemite. Large scale settings required a large-scale photographic process, so Watkins used 20-by-24-inch negatives. Meanwhile, his ability to capture natural occurrences, such as the mirrored reflections of landscape features, was recognised by Oliver Wendell Holmes as a 'recorded sight', a view anyone could, and would, expect to see. Watkins's photographs could be bought, and adorn the walls of people who had visited those depicted beauty-spots, and experienced an identical view. 

Part of Watkins's technique was to manipulate the highlights and shadows into a continuum of mid-tones. The harsh, geometric shapes of man-made structures, that are associated with the construction of mines and railroads, were merged into the natural backdrop. 

Indian Summer on the Columbia, by Carleton Watkins

Indian Summer on the Columbia, by Carleton Watkins

Dam and Lake, Nevada County, by Carleton Watkins

Dam and Lake, Nevada County, by Carleton Watkins

The two images above are examples of Watkins's work. 'Indian Summer' illustrates his use of reflection to create a picturesque scene that would appeal to tourists. It is an enticing scene that a would-be visitor could expect to see. Meanwhile, in the second image, Watkins's viewpoint portrays the dam as a natural platform for the trees above it.

Following on from this, Snyder contrasts the work of Carleton Watkins with that of Timothy H. O'Sullivan. Having originated from New York, O'Sullivan did not share his affinity towards the American West. Whereas Watkins had endeavoured to amalgamate pioneers within their new territory, O'Sullivan made locations for his survey photography appear inhospitable; they posed little hope of humans settling there. 

Furthermore, O'Sullivan's photographs define a territory that "could properly be investigated only by the new elite, to the exclusion of the old military caretakers" (Snyder, 2002, p. 199). Having served his apprenticeship on the battlefield, O'Sullivan believed that the army were unable to record the advancement into undiscovered corners of America. He would have advocated a scientific approach to documenting the new frontier, a 'wild west' that was unable to be tamed. For example, O'Sullivan's 'South side of Inscription Rock' and 'Rock formations in the Washakie Badlands' (below) show formidable geological formations that fill the frame. O'Sullivan's tight crop offers the viewer very little space for potential colonisation.  

South side of Inscription Rock, New Mexico 1873, by Timothy O'Sullivan

Rock formations in the Washakie Badlands, Wyoming, in 1872, by Timothy O'Sullivan

Rock formations in the Washakie Badlands, Wyoming, in 1872, by Timothy O'Sullivan

In conclusion, both Watkins and O'Sullivan were able to present their own interpretation of the American West, with the intention of presenting a particular point of view. In terms of the photographer as artist, each was able to manipulate the view by what they chose, and omitted, from the viewfinder.