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An Analysis of “Wilderness to wasteland in the photography of the American west”

by on October 7, 2011

written by Rod Giblett

analyzed by Morgan Spyker

The Giblett reading titled Wilderness to wasteland in the photography of the American west analyzes photography of the American west by deconstructing the work of Ansel Adams, Carleton Watkins, Timothy O’Sullivan, the Atomic Photographers, Richard Misrach and Peter Goin.   Giblett states that landscape photography has been described as sublime (such as Adam’s work) or picturesque (such as Watkin’s work).   The work of O’Sullivan , the Atomic Photographers and Misrach all show an anti-aesthetic which can be considered more of a scientific approach.

The article starts out with Adams and the grandiose photography that was showed during World War II to help demonstrate “America’s scope, wealth, and power” (44).  Adams is often compared to John Muir in that Muir was more of the philosopher while Adams was the photographer, both promoting nationalism.   Watkins was considered Adams nineteenth-century herald.   Watkins worked focused more on sequoias, and was instrumental in helping “set aside” (45) Yosemite during the Civil War.  Giblett explains the differences between Adams and Watkins in that Adams photography was more sublime and Watkins work was picturesque.  The work of these two photographers helped “tame the west” and to keep it intact with the help of “spreading the American conservation movement” (43).

O’Sullivan’s work is described by Joel Snyder as “grotesque” with the portrayal of earth as a body.   Snyder sees O’Sullivan’s work as “alien, unknown, and unintelligible” while Watkin’s work as “familiar and known”.  All of which are different from the sublimity of Adams photography.   O’Sullivan takes the quaking zone that are nature-made while the Atomic Photographers Guild show the landscapes of Marlboro Country, which shows the results of the testing of nuclear bombs in the west, which is a land that is made of human hands.  Giblett goes on to say that the “west was a practice zone and not a battlefield…the land and the future have been colonized and militarized” (49).  Misrach’s photography shows the ruination of the land due to atomic testing.  He shows cratered, desolate landscapes that “macho culture has literally vomited all over “(49).

Giblett states that the work of Ansel Adams was contextually outlined by the Cold War and World War II, yet all the while he was restrained in the same sense.   While the work of the Atomic Photographers returns the audience to the aftermath of the wars, and fills in the empty space outside of the lens that Adams did not show the audience.  These two stark differences in photography create a dual opposition between wasteland versus wilderness.

I understand the differences between the two oppositions within this landscape photography, because both have an agenda that they want to convey.  I agree with the author in that creating a new genre of photography for environmental sustainability would be a great new artistic idea, but I don’t think that these two other forms should be essentially thrown out the window.  Both the aesthetic and anti-aesthetic  show individuals a strong viewpoint that will get their heart pumping and mind thinking, whether it be happiness and serenity or disgust and confusion.


  1.  When looking at photographs whether it be in art form or from the news do you ever imagine what is going on outside of the shot?  Or do you think that the photographer is framing the picture in order to get their point across?  Is there a time where you felt misled from seeing a picture than reading more into the story behind it?
  2. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words.  Do you think that there is a way to get 1001 words into a photograph?  In other words, do you think there is a way to get the whole concept/idea into a photograph? Or is all photography going to have some sort of bias?
  3. Do you think photography leads the human mind into easily believing a story, since it is visual with their own eyes rather than reading a story or hearing an oral history?
  1. amygraceaustin permalink

    On a side note, while reading this article I was distracted by how many times the author used variations of the word “sublime”.

    In relation to question 2) I don’t think it’s possible for a single photograph to portray an entire reality. The nature of photography is that it will always reflect the lens of desires of the photographer. I never thought of photography as being an anthropological medium before but now I see how it very much is. Just like any ethnography is shaped by the self-determination and biases of the researcher, any photograph inherently contains the perspective of the photographer.

    I agree with Morgan that all styles of photography discussed in this article are valuable within their own context. I was surprised by the author’s arguments of how the photographer’s choice of images can be seen as a colonizing force. I had never thought of photography in this way before. I have always thought of photography as a hobby, outside of the realm of academia and therefore not subject to the same critical debates regarding power.

    While I am starting to see the importance in taking the field of photography more seriously, I’m still not convinced that “a new photography could emerge, photography for environmental sustainability showing land as the stuff of everyday livelihoods in bioregions with people working (not overworking) the land in bio- and psycho-symbiosis”.

    Too me this seems very idealistic.

    Even if someone were to “[produce] photographs focusing on landscapes and land uses that exemplify principles and practices of environmental sustainability,” I’m not sure anyone would purchase them. I’m not sure they would become famous enough to grip the minds and hearts of millions in ways that would spur people towards behavioral change.

    Is a shift in photography really necessary? Is it likely to occur? What outcomes, realistically, could that shift create?

  2. When looking at photography, I think I personally often forget that this image only shows one specific aspect of a situation or individual. I think that a photograph tells an insane amount, and the phrase a picture tells a thousand words is completely accurate. However, I think photographs sometimes make it easy for the person viewing them to forget that there could be a lot more to a situation than what the eye is seeing. I think that the photographer’s goal is an important thing to keep in mind when looking at a photograph. Some photographs are meant to get as much information across as possible, without leaving things out. Other photos are captured with a specific purpose, and may not tell a whole story, but merely give insight into a certain perspective of a situation. I think this is true for any form of expression; within writing it is also easy to either give a full account, or choose specific information in order to get a point across, that’s what is so great about different forms of expression! for me personally, photography is the easiest way for me to get information about a situation. I am a very visual learner, so for me, there is no better way to learn or evaluation something than to see it with my own eyes. I love taking pictures, and I think this is because for me, there is no better way to show something than to take a photo of it-it is the simplest and most straightforward way to embody perspective, fact or emotion.

  3. Photographers definitely “frame their photos” to get their point across. Photos that capture nature or an event are specific to a theme. For example, Ansel Adams was considered “nature’s nation photographer” and proved this through his photography of the untamed American landscapes through “monumental mountainous and the stunningly sublime” lands (44). Yet, themes create general ideas about that place or person and do not always justify the real situation. Those general ideas can either harm or magnify the message that is being conveyed. It seems impossible to capture the real event/situation especially without some kind of bias. I think it is also impossible to view a photo without some sort of bias. Our biases frame our way of thinking. It is being more aware, mindful, and empathic of others and different situations that provide a level of connectedness with others only to try and understand their viewpoint. Photography is included in this. For example, when I look at a photo that I have taken, I not only see just mountains and rivers, but memories with friends and dinner parties. My photo is a memory of my past. Yet, when I look at a photo of Yosemite’s El Capitan from a photographer, I see nature, beauty, sweat, pain, death, triumph, and fear. I also wonder how many people have climbed that peak, how many have died, and so forth. So for every photo, I think we bring our own thoughts into it, then decipher it from there.

  4. I thought this article goes well with our discussions in class regarding subjectivity and objectivity. This article displays that there is clearly a sense of these things when it comes to landscape photography. It was interesting to see specific examples in history on how even the United States displays multiple portrayals of our land and landscape. To reflect on this, I do not think there is a need for photography to change and I also believe it would be nearly impossible to eliminate a photographer’s objective and subjective biases, it is part of their work. It demonstrates the part of the landscape that they are trying to display and expose, whether or not the reader fully understands or pictures the landscape, the artist choses what the reader sees, similar to fieldwork.

  5. 242colleencarey permalink

    When looking at photographs whether it be in art form or from the news I do imagine what’s going on outside of the shot. I contemplate what sparked the photograph, the means of its existence on what message the photographer was trying to get across. So, to a certain extent, the photographer is framing the pic picture to get a point across, but he or she is also sending a message. I’ve worked with a lot of photography and can’t say that I’ve been misled much from a photo and it’s story. My interpretation my be a little different than the photographer’s, but usually not misleading.
    I definitely believe that there is a way to get 1001 word into a photo. One photo can depict an entire story. Like the famous photo of a soldier kissing a woman in the midst of a busy street. That shot can depict that couple’s story which I’m sure is 1001 words long. With that being said, I don’t think one can get a completely detailed concept or idea into a photo, but the general idea of it can be depicted. Photography will have the bias of the photographer’s eye.
    I don’t think photography leads the human mind into easily believing a story, it present a story that the viewer can choose to believe or to not believe.

  6. janellekramer permalink

    To answer your first question, Yes, I do wonder what is going on outside of the shot. However, I never thought it was as important as I do now that I’ve read this article. The point about how Adams’ pictures only show the “picturesque” and don’t show any of the reality behind the shot is very interesting to me. This reminds me of the woman who got upset that the educational video about the Amazon didn’t show any of the people or rougher sides of Amazon living. That video, as well as Adams’ pictures, have helped to raise money and awareness for conservation efforts. So why is it that don’t agree with the woman’s criticisms of the IMAX Amazon video yet I agree with Giblett’s analysis of Adams’ shots and how unrealistic they are? Is it because these pictures are close to home and I know, personally, what life is like outside of these pictures?

  7. After reading this article and the article, The Concerned Eye: Visual Inclusion and Citizenship, I thought that photography not only lead the human mind into conceptualizing the framework of the photo, but also to generate public opinion. Giblett, as you mentioned, illustrated how Ansel Adams used photography during WWII to perpetuate, “America’s scope, wealth and power”(44). Similarly in The Concerned Eye: Visual Inclusion and Citizenship, photography showed US soldiers torturing Iraqi citizens (5). Images in both of these instances may have had minimal literal content, and were used to generate public opinion. Automatically, I inferred that photography, in this context, serves to fabricate false realities, believing that mediums such as literature are more accurate. After reading the third question, it hit me. Every medium of information is, to some extent, bias. These biases, if not acknowledged, can also lead to the creation of false realities. This is why it is important to be subjective when analyzing information. Take a photograph for what it is; a still frame capturing a specific area of focus. Before creating a story around this photo, cross-reference it with different sources to best gain a better interpretation of what is happening.

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