An ambitious new photography exhibition, “America in View: Landscape Photography 1865 to Now,” opened today at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art. The exhibition includes more than 150 photographs, mostly drawn from the museum’s collection, as well as from private owners and institution collections such as Brown’s John Hay Library.
The exhibition offers the grandeur of conventional landscapes such as Ansel Adams’ depiction of Yosemite National Park, but it also redefines the meaning of landscape with images such as Catherine Opie’s “Football Landscape #12.”
Jan Howard, the exhibition organizer and the museum’s curator of prints, drawings and photographs, chose images from the museum’s collection of 5,125 photographs. Douglas Nickel, professor of history of art and architecture, and Deborah Bright, RISD professor of photography and history of art and visual culture, worked in association with Howard on the exhibition. Howard said she “wanted to show a lot of work that hadn’t been seen before.”
This is the largest presentation the museum has held of works from their collection, Museum Director John Smith told members of the press. A donation of 71 photographs from Betsey Ruppa and her late husband Joe Deal, landscape photographer and former RISD provost and professor, inspired the project.
Along with Deal’s work, the show includes photographs by RISD graduates, Providence-based photographers such as Salvatore Mancini and many others. Providence residents can see depictions of their city in images such as a panorama made up of six cyanotype prints.
The exhibition begins with a surreal projection of a figure appearing to float on water by William Lamson. It then traces photography chronologically, beginning from the days of government-commissioned photography after the American Civil War. These prints were originally not considered worthy of a museum display. “Just the fact that we have these pictures from the 19th century is remarkable to me,” Howard said.
The exhibition features other groups of artists such as the Pictorialists, Group f/64 and pieces by photographers interested in portraying more than the landscape. It ends with contemporary work, such as Laura McFee’s striking photograph of a white-gowned woman in a golden field and Doug Rickard’s computer-generated Google Street View image entitled “#82.948842, Detroit, MI, 2009.”
Howard spoke of many of her favorites, such as Richard Misrach’s “Battleground Point #20,” which provides a paradoxically “sublime view of the landscape.” It is difficult to look at a landscape without seeing the political and social issues involved, Howard said. The lighting and desert terrain in An-my Le’s image of Marines training in California make the setting look more like a war zone.
“What our landscape looks like is always changing,” Howard said. “It makes me excited about what we might see next,” she said, adding, “I hope it will make other people follow photography.”