Brief: Read Deborah Bright's essay 'Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men'. Note key points of interest and your personal reflections.
Deborah Bright's essay has an intriguing title. 'Mother Nature' undoubtably refers to the natural landscape, but who are the 'Marlboro Men'? As well as this, I was very aware that this essay was written over thirty years ago, so it won't necessarily reflect current perspectives.
Before I share my own reflections on her essay, here's what Deborah Bright believes:
Probably my most widely known essay, “Of Mother Nature” was an attempt to answer the question: “Why are there no great women landscape photographers?” With twenty years of hindsight, I can appreciate the polemical tone of the essay as an artifact of its time in the mid-1980s (raging gender wars within the Society for Photographic Education where I was active in the Women’s Caucus, an exciting energy as artists and scholars were speaking truth to power in the academy and art world and inventing new critical tools to dismantle entrenched minority privilege.) Those heady days seem distant, now, as conservative backlash has taken its toll. However, the fact that this essay still strikes a chord with so many young people indicates to me that it’s still doing its good work.
After reading Bright's own summary I can now see why her title includes both feminine and masculine elements. That whilst it is Mother Nature who carefully crafts the landscape, it is Man who documents his view of it.
Bright begins her essay by reflecting on the very beginnings of landscape, as a taxonomic term used by painters in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Then how, during the rise of the merchant bourgeoisie in the seventeenth century, carefully cultivated fields were replaced by features of property ownership, such as working watermills and merchant ships. These types of subjects reflected the status and upward mobility of men. These paintings would have been commissioned to adorn the walls of up-and-coming landowners.
After referring to noble, picturesque, sublime and mundane landscapes as 'selected and constructed texts', she continues to explain that these types of images are both selected and constructed texts. This is based on the understanding that decisions have been made to either included or excluded in the interests of art. However the social and historical significance of this interpretation of the landscape has rarely been addressed. Bright (1985, p. 126) believes that modern landscape art is the source of middle-class identity and ideology, and that:
every representation of landscape is also a record of human values and actions imposed on the land over time.
Bright believes that landscape photographs have a large stake in constructing such representations. These 'documents' can be analysed and interpreted beyond their artistic merits. The reason for the photograph can be due to personal choice or preference. Bright continues by alluding to a strong masculine influence in the realm of landscape photography. That the white cube is dominated by a male eye view of the world. Over thirty years since Bright's article was published, I wonder if this is still the case. Before I started this course, the landscape photographers I had heard of were all men: Ansel Adams, Andreas Gursky, Sebastiao Salgado, and Joe Cornish. Meanwhile, the most famous female photographers tend to to specialise in either portraiture or photojournalism. This small group includes Annie Liebovitz, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus and Anne Geddes.
As American railroads laid their tracks in the new frontier, and tamed the wild west, the rural landscape was dominated by men. It was them who built new infrastructure and sprawling conurbations. This new landscape became the backdrop for western movies. The viewer enjoyed watching cowboys in thrilling dramas, surrounded by rugged mountains and treacherous canyons. The 'Marlboro men' Bright refers to in the title of her article. Bright (1985) believes that this association between action movies and spectacular scenery is responsible for masculinising the landscape.
Later in her article, Bright (1985, p. 30) explains that:
Stieglitz defined a photographic Equivalent as a metaphor for the vision or feeling of the artist rather than a transcriptive record of the subject.
Deborah Bright, "Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men: An Inquiry into the Cultural Meanings of Landscape Photography," a revised version of an essay published originally in Exposure 23:4 (Winter 1985).