Daguerreotype or digital file, double-angle stereopticon or straight-shot selfie, documentary evidence in unaltered black and white or PhotoShopped fantasy in full spectrum color—a photograph can be many different things. For Anne Whiston Spirn, a photograph can be the entry point for mindful investigation and imaginative exploration. She writes, “Seeing is a way of knowing; photography is a way of thinking.”
In a selection of forty-six landscape photographs at the Smith College Museum of Art, depicting places that span north-south from Iceland to Australia and range east-west from Japan to Arizona, Spirn invites viewers to embark on an adventure in visual thinking. With The Eye is a Door, each photograph offers an open portal.
A professor of landscape architecture and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Spirn is not intent on tracking the elusive snow leopard into some pristine wilderness. Her landscapes reveal a series of relationships, interactions and interventions between human beings and forces of nature. Each photograph becomes a carefully constructed frame around a built environment.
Along with the formal beauty of the landscapes, the discovery of significant details lures us through that frame and into the scene beyond it. An all-over, seemingly infinite in-focus effect captures and conveys abundant information in the details, and also infuses an aura of heightened attention, even hyper-reality, into the image.
The focus on detail in “El Camino de Santiago, Basque Country, Spain” is sharp enough to record drops of dew on blades of grass growing in a field strewn with weathered limestone. But look beyond dewdrops to consider the connections discovered in that degree of detail. Spirn discerns two intertwined timelines in the gray stone, one revealing geological forces, the other human activities. Over millennia, water flowing from the Basque Mountains created an open field of jagged stones, and then wore those stones smooth.
Over centuries, following along the same pathway as flowing water, Romans paved a road with pieces of cut limestone and medieval traders later carried their goods. Today, pilgrims walk the same paved path of limestone, now the foot-worn Way of Saint James leading to Santiago Compostela.
“Glen Loy, Scotland” tells a darker story of human impact on the land in eerie light under storm clouds. The groundcover of orange, brown and green vegetation is so crisp (visually) that it effectively crunches (tactilely)—and the optical resonance between the nearly complementary orange-brown and green adds to the sensation of unease that echoes a history of conflict. The stone wall plunging up the center dates back to the time of Highland farmers, who were evicted from their small farms to make room for sheep pastures to provide wool for the English textile industry. And small seedlings just discernible atop the background ridge and in the mid-ground furrows have grown over the years into densely wooded forestlands—showing an ongoing human influence.
Although the human hand clearly shapes, and even defines, these vistas, there is almost no visible human presence. The exception that proves the rule is “Parc De Sceaux. Paris, France.” The diagonal line of a clipped hedge and truncated forms of two cone-shaped yew trees in the foreground pull us into the scene. Branches of apparently naturally growing trees rise in the far distance, beyond open space and another cluster of shrubs trimmed into geometric forms. In between, the white marble statue of a human figure serves as a pivot point between the carefully structured, sculpted garden and the natural, free-growing forest.
Part of the visual adventure rests on perspective and position, or, as Spirn says, “knowing where to stand.” To find her story and frame its elements the way she wants—with the formal balance and elegant stasis that characterize many of her images—Spirn wades right in. She teeters at water’s edge in “Fairlight Pool. Sydney Harbor, Australia,” squats low at steps leading up to “Hill of Remembrance, Forest Cemetery, Stockholm, Sweden,” and hovers above a circular bed of moss in “Saiho-ji. Kyoto, Japan.” To get the exact view she wanted, sweeping across fields and furrows in “Glen Loy, Scotland,” she balanced precariously on stones that tumbled from an ancient wall.
In these landscape photographs, position conveys a crucial sense of place. A few steps in any given direction not only alter the aesthetic angle, but can shift the emphasis of the narrative. Look down on the exquisitely structured textures and patterns of a rock garden in Japan, designed to evoke ordered contemplation, yet punctuated by the brilliant orange slash of carp in the background pool. Then look up at a heap of boulders piled against a vast desert, with the sole sign of human life seen in the spiral of an ancient petroglyph. And look way down on the waves meeting the rocky coastline of Nahant, Massachusetts, with a swirl of foam echoing the circular outline of the rock drawing.
Formal abstract aspects of these images encourage viewers to compare, contrast and connect landscapes as geographically diverse as a Japanese rock garden, the Arizona desert, and the New England seacoast, seeking out unifying patterns between various images as well as delving into the individual stories.
The Eye is a Door both acknowledges and deftly sidesteps the Renaissance concept of pictorial space as a window framing a reality that extends from our own world via the conventions of linear perspective. In Spirn’s words, “Why a door and not a window? A window is something to look through, but a doorway is to pass through…” The way Spirn frames the photographs, and how she determines the significant detail, make a convincing argument for her metaphor of a transformative threshold. In “Mount Rokko Chapel. Kobe, Japan,” the linear perspective of the floor and dark frame of the open doorway mediate between the known, concrete world at our feet and the undefined space beyond, filled with its enveloping fog of diffuse blue light. As Spirn writes, “…To see, to really see, is to open a door. To pass through that door is to arrive at a new understanding.”•
The Eye is a Door: Landscape Photographs by Anne Whiston Spirn, Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, through August 31, 2014.