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Landscapes of the Mind: Space-Place-Time

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Landscapes of the Mind: In Space Place and Time
Morgan Rauscher

Monday, February 04, 2013

Where am I?
I look around me at the landscape and see a city from the top of a hill at the Chalet du Mont-Royal on a cold and windy winter evening.  I capture the moment using my ever present digital camera – built right into my mobile phone.  Picture taken, moment saved, and I am contented by the illusion that someday in the future I will look back on this memento and know where I was.  Still, for the time being, I am having a hard time defining where I am, in the present, even though I am currently immersed in the landscape I am photographing.  I suppose it is obvious, I am in the landscape, unseen, somewhere behind the camera eye.


Figure E: Downtown Montreal: Inspiration [1]

According to the popular definition of landscape as given by Google; landscapes are “all the visible features of an area of countryside or land” (the noun) and to ‘landscape’ is to “improve the aesthetic appearance of a piece of land”[2].  In both cases I can be considered a part of the landscape in that I see all the visible features and at the same time I am a part of the landscape.  Thereby I observe and simultaneously contribute to my very own personal landscape.  The common Google definition is limited however, by the fact that it does not excogitate the deeper implied meanings that are imbedded in the landscape photographs I take.  Landscapes are complex ideas comprised of the places I go in moments of time as perceived by my mind.

There are representational complications that present themselves when I try to take a picture of the ‘space’, ‘place’ and ‘time’ ternion-continuum of my landscape.  When these three elements are combined and simultaneously perceived, they become the landscape of my mind.  If I am ever to share this landscape experience with anyone else, even my future self, I must consider the image I am about to take and this involves knowing about the meaning I am trying to capture from the landscape.

I first became aware of landscape as defined through space, place and time in a graduate course given by professor Richard Hancox at Concordia University entitled ‘Mediated Landscapes: The Camera as Machine in the Garden” [3].  In the course pack, is a critical reading of the introduction to a Liz Wells’ book called “Land Matters: landscape photography, culture and identity” [4].  Wells investigates landscape through time, space, place and aesthetic considerations.  In the introduction Wells covers everything from the multiplicity of meaning making machinery found in the social, mental and physical mechanisms of landscape imaging to the role of the landscape photographer.  We come to understand that “Landscape is a social product” and “landscapes tell us something about cultural histories and attitudes”[4].  We also learn that “Spectatorship becomes, in effect, a symbolic exercise of control” [4] and this relates to my vision as a photographer taking a picture of the landscape and ipso-facto relates to me as the viewer of the same photograph.

At the heart of Wells’ thesis is a kind of in depth insinuation (although never really conclusively argued) that the landscape photographer is responsible (as artist) for how we take pictures.

Wells posits that:

“Just as it is the responsibility of philosophers to think about how we think, artists, including photographers … have the responsibility to consider how we picture, to reflect upon the implications of thinking through the visual.” [4]

Several intellectual vehicles of somewhat formal value are given by Wells in order that we consider her thesis such as; aesthetic representation, historical context, and social or political foundations.  The foundational rhetoric used is built around different interrelated systems of idealization – that inherently bias the landscape image.  A dominant responsibility is therefore given to the photographer, requiring a certain awareness of the photographer to know the implications of taking a photograph and knowing how it relates to a kind of collective ethic of representation. 

However, I find myself confused, standing here, wanting to take the best picture of the city of Montreal I can, from on top of the hill I stand upon, and I am struck by the notion that I might be imposing bias upon the very landscape I am immersed in – simply by snapping a photo of.  If I want to capture the landscape I am standing in, I must simultaneously, and according to Wells responsibly, combine the space, place and time I am in with a so called aesthetic ideal.  Ideally I would then be responsible for the ‘meaning’ I am making.

However, I find this quite impossible, because, by the time I take the photograph the ‘meaning’ I am supposed to be responsible for will have effectively been erased by its own time and space.  Furthermore, when I become the viewer of my picture (even seconds later through the camera view finder) a new meaning will have already formed.  When I look at the picture, at some future date, I will yet again perform a “symbolic exercise of control” [4] giving the image new meaning every time I see it.  It is for this reason that I counter-posit that my ‘landscape picture’ does not produce any meaning at all, rather; landscape pictures only produce the potential for many meanings without the requirement or even the possibility of any specific idealization. 

In order to do this I will consider three core concepts that came up regularly in both professor Hancox’s course and Wells’ book.  I will look at space, place and time that I propose (when combined in any singular instance simultaneously and collectively) form the landscape of my mind.  I will look at the case of my personal experience of being both the photographer and the later viewer of my own photograph, taken of the surrounding landscape in which I currently reside.

Space
To begin, let us examine ‘space’.  In the introduction to her book, Wells plays with the “etymologically slippery” [4] term illustrated by ‘outer space’, ‘living space’ and even the conceptual ‘thinking space’.  While effective in demonstrating the flexibility of the word ‘space’, I feel we should look at the thought behind the word for a moment, and realize that when talking about any word of ‘space’, we are in fact always pointing to the corresponding ‘mind space’.  Every possibility of ‘space’ begins in and ends with the space in my mind.

Space is then continuously transformed to categorical focus by the mind in order for one to actually name anything as ‘space’. A good popular culture example of the multiplicity of meaning making found in defining a space through images, can be illustrated with the HSBC bank advertisements seen below (figure A).

Figure A: Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Advertisement [5]

Space is not only linguistically flexible, but rather, has no existence in and of itself.  We must take a photograph of some ‘place’ to capture a ‘space’ rightly identified by Wells because she states that “naming turns space into place” [4] and taking a photo is a kind of naming. I would like to simply emphasis that ‘space’ is always somewhere in the mind.

Place
“In cultural geography, space is rendered into place through representation, the dominion of the cartographers and artists” [4].  In my case, I am the artist attempting to photograph the space in my mind that is formed by my experience of the place I am in – a tall order for my crude albeit useful camera.  Place then, can be seen as the actual physical location in the landscape – the city with all of its actual physical existence.  Problematizing the definition of place as a physical thing becomes easy in that any image or codified description of a ‘place’ is ultimately designed to facilitate some level of reconstruction in the mind.  Therefore, pictorial representations of a place are mental placeholders for a ‘real’ or even ‘virtual’ space but they cannot produce concrete representations of physical places because of the reality of subjectivity.  Just as with a mind space, a physical place cannot exist in and of itself (in terms of photographic representation).  Thus, no place exists without a certain level of contextualization that occurs when we impose the various mental anchors of social, political and ideological introspection – just to name a few.  However, a unifying antecedent in most all contextualization of place seems to be time. 

Time
Time is the most elusive and simultaneously reliable component in the space/place/time continuum.  We can always count on time to pass, albeit sometimes slow and sometimes fast, but never a moment goes by that we can actually capture. I am in love in this city and I want to capture it forever more.  I want to photograph the place that forms a space in my mind to remember the time I was in love (what Wells points out Bachelard termed ‘tropophilia’).  Yet I cannot do this – but why?  The photograph holds time in place, so what is it that prevents me from tunneling back through time in my mind to the same memory space that my landscape picture purportedly captured?  It is I.  I am in a new time and place, and thus a new space.  By the time I see this photograph the world and all that is in it will have changed.  The seasons will have come and gone (figure B).  The place will have transformed (Figure C). 

Figure B: Skin changes with the seasons [6] Figure C: Shanghai, China (1990 and 2010) [7]

God willing, the love will have endured by the time I come across the picture in the future – and – I therefore conclude that it is neither possible nor desirable to capture and pass on (even to myself) moments in time but rather to live each moment as it passes to the fullest.

It is the essence of the landscape we transmit and in this essence there is no one meaning.  If we feel the moment – a special space – we may capture the place in such a way as to pass on a legacy of wisdom that transcends the requirement for mere meaning.  A wisdom that brings tears with no words – that brings life with no specific thought – that speaks to our very humanity before we have a chance to ruin it with our small and fleeting descriptions. 

The best of all ‘landscape pictures’ captures a feeling – nothing more nothing less – and that is enough. 

As an aside, I also believe that without knowledge of life, one can neither take nor read a good landscape pictures.  Yet, in some mysterious way, it might be possible for the picture to help us pass on said essences from photographer to viewer (or maybe even vice versa in this case where I am both).

Landscape
Understanding landscape can take quite a lot of effort.  As demonstrated, landscape is not self-evidently definable, but rather a combination of “complex and fluid articulations” [4] interwoven through many mental mechanisms. A useful example for grounding the notion of representation in pictures (before we consider idealization) is illustrated by the work of the so called ‘conceptual’ artist Joseph Kosuth in “One and Three Chairs” (Figure D).


Figure D: “One and Three Chairs”, 1965 Joseph Kosuth – Acquisition : Larry Aldrich Foundation Fund [8]

We are presented with a ‘real place’ – the chair.  We also see a kind of ‘landscape photograph’ of the chair. In terms of semiotics this photo is known as a ‘sign’.  Finally we have the dictionary definition of ‘chair’. When all three of these elements are combined at once, they form a more holistic mental sensation of a ‘chair’.  The aggregated meaning of all three representational techniques make up a mental space of a physical place accessible at any time.  Notwithstanding the enormous complications of the dimensional shifts that are caused by taking a picture of all three things at once (as they would appear in the gallery space), we can see additional layers of the ‘ideal chair’ being asserted but the artists by the fact that he selected a specific chair.  The functional non poetic dictionary definition alone does not idealize the chair without the chair object or the photo of said ideal chair.  That is not to say that text cannot idealize, but it would require something like a poem of the chair.  Thus, the simple act of selection carries with it the implication of idealization and while the functions of a camera may seem limited, when compared to painting for example, we must not undermine the power of selection and framing.

My summary of Wells’ aforementioned book is that the fundamental controls of selection and framing of a particular ‘monocular’ ‘topography’ [4] in landscape pictures positions the artist as controller, not only of the resulting aesthetic ideals of a picture, but also any related or even implied cultural, social, political and historical realities.  As I have briefly illustrated, no meanings are inherent to a landscape picture or any components thereof. Therefore, I respectfully disagree that the artist is somewhat accountable.  Nevertheless, I read Wells as an excellent model for analyzing and taking onto consideration the many layers of complex meaning making paradigms that circulate through and around landscape photography.  I also respect the fact that there are shared collective conscious realities that can be made commonplace with visual triggers like polluting smoke stacks or bludgeoned seals.  If there were some way to cohesively contain the communication elements of a landscape picture and thereby produce a set of organized principles by which we could investigate its meaning making mechanisms, this would be grand.  However, our mere overwhelming desire to understand how the essence of a place is passed on must not be polluted by our tendency to rely on predetermined ideological or philosophical academic divisions.  We must begin to trust in the sensations we cannot, and perhaps should not describe. For it is in the description that the real-felt meaning is lost.

Questions

Many more questions come out of exploring the question – ‘where am I’? – and the inevitably interwoven counterparts ‘who am I’ and ‘what am I’?

  1. Is it equally subjective to witness landscape in ‘real life’ as it is to witness the same thing in a landscape photograph?
  2. Are there any universal connections between a place and space of that place?
  3. What is the difference between looking at something artificially rendered and codified (such as a picture or poem of a landscape) and looking at the same landscape with my so called ‘naked eye’?
  4. Should I think about and take pictures at the same time or just feel and take them?
  5. Should I know the subject before I take pictures of it, or come to know the subject after the fact of taking and viewing the picture?

All of these questions and many more come from the delightful exploration of landscape and its many representations and I shall be sure to explore as many as my mind will allow.

References

[1]       amateurdelafrance, “Downtown Montreal : Inspiration.”

[2]       “Landscape,” Google Dictionary.

[3]       R. Hancox, “Mediated Landscapes: The Camera as Machine in the Garden,” Concordia University: Department of Communications Studies, 2013-2012.

[4]       L. Wells, Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity (International Library of Cultural Studies). I. B. Tauris, 2011.

[5]       “Love + Loathe Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Advertisement.” [Online]. Available: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_x3jjE7RQdFc/SNhNLpWKbBI/AAAAAAAAAOQ/-YI4zmW5Dw8/s400/Love+Loathe+-+Airport.jpg.

[6]       “Skin changes with the seasons.” [Online]. Available: http://mybaconhouse.files.wordpress.com/2009/03/season-tree1.jpg.

[7]       R. Shelton, “Top 10 Greenest Cities, Then and Now.” 2011.

[8]       J. Kosuth, One and Three Chairs. 1965.