[3 February 2004]
Under the pavement, beach!
Situationist International slogan, Paris, May 1968
For nearly 20 years, photographer John Ganis has traveled America, documenting what he terms its “over-developed/under-respect lands.” More than 80 of these sumptuous color images have now been collected in Consuming the American Landscape. Along with the photographs, the book contains a critical essay on Ganis by Robert Sobieszak of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and poetry by the late anthropologist Stanley Diamond. George F. Thompson, president of the Center for American Places, has also contributed an afterword to the volume.
The book is handsomely produced with a panoramic view of Badlands National Park in South Dakota on its cover, making it definitely suitable for coffee-table display. Delving inside, however, quickly reveals the disconcerting subterfuge Ganis brings to bear in adopting the landscape genre to capture his subject matter.
The first image in the book is of an observation deck overlooking the vast open gash of a gold mine, also located in South Dakota. In the foreground is a concrete platform completely fenced off from the surrounding environment. To the left is a coin-operated viewer like those found in tourist spots the world over. The middle ground contains the terraced step-back of the mine pit, rising up on either side of a road paved with “red dog” upon which an industrial-yellow dump truck moves. The background is filled with “pure nature” in the form of hills covered with pine trees, scrub and prairie grass rolling back to the horizon under a canopy of crystal clear azure blue sky. The image is a picture-perfect metonym, as it were, of Ganis’s project, which is to investigate the dialectic of nature and culture by seeking out and recording places where the threshold between the two is most starkly and ironically visible. Other images include decrepit outdoor theme parks, toxic waste sites and real estate developments under construction, all rendered with the color saturation, detail and finesse of Eliot Porter.
Picking up on the contradictions of the images, Sobieszak’s essay seeks to establish Ganis’s art- world credentials within what he terms the “new American Pastoral” in contemporary photography. The essay’s epigraph observes: “Any landscape is composed not only of what lies before our eyes but what lies in our heads.” Thus Sobieszak’s argument rests on the very postmodern idea that, as Federic Jameson put it, “culture has become second nature,” that is, that we simply can’t escape the acculturation we always already inscribe upon the land by our very perception of it as so-called civilized beings. The beauty of Sobieszak’s essay is that it covers so much theoretical terrain without any of the tangled thicket of jargon that so often keeps similar analyses from ever revealing the forest for all the gnarly trees.
It is with the notion of the “acculturated natural” in mind that the book’s cover photograph becomes resonant. In the center of the frame of the expansive landscape, standing on the edge of a hilltop, a family can be discerned from behind looking out onto the scene. Running across the top of the ridge leading to the lookout is a well-worn path. In the lower right of the foreground, jutting out from under a bit of brush, is a drainpipe running down the side of a canyon. The composition echoes “picturesque” paintings of primordial wilderness chasms and forests of the early romantics, such as Wanderer above the Sea of Fog from 1818 by Caspar David Friedrich. Only now, the wilderness has been completely tamed. Or has it?
Diamond’s poems, placed intermittently throughout the book, are more evocative than Sobieszak’s art-historical workhorse essay, providing another creative avenue into the issues Ganis exposes as to the sustainability of humanity in relation to the environment. “A culture/is its refuse,” one poem begins, taking the long view of what future archeologists will eventually unearth and study. Yet the poem ends with the vision of a more vengeful Gaia, observing that of humanity’s endeavors all that may remain are dust and desolation “At which/Only the roach will one day wonder.” Hence in the end nature wins. (As Buckminster Fuller once said: “There are two histories, the one humans think they are writing and the real one, which is called evolution.”)
Sobieszak notes that Ganis’s photographs register the fault that runs between the “idyllic” and the “apocalyptic.” On the one hand is the idea of “natural beauty” filtered through the lens of the aesthetic. On the other is the sublime, the terror experienced before the power of true nature, whose still ineffable forces ultimately can’t be controlled. It’s the split between mind and body at the center of Western civilization’s ill-fated attempt under technocratic reason to rule over all things which Ganis’s photographs seek to repair.
Ganis, who studied with Larry Fink, Lisette Model and W. Eugene Smith, makes photographs of uncompromising beauty. That their troubling subject is the ugliness perpetrated by humankind in pursuit of profit through myopic exploitation of the natural environment makes them all the more memorable.