Low-angle shots, looking up at someone, have traditionally been used to make people appear more powerful, more authoritative, more dynamic, etc. One of the best places to find examples of low angles is in advertising posters for superhero and action movies. Crucial point: In these posters, low angles are used for both good guys and bad guys, BUT: there is is a small but very significant detail that can often make a very big difference in the meaning of a low-angle shot. In low angle shots of bad guys, the person in the image often looks straight down at the viewer. In low angle shots of good guys, the person in the image is more likely to look off into the distance. The logic behind this difference is very simple: Most of us don’t like being looked down on; therefore, the combination of a low camera angle and a downward look is usually negative.


How does vertical angle apply in the area of political campaigns? Politics and power are often spoken of in the same breath, so you might expect that the world of political images would be brimming with low angles. However, it turns out that things in the political arena are a little more complicated. To begin with, it is relatively easy to find low camera angles if you look at portrayals of authoritarian rulers, such as Joseph Stalin. Perhaps the most informative example of such an image is a poster in which Stalin is shown as the helmsman of a ship, peering into the distance as he steers his vessel ahead. On the steering wheel in his hands we see the acronym of the Soviet Union, “USSR,” inscribed in Cyrillic letters. By his side, the red Soviet flag billows in the wind.

The type of low angle that we see in this poster of Stalin has become a recurring feature in political imagery. When portrayals of politicians use low angles, they almost always use the kind of low angle that we see in this poster. The politician’s upturned face is shown from the side, looking out of the frame of the picture, into the distance. The nautical theme of Stalin’s poster is unusual, but it helps us to understand the meaning of this kind of low angle. What the upturned face and the faraway gaze say to the viewer is this: Your leader sees the future, and he has the power to take you there safely. Similar low angles (without the ship, of course) can be found in the portrayals of other absolute rulers, including Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, as well as Adolf Hitler.

Somewhat surprisingly, though, this kind of low angle is not confined to authoritarian regimes. As people who have been following the American political scene may have noticed, similar low angles can be found much closer to home. We will take a closer look at this phenomenon shortly. But first, one more comment about the low angles in portraits of dictators. It’s important to emphasize that in none of these portraits does the political ruler look at the viewer. As we already noted in the case of superhero posters, low angles of people looking down are reserved almost entirely for the bad guys.

Outside of the world of dictatorial rulers, political campaigns tend to avoid low angles of any kind. Across the globe, democratic elections are commonly accompanied by pictures of political candidates looking squarely at the viewer, from a position of equality. It may be worth stressing that such images do not always reflect the underlying reality of a politician’s conduct. Rather, the images tell us what a society expects or hopes for. They are vivid reminders of the fact that political values can be expressed just as eloquently through pictures as in words. Nowhere is this role of visual media clearer than in the case of Australia, a country that sees irreverence and anti-authoritarianism as basic ingredients of its culture. Australians have actually talked about including the concept of “mateship” in a preamble to their national constitution. If we wanted a single-word translation of the meaning of the democratic posters we have just looked at, “mateship” might be an appropriate term.


Now let’s take a look at political campaign images in the United States. For a very long period of time – more than a hundred years – US Presidential campaign posters have been highly predictable. They often contain both the presidential candidate and his or her running mate side by side, almost always on the same level as each other. One of them usually looks at the viewer. The other may echo that orientation, or may look sideways in the direction of his or her partner – perhaps as a way of tying the two images more closely together.

For an example of this configuration, we can go back at least as early as 1844, the election that brought James Polk to the Presidency. Polk is considered one of the most effective presidents in US history. He is famous for declaring a set of four major goals ahead of time, accomplishing all four goals in a single term in office, and declining the opportunity to run again for a second term. However, in Polk’s campaign poster, it is his running mate, George Dallas, who looks out at the viewer, while Polk turns to look at Dallas.

If we ask the question, “What does Polk’s poster tell us about the power relationship between the politician and the public,” two visual elements stand out: first, the level point of view from which Polk and his running mate have been depicted; second, the level direction of both men’s gazes. These two visual elements remain constant features of Presidential campaign imagery for more than a century.




One thing does change, though, quite noticeably, over that period. Beginning with Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, Presidential candidates are often shown smiling in their campaign posters. Before that date, expressions are almost always serious.

Does this transition to smiling images mean that politicians became more approachable in the 1950s? Do smiles signify greater equality of social status between rulers and the ruled? If anything, the changes in the Presidency since the 1950s have taken us in the opposite direction. Harry Truman, the last of the “unsmiling” Presidents, was also the last President who was able to mingle freely with everyday people after he left office. When Truman retired to his home town in 1953, he had no secret service escort – and he also had no pension whatsoever from his years as a Senator and President. The contrast with the status of today’s ex-Presidents is dramatic. So, to go back to the fact that Presidential campaign posters began to feature smiles in the 1950s: A more likely explanation may be that television, which was a new medium in those days, created an illusion of greater intimacy between politicians and ordinary citizens. Political smiles may simply have served to encourage that illusion.

The advent of smiles did not change the level perspective and level eye-gaze of Presidential campaign portraits. For most of the twentieth century, there are almost no departures from those two visual formulas, and, even when an image does bend the rules, the violations tend to be slight. For example, a poster for Woodrow Wilson and one for Franklin Roosevelt both include upturned eye-gazes, but the effect is subtle, and neither image is portrayed from a low angle. Throughout most of the past two centuries, a period spanning more than thirty Presidential elections, the visual conventions we have been discussing remained remarkably stable.


And then, fairly abruptly, that stability began to erode. From the 1980s onward, low-angle views of the candidates began to appear in campaign images, and, during the past three Presidential elections, such views have become a staple component of candidates’ campaign media. The pleasant expressions in most of these low-angle views are a far cry from the grim, cheerless faces that we encountered in the posters of Stalin and other dictators. But the difference between these recent, heroic images of US politicians and the older, more egalitarian portrayals is striking.

What is the meaning of the increasing frequency of low-angle views in US Presidential campaign images? Are the citizens of the United States becoming more susceptible to authoritarian politics? In trying to make sense of any historical change, it’s always wise to be open to alternative explanations. At the same time that portrayals of US Presidents were changing, a big change was taking place in Hollywood movies. Superhero movies, which were quite rare until the 1970s, became a dominant genre in the 1980s, and are even more popular today. Could there be any link between these two trends? What we do know is that the advertising professionals who work on political campaigns often have parallel experiences in the world of entertainment. For example, a prominent member of Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign had also been a successful Hollywood scriptwriter.

Does the popularity of superheroes in the movies have any causal connection to the desire for superheroes in the White House? We can only speculate about the nature of the relationship. Just as movie fads sometimes fade away without having too much of a social impact, it’s conceivable that the same could happen with the heroic pictures in Presidential campaign posters. But if there is a deeper meaning in those pictures – if they reflect a growing inclination toward authoritarian leadership – then anyone who respects the Constitution of the United States should be concerned. The Constitution’s meticulously crafted system of checks and balances is not very compatible with images of superhero Presidents.

Interview with Paul Falzone: Digital Democracy vs. Digital Divide

Paul Falzone is the Founder and Director of Peripheral Vision International (PVI), a consulting firm devoted to fostering the development of media for social change. Currently operating primarily in Uganda, PVI is involved in the production and distribution of edutainment programs for audiences in East Africa. With a Ph.D. from the Annenberg School at Penn, Falzone is an award-winning producer of film and video, in addition to having conducted research on the uses of visual media for social advocacy.

In this interview, Falzone talks about the role of digital media in the work that PVI has been supporting in Uganda, with a special focus on a program called Newz Beat, in which the news is delivered by rapping ann9uncers. The program’s existence has been made possible by the availability of relatively low-cost digital equipment, used by the program’s creators to achieve a high level of technical quality. In that sense, digital media have broadened the range of participants in Uganda’s media system. At the same time, though, the distribution of Newz Beat is hampered by the limited reach of Uganda’s electrical network and the scarcity of digital screens in people’s homes. In response to this obstacle, the Newz Beat team has developed a system of physical distribution via DVDs that are exhibited on TV screens in public places.

PM: In what ways is News Beat a reflection of the development of digital technology for the creation of audio-visual media?

PF: To the casual viewer in Uganda, Newz Beat is a big budget production, taking place on a slick, glowing set. The reality is somewhat humbler.  Newz Beat is recorded in front of a plain white wall covered by a green “chroma key” sheet.  The futuristic desk that the anchors sit behind is a folding plastic table also covered with a green sheet.  This “virtual set” liberates the media producers from the physical constraints of the television studio and allows them access to any visual they can imagine (or more accurately, to any visual they can download from the internet).

In the old days of celluloid film, cameras were bulky and difficult to use.  Film had to undergo expensive processing that could take days.  Filmmakers had to “shoot and pray” that the film was not damaged or put in the camera incorrectly and ruined altogether. Lighting was mathematically estimated based on light readings rather than seen in real time. Sound was captured separately, which came with a whole separate set of challenges. By comparison, Newz Beat’s producer, Shadie, films the program with a digital SLR camera.  It shoots in all quality of light and provides him immediate access to the footage.   Its digital storage is so cheap as to border on free. Within only a few hours, Shadie has filmed all of the “raporters” (rapping reporters), downloaded the video to his laptop and is headed back to edit the footage, where the real impact of the digital revolution is even more apparent.

PM: How affordable is the editing equipment that he uses?

PF: Though it has come down radically in price over the years, new professional editing software in the West can still cost a thousand dollars or more.  But virtually all of the software one encounters in Uganda is bootleg.  Even the high end hotels will often be running pirated copies of Windows in their business centers. Yochai Benchler once wrote that “Property is a hindrance, not an aid, when peer production of a public good like information is possible.” Whether you agree or disagree, the fact is that open and easy access to software is a boon to producers of media working on tiny or nonexistent budgets. And it allowed Shadie to overcome the last obstacle to becoming a mediamaker.

PM: What are the challenges involved in the distribution of Newz Beat?

PF: The dark side of digital democratization is a deepening digital divide, particularly in the developing world.  Newz Beat provides us an entry point to explore this tension. After years of postponing, Uganda finally switched from an analog to a digital television signal in late 2015.  This switchover required home television users to either buy a digitally compliant television, a costly decoder or a monthly digital television subscription. While the digital switchover has created more bandwidth for television networks to create more channels, it also seems to have actually decreased the number of people who can receive these channels, because of the extra expense.

Newz Beat can (and does) post its output to YouTube, Soundcloud and Facebook, while also distributing through mainstream broadcast channels, but if most of the audience isn’t online, what is the point? Newz Beat’s raporters can translate the news, but how do they translate transmedia distribution systems in a context that is not only largely pre-digital, but pre-electrical?

PM: How has Newz Beat dealt with this problem?

PF: In response to the challenges of distributing via traditional media, the Newz Beat team has created an approach to distribution that can be described as “parallel broadcast” or “parabroadcast.” In Uganda, ambient television is the primary televisual medium and can be found in buses, bars, restaurants, beauty salons, shops and small pirate cinemas called “bibanda” where customers pay about ten cents to watch action movies and music videos on television screens. Since its launch, Newz Beat has been distributed to more than 35,000 of these screens, many in the most remote regions of the country, via a straight-to-DVD program called Crowdpullerz that bundles Ugandan music videos with Newz Beat, Public Service Announcements and other social content.

Before Viral Videos and Iconic Photographs….

In her book Hokusai’s Great Wave, Christine Guth devotes 256 pages of text to the discussion of a single picture measuring approximately 10 X 14 ½ inches. She could easily have spent twice as many words on her subject without running out of significant details to talk about. According to Guth, the Great Wave has been reproduced and adapted more widely, in more parts of the world, than any other non-Western artwork. Guth’s book is a painstaking, meticulous effort to trace the history of those reproductions and adaptations. The story that she tells spans more than two centuries and much of the globe. For scholars in visual communication, this story will be particularly interesting because of its relationship to two questions that we often ask: How does a picture attract large-scale attention, and what happens to pictures when they cross cultures?

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The Great Wave originated as a design by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (ca. 1760-1849). Hokusai’s design became the basis of a wood-block print that was issued in the early 1830s by the publishing house Eijudō as part of a series titled Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. In Guth’s translation, the original title of Hokusai’s picture is “Under the Great Wave off Kanagawa.” However, following the immense success of a 2005 exhibition at Tokyo National Museum, the Japanese themselves have taken to calling it gureto uebu, in recognition of its growing international fame. The Great Wave depicts three boats battling a stormy sea off the coast of Kanagawa, an area south of Tokyo. The silhouette of Mount Fuji rises in the distance, but it is dwarfed by a huge cresting wave that is about to come crashing down on the boats. The scene is dramatic, the composition is striking, and the technical quality of the print is outstanding. As Guth points out, at the time that the Great Wave and the other prints in Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji were published, “Japanese woodblock prints arguably represented the most efficient, cost effective, and artistically sophisticated form of color printing in the world” (page 23). How did this picture from the past come to occupy such a prominent place in present-day visual culture?

Hokusai was already well-known in Japan when the Great Wave and its companion prints appeared. He was a famous figure working in an industry that played an important role in Japanese cultural life. Guth’s overview of Japanese print-making provides an informative account of the industry’s technical and business aspects. As early as the 1760s, Japanese publishers had developed highly precise techniques for the reproduction of multi-colored images. Those techniques, which predated European color print-making by several decades, are a significant milestone in the history of visual communication. As William Ivins has pointed out, the ability to produce exactly repeatable pictorial statements was a major factor in the rise of visual culture and its increasing displacement of writing as the prime vehicle of public discourse.

The economic features of Japanese commercial print-making can also be seen as prefiguring many of the characteristics that have since become standard features of the international image industry. Hokusai was paid for his designs by his publisher, who subsequently sold the resulting prints to the general public. The bulk of his income was therefore dependent on the mass market, rather than patronage or sales to wealthy individuals. Guth cites several calculations of sales volume for prints in Hokusai’s day. Modern estimates for the Great Wave vary from 5,000 to 10,000, which, according to Guth, would put it on the threshold of that era’s best seller mark. As Guth points out, Hokusai’s success was not simply the result of the high artistic quality of his work. Print publishers were capable advertisers, and Hokusai himself was an effective self-publicist. For example, Guth describes an occasion on which he painted a 250-square-foot picture in public, in front of a huge crowd, to promote one of his print series.

Not long after its initial publication, the Great Wave began to find its way into copies and adaptations by other artists, not only in print-making but also in other visual media such as porcelain dishes. Guth has done an excellent job of tracking down a wide range of works inspired by Hokusai’s picture, and her book will serve as a valuable resource for scholars interested in tracing the evolution of visual ideas over time and, eventually, across cultures. Incidentally, she also gives us a good look at how the Great Wave evolved from Hokusai’s own earlier work. In seeking to understand the reasons for the Great Wave’s growing popularity among Japanese consumers of images in the mid-19th century, Guth pays particular attention to the picture’s cultural associations. She notes that the picture’s publication came at a time when the people of Japan were increasingly preoccupied with their country’s place in the world and felt particularly vulnerable to threats from abroad. She argues that, under such circumstances, the image of the huge wave would have given rise to a set of mutually contradictory feelings among the residents of an island nation. On the one hand, the stormy sea could be seen as protection from the outside world. On the other hand, however, it could also be seen as a symbol of the dangers that might lurk over the horizon.

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Guth supports these interpretations with ample references to Japanese literary and visual sources. Still, scholars focusing on visual matters might be interested in looking at the Great Wave’s popularity from a somewhat different angle. A recurring question in visual studies has to do with the visual features that help propel certain images to the status of cultural icons. Are we capable of making any meaningful predictions about that process, or are we confined entirely to the wisdom of hindsight? In this regard, Guth refers to the work of Martin Kemp, who offers a comprehensive, amply illustrated definition of the term “icon” but is quite skeptical about being able to turn those illustrations into a formula. A more productive reference point might be the research of Margaret Livingstone, who has sought to explain why the Mona Lisa is so much better known that the other works of Leonardo, many of which are of equal, if not superior, artistic quality. Livingstone’s answer is based on technical considerations that are beyond the scope of this review, but her conclusion – namely, that the Mona Lisa’s meaning is ambiguous and therefore leaves the viewer guessing – may well have some relevance to Hokusai’s work as well. With one potential exception (an image of people perched on a steep roof), the Great Wave is the only picture in the Thirty-Six Views in which people are shown in an activity with an uncertain outcome (and the possibility of a very bad ending). The power of such open-endedness is attested to not only by Livingstone’s research but also by the notorious example of Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream (1989), a painting of an imperiled mariner that generated numerous requests for Homer to reveal the outcome of the story.

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It is not clear to what extent the Great Wave’s eventual popularity outside Japan was related to its high reputation in its country of origin. According to Guth, the earliest evidence of the print’s importation to Europe or the United States comes from 1883, when the French art collector Louis Gonse, author of a comprehensive introduction to Japanese art, mentioned that he owned a complete set of the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. Guth speculates that Gonse is likely to have included the Great Wave in an exhibition that he organized in Paris that same year. By that point in time, Hokusai’s work was already well known and widely admired by European and American connoisseurs. Guth mentions that his illustrated books were introduced to Europe as early as the 1830s. By the 1850s, his admirers were pronouncing him an artistic genius. In one of several enthusiastic comments cited by Guth, the British art critic William Rossetti wrote that Hokusai’s illustrations belonged “in various respects to the greatest order of art practiced in our day in any country in the world” (quoted in Guth, 58). Critical acclaim was accompanied by artistic copying. A particularly notable instance was the American illustrator John La Farge’s imitation of a wave from Hokusai’s “Mount Fuji Viewed from the Sea,” a print that was produced at roughly the same time as the Great Wave but was the first of the two to arrive in the United States.

It appears that the Great Wave’s positive reception by non-Japanese viewers was based on considerable previous familiarity with Hokusai’s oeuvre and with Japanese art. As Hokusai’s work was being absorbed into the visual cultures of Europe and the United States, his influence on those cultures was discussed by artists as well as critics. Their writings give us some sense of what Hokusai and the Great Wave meant to them, although the most accurate answers to this question are surely contained in the wave’s many copies and adaptations. Guth pays special attention to the commentary of Edmond de Goncourt, a prominent French critic who published a book on Hokusai. In the book’s opening lines, Goncourt praises Hokusai for freeing Japanese painting from the authority of Persian and Chinese artistic principles, but he also complains that in “both East and West it seems that the same injustices await the artist who breaks with the past!” (quoted in Guth, 81) This statement encapsulates a broader point about the cross-cultural migration of images. The process of adapting another culture’s visual syntax (or, indeed, any other cultural practice) is often, at the same time, a critique or repudiation of aspects of one’s own culture. The French admired the Great Wave not only for the abstract geometry of its design but also for its antithesis to the hyperliteralism and occasional fussiness of academic art. It is sometimes claimed that Hokusai’s acceptance in the West was facilitated by the presence of Western stylistic features such as linear perspective in his pictures. But the testimony of writers such as Goncourt suggests otherwise.

Does the adoption of visual motifs or stylistic elements from another culture have any broader consequences for the lives of those who are doing the adopting? One of the more intriguing notions in visual studies is the idea that pictorial syntax encodes cultural values, and that those values are absorbed by viewers. A substantial body of theory has made this argument with regard to Western linear perspective, which is commonly assumed to have played a role in the establishment of “bourgeois ideology.” When it comes to Japanese visual media, the case for broader cultural impact has been made in considerable detail by Susan Napier, in a history that begins with Japonisme in 19th century France and concludes with global anime fandom in the 21st century. As far as the Great Wave is concerned, Guth points out that non-Western artists and graphic designers who use it in their work are often well informed about Hokusai and Japanese art. However, they tend to assume that the general public is less likely to know or care about the Great Wave’s provenance, and much of the work they produce is only weakly connected to Japanese culture. For example, in her book’s final chapter, Guth points out that many non-Japanese viewers mistakenly think that the Great Wave represents a tsunami, and she notes that this misunderstanding became particularly problematic when a newly acquired print of the wave was exhibited at the British Museum in 2011, after the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that had devastated northern Japan in March of that year. To be sure, Guth’s compendious history of the Great Wave’s migrations outside Japan also includes examples of knowledgeable and thoughtful adaptation or quotation, as in the case of Asian-American artists’ use of the wave to comment about the very nature of cultural exchange. However, one of the most significant virtues of Guth’s book is the fact that she usually lets the abundant visual and archival evidence speak for itself, making it possible for the reader to arrive at her or his own conclusions about questions such as the ones raised in this review.

Advertising U.S. Environmentalism – Part 3: The Damaged Landscape

The pristine landscape is still a flourishing genre, represented today by images in environmentalist publications, posters, and wallpaper. However, in the world of fine-art photography, this genre has come to be seen as an anachronism, a nostalgic retreat from the reality of massive human impact on the land. As far back as 1992, at an Ansel Adams Scholars Conference, one of the participants recalled that when he was in graduate school, fifteen years before, Adams’s pictures “were seen as embarrassingly sentimental and old-fashioned,” while Adams himself “seemed to be the Norman Rockwell of landscape photographyextremely popular, extremely successful, but by then no longer important as an artist” (Hagen, 1993, p. 97). The basic concern behind this attitude had been defined more pointedly even earlier, in a 1977 statement by John Szarkowski: “It is difficult today for an ambitious young photographer to photograph a pristine snowcapped mountain without including the parking lot in the foreground as a self-protecting note of irony” (Szarkowski, 1977, p. xii). Thus Ted Orland, one of Ansel Adams’s most distinguished disciples, has made images of Yosemite’s “Half Dome” (a monolith much photographed by Adams) framed by foreground close-ups of domed trash cans. His label for one of these pictures is “One and a Half Dome.”

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Among landscape photographers oriented toward the worlds of museums and galleries or colleges and universities, documentation of human impact on the environment is now a dominant preoccupation. In the world of more direct environmentalist advocacy, visual depictions of altered landscapes (or, more specifically, of land damaged by human alteration) have been major rhetorical tools since the 1930s, if not earlier. If we had to pick the most obvious starting point of this tradition, a good candidate would be Pare Lorentz’s 1936 film The Plow that Broke the Plains, produced as part of a promotional campaign for government plans to reform U.S. farming practices. The film begins with lyrical images of uncultivated grasslands and ends with Dust Bowl devastation: skies black with clouds of dust; bare, scorched soils; suffering people. The damage wrought by imprudent agricultural practices was also a major theme in Lorentz’s next film, The River (1938), which contains many striking images of soil erosion, and similar images are present in the extensive collection of Depression-era photographs produced under the aegis of the Farm Security Administration.

Among the most memorable of these FSA images are Dorothea Lange’s “Tractored Out” (1938), a bleak vision of parched irrigation furrows leading to an abandoned Texas farmhouse, and Arthur Rothstein’s “Fleeing a Dust Storm” (1936), in which an Oklahoma farmer and his two children are seen running to a shed through a sea of wind-swept dust. Although Rothstein’s picture was apparently a restaging of the original event – or perhaps precisely because the photographer was able to compose the scene to his own specificationsthis photograph has become, according to Rothstein himself, “perhaps the most widely reproduced image of the twentieth century” (Rothstein, 1986, p. 37). Years later it appeared in Life magazine (in an issue on “The wild West”) with the following caption: “It wasn’t the plow that broke the plains. It was greedy, ignorant farmers who in less than 50 years turned 97 million acres of the richest soil on the planet into a great Dust Bowl….” (Life, April 5, 1993, p. 27). (The fact that the farmers are said to have been “greedy”instead of simply having responded to the demands of an ever-increasing populationis a sobering indication of the extent to which some of the more uncharitable and counterproductive elements of environmentalist rhetoric have entered the broader culture.)

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As Derek Bouse has pointed out, the strategy that Pare Lorenz used in The Plow that Broke the Plains a contrast between an early, undefiled landscape and a later, damaged one has since become a common feature of environmentalist advocacy. This strategy has been evaluated by David Brower, the first Executibve Director of the Sierra Club, in connection environmentalist depictions of Glen Canyon. The loss of Glen Canyon, which was submerged under the waters of Lake Powell following the 1963 completion of a dam on the Colorado, was blamed by many environmentalists on insufficient public awareness. After the deed had already been done, David Brower edited a book of Eliot Porter’s photographs of the original site, which was published in the Sierra Club’s exhibit-format series under the title The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado (1963). The book’s declared premise was that, if only more people had known how beautiful Glen Canyon was, the public would not have allowed the dam to go up. The book’s ultimate aim, then, was to encourage greater awareness of comparable future situations. In a retrospective assessment of the book’s impact, Brower compares it to a film by Larry Dawson. The book and the film had similar goals, but their methods were different. Based on a series of slides that Phil Pennington and Chuck Washburn had made both before and after the closing of the dam, the film documented the replacement of the original splendors of Glen Canyon by the “dead body of water named Lake Powell” (Brower, 1991, p. 56). According to Brower, audiences were grief-stricken by this contrast. Referring to the original slides on which this film was based, he says: “If you are a grown man and don’t want to cry, or see other grown men cry, avoid [them] at all costs” (Brower, 1991, p. 55).

Brower presents this story as evidence of the power of the positive-negative (or pristine-damaged) contrast. But we should not take the effectiveness of this strategy for granted. To Brower’s eyes, Lake Powell is a “dead body of water,” and this perception must have been shared by Dawson’s audience. It is quite clear, however, that to other people, whose preconceptions may perhaps be different, Lake Powell is actually an attractive spectacle in its own right. For example, I remember that it was featured prominently, as a panoramic aerial image very much in line with the pristine-landscape tradition, in a tourist brochure I once received on a trip to Utah. The potential disparity in interpretations that this example suggests came to the fore in another dispute over dam construction, a few years after the Glen Canyon episode. In 1965 and 1966, Congress was considering plans for two more Colorado dams, this time in the Grand Canyon. Responding to environmentalists’ outrage at the possibility that yet another set of beautiful places might be obliterated, proponents of the project argued that higher water levels behind the two dams would actually make the remaining attractions in the vicinity more accessible to the ordinary tourist. This argument was countered by David Brower in a print ad in which a picture of the Grand Canyon was accompanied by this question: “SHOULD WE ALSO FLOOD THE SISTINE CHAPEL SO TOURISTS CAN GET NEARER THE CEILING?” The ad was enormously successful, and, together with other ads by Brower and the Sierra Club,. it led to a major letter-writing campaign opposing the dams. In the end, the environmentalists won the day, but we should not discount the possibility that, at another time, in a place less well known than the Grand Canyon, the kind of perspective represented by this projects’ supporters might mesh more readily with the views of the broader public.


At issue here is not simply the question of what exactly constitutes a damaged landscape – a matter on which opinions will obviously differ. Rather, the more pertinent problem for our purposes has to do with the relationship between human impact and visual appeal. Even someone who opposes dam construction and knows all about the environmental degradation that dams can cause might still find the spectacle of a place like Lake Powell aesthetically pleasing. Moreover, it does not seem too far-fetched to suppose that, if the Grand Canyon dams had finally been built, tourist brochures might now be displaying pictures of the artificial lakes to which they would have given rise. Similar difficulties crop up with some other examples of damaged landscape imagery. One of the most prominent visual chroniclers of human impact on the land is Edward Burtynsky, whose work is featured in Jennifer Baichwal’s movie Manufactured Landscapes (2006). Burtynsky is famous for his large-scale photographs of landscapes that have been radically transformed by industrial activity. He is an active environmentalist, and his photographs are certainly capable of evoking grief, revulsion, even horror. Some of his depictions of the effects of mine tailings look like visions of hell. And yet, viewed more abstractly, for their colors and forms rather than their content, these images have a powerful if unearthly aesthetic appeal. It seems entirely plausible that a viewer who did not know what they represented could easily see them as intriguing examples of abstract art.

Promotional photograph to be used only in conjunction with the film MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES, a Zeitgeist Films release.

Promotional photograph to be used only in conjunction with the film MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES, a Zeitgeist Films release.

As with the case of Lake Powell, then, Burtynsky’s photographs illustrate how uncertain the connection can be between aesthetic response and environmental implications. But there is also an important difference between the two situations. Tourist-brochure images of Lake Powell can appeal to the same sentiments that we feel in the presence of untouched wilderness. The abstract appeal of Burtynsky’s images, however, has very little to do with that kind of aesthetic satisfaction. This is a point worth examining in more detail. While beauty may not guarantee environmental integrity, the motivating power of aesthetic considerations may well be crucial to the achievement of a well-ordered environment. Conversely, it has been argued that “neglect of the aesthetic leads inevitably to neglect of the pragmatically beneficial aspects of nature” (Jussim & Lindquist-Cock, 1985, p. 139). Even if we do not agree that there is anything inevitable about the process, this is a productive formulation. It leads directly to a crucial question: Exactly what sort of aesthetic satisfaction do we get out of our relationship with the natural environment? If we can arrive at a reasonable answer to this question, we might also gain a clearer understanding of how aesthetic concerns might contribute to more enlightened environmentalist practice.

Discussions of aesthetics frequently distinguish between our experience of nature and our response to art. Not everyone finds this distinction acceptable, of course, and writers such as Arnold Berleant and Allen Carlson have tried to argue for a single view of aesthetic pleasure that encompasses both sources. It may well be true that, at some level of abstraction, these two kinds of experiences begin to look the same. However, for our purposes the possibility of differences between them cannot be overlooked. Assuming, then, that the kinds of rewards we get from art do not entirely overlap with those we get from nature, let us begin with a brief look at the former. There are at least two possible components in the aesthetic experience of art: on the one hand, the vicarious gratification provided by a surrogate experience; on the other hand, the admiration that we feel in the presence of skill. Perhaps the purest example of the first of these is pornography: Its whole purpose is to give vicarious satisfaction (of the audience’s “prurient interests,” as the Supreme Court has put it), and it seems unlikely that better scripts, camerawork, or acting would make much difference to consumers. A pure example of the second component might be an abstract painting: If there is no representational subject matter to serve as the basis of a surrogate experience, appreciation of skill (the qualities of lines, colors, shapes, overall design) must be the sole source of aesthetic appeal. Obviously, most art falls somewhere between these two extremes.

These two components of the aesthetic appreciation of art are self-evidently also present in the specific case of artistic representations of nature. Many travel snapshots taken by tourists seem especially dependent on vicarious emotional experience for their effect, while some of the work produced by photographers such as Edward Burtynsky invites the same type of assessment that we might apply to a truly abstract image. In fact, the unsettling, even disturbing quality of Burtynsky’s mine-tailing photographs can be seen as arising precisely from a discrepancy between their impressive skill as abstract designs and the vicarious revulsion that we may feel if we imagine ourselves in the situations they depict. However, a fuller understanding of the aesthetics of images of nature requires that we look directly at the aesthetics of nature itself.

We have already noted one kind of emotional gratification that is often credited to nature, namely, the sense of refuge from human troubles, of retreat into a sphere of existence where those troubles seem insignificant. This experience can also be provided vicariously, of course, by artistic representations (i.e., surrogates) of nature. Moreover, it could be argued that this experience is no different from what happens when we use an escapist movie or TV program to “leave our troubles behind.” But for our purposes, at least, this argument goes too far. It is one thing to escape from unrewarding social circumstances into a vicarious experience of more rewarding ones, and quite another to escape out of society altogether. The former possibility does not seem to have any special implications for the issues we have been considering here, whereas the latter, as we have already seen, most certainly does.

A very different aspect of the appeal of nature and, in particular, of natural landscapes has been discussed in the work of Jay Appleton and other writers influenced by his approach. Appleton has advanced the theory that our preferences for some kinds of landscapes may be shaped by biology rather than just culture. This theory assumes that evolutionary forces may have predisposed all humans to favor certain environmental features that are beneficial to survival (or, at least, were beneficial during the past evolution of the species). The types of features that Appleton and his followers have investigated most thoroughly are two: high points in a landscape, from which a viewer would be able to survey the surrounding terrain and assess its opportunities and dangers; and places of shelter or concealment, from which a person could look out without being seen. These two types of features are usually referred to as “prospect” (e.g., Thomas Cole’s “The Last of The Mohicans,” below left) and “refuge” (e.g., Cole’s “Evening in Arcady,” below right) in the literature. According to this literature, an innate human interest in places of prospect and refuge may be part of the reason that landscapes with hills or mountains are often preferred to flat ones, landscapes containing stands of trees or bushes are often preferred to those lacking any tall vegetation, and so forth. Both prospect and refuge are characterized by the fact the primary benefits they confer are visual (seeing; not being seen), but the theory of innate preferences could also be extended to environmental features with other kinds of primary benefits. For example, we might want to use this theory as a partial explanation for the seemingly widespread appeal of landscapes containing lakes, streams, or other sources of fresh water.

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Appleton’s theory has been a useful tool in such fields as art history and landscape design; it is less clear whether it has any significant implications for environmentalist practice. The environmental features that the theory is concerned with may have been crucial to the human species during most of its past, but they are not a very reliable predictor of environmental suitability in the sharply different social, economic, and technological conditions that human beings have created in their more recent history. If anything, then, the innate aesthetic tastes assumed by the theory may be factors that have to be counteracted in imagery designed for environmentalist purposes. For example, as we have already seen, writers and photographers concerned about environmental issues have felt a need for education that would encourage viewers to shed their prejudices against the flat, treeless landscapes of the western plains, an environment that might have been ill-suited to the lives of our evolutionary ancestors but is now an integral part of a complex, highly-differentiated society.

Although the assumption of innateness in Appleton’s theory is controversial by contemporary academic standards, perhaps the most contentious issue in the aesthetics of nature has to do with another type of aesthetic appeal, namely, the appreciation of skill. This issue brings us to a direct comparison between nature and art. Specifically, it has often been argued that, whereas appreciation of skill is a major component of the experience of art, it is irrelevant to the experience of wild nature, because nature is not the product of human activity. Since there is no artist, the argument goes, considerations of skill do not apply. Moreover, some writers who have taken this position have also gone a step further: On the assumption that skill appreciation is actually the defining component of artistic experience, they have denied that there is any significant relationship between that experience and our responses to nature. (A similar premise leads many people to deny that pornography is art.)

The standard objection to this view of the difference between nature and art is to point out that many people experience nature as the handiwork of a divine creator and may derive aesthetic satisfaction in contemplating the excellence of that handiwork. The Christian tradition, in particular, abounds in statements like the following, by the 18th-century New England theologian Jonathan Edwards: “God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in every thing; in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and in all nature.” Such sentiments have unquestionably played an important part in the development of environmentalist consciousness in the United States, although they are encountered much less frequently now than they were in early environmentalist writing.

Still, while the view of nature as sacred handiwork rarely appears explicitly in contemporary environmentalist thought, there is a related attitude whose continuing relevance seems more secure. In the writings of John Muir, spiritual exaltation at the glory of creation is often combined with an intellectual delight in studying the workings of nature. (This was a combination that Muir had inherited from such intellectual forebears as Emerson.) For Muir, as for previous writers, interest in understanding the natural world flowed logically from a feeling of reverence towards it. But the explicitly religious element in this combination is obviously not a prerequisite of the more intellectual pleasure described by Muir. It is well known that this kind of pleasure is a common component of the scientific attitude towards nature. Moreover, scientists’ own descriptions of the motivations for their work often focus on this aspect of the scientific experience and specifically compare it to the gratification derived from art. For example, Lee Stokes, a noted mid-20th-century geologist, once gave the following justification for studying the way in which natural land forms are created: “Scenery is like art, the more we study it the more we enjoy it. The comparison goes even deeper, however, for just as there are different forms of art, so there are different types of natural landscapes…. In these times when nearly everyone travels far and wide a little knowledge of ‘scientific seeing’ will add greatly to a person’s enjoyment and profit” (Stokes, 1969, pp. 1-2).

In an attempt to give a more precise account of this analogy between the understanding of nature and the enjoyment of art, Allen Carlson has argued that the common element linking the two kinds of experience is skill appreciation. In the case of art, we derive pleasure from witnessing the expertise of some other person. In the case of the scientific appreciation of nature, it is our own sense of intellectual mastery – our ability to discern the underlying causes and patterns beneath the surface facts of reality – that gives us satisfaction. The potential significance, in environmentalist terms, of this aspect of the aesthetics of nature should be evident. The skills of “scientific seeing” described by Stokes might make a viewer more skeptical of the surface charm in the Cuyahoga Valley scenery portrayed by Robert Glenn Ketchum; more knowledgeable about the reasons for the colors in Edward Burtynsky’s mine-ravaged landscapes; and even, perhaps, somewhat more immune to tourist brochure depictions of places like Lake Powell. Such possibilities could serve as useful premises for the future course of visual education about environmental issues.

Advertising U.S. Environmentalism – Part 2: The Pristine Landscape

Anyone who has glanced at one of the calendars or posters put out by such organizations as the National Parks and Conservation Association, the Nature Conservancy, or the Sierra Club will be familiar with the kind of image that currently plays the dominant role in U.S. environmentalist depictions of the way things out to be: a landscape without people and without any evidence of human activity. This vision of a “pristine landscape” has been a consistent feature of environmentalist activity in this country since the earliest campaigns of organized advocacy in the latter half of the 19th century. Indeed, as a pictorial convention the image of the pristine landscape has exercised even wider influence in the visual culture of the United States: As Michael Griffin has pointed out, it is a stable genre in photographic publications and the activities of photographic organizations with no explicit environmentalist concerns. Where did this image come from, and what is its significance?

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The deliberate use of visual images for environmentalist purposes can be traced back at least as far as the work of Thomas Cole. In 1839, he painted a view of the Genesee River Gorge which was used by the canal commissioner of New York State in an attempt to block a disfiguring construction project in the Genesee Valley Canal. However, this scene included a log building which was evidently viewed at the time as an enhancement of its appeal. For examples of environmentalist advocacy making use of images of apparently untouched landscapes, we have to go forward to 1864, when a federal grant of some ten square miles allowed the State of California to establish a public park in the Yosemite area, or to 1872, the year of the creation of Yellowstone National Park. Although the business interests of the tourist industry were central factors in both of these actions, promotion of both actions was based largely on appeals to non-economic values: the spiritual benefits to be derived from Yosemite’s natural beauty; the edification afforded by experiencing the unusual natural phenomena at Yellowstone. In both cases, pictures of pristine wilderness played a prominent part in the promotional efforts.

The promotion of Yosemite as a tourist attraction began about a decade before its establishment as a state park,  and it included the publication of magazine illustrations, the display of photographs, and the production of stereographs (i.e., double-image photographs providing a 3-dimensional effect when viewed through a special apparatus). Nowadays, the best known among these various images are the mammoth-plate photographs of Carleton Watkins, shown at the time in his gallery in San Francisco. In the case of Yellowstone, creation of the park followed a lobbying campaign which made calculated use of two sets of now-famous images: the photographs of William Henry Jackson and the drawings of Thomas Moran. These pictures, the products of the two artists’ participation in a 1871 government survey of Yellowstone, were displayed in the rotunda of the Capitol building as part of the lobbying effort, which also included a magazine article on Yellowstone illustrated by Moran before he had actually visited the area. There has been some controversy about the effectiveness of the Yellowstone pictures. In particular, Howard Bossen has claimed that traditional versions of this story, in which Jackson’s photographs are seen as the decisive factor, are highly exaggerated. In fact, however, Jackson’s own account of the story in his autobiography is rather modest – all he says is that his pictures “helped do a fine piece of work” – and there is no reason to doubt that the pictures did indeed help.

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It is in the images used in these two promotional efforts that we encounter the most obvious models for the central role that pristine landscapes were to perform in the subsequent history of environmentalist imagery. We might therefore be tempted to draw the following conclusion: Perhaps the emergence of the pristine landscape convention was simply the result of a shift in artistic – and environmentalist – focus from the densely-populated East to the empty West. Perhaps the only reason US environmentalist images often show no trace of human activity is that there are no human beings around in the places where these images are typically made. There is undoubtedly some truth in these assumptions. However, to the extent that they emphasize location – where a picture is made – as opposed to motivation – why it is made there – they are misleading.

William Cronon has argued that the popularity of pristine Western landscapes in the second half of the 19th century was paralleled by a trend toward depopulated images of the East. As a characteristic instance of the latter tendency he cites Frederic Edwin Church’s “Twilight in the Wilderness” (1860), a painting of an imaginary woodlands scene apparently inspired by Church’s trips to Maine. However, a more telling case in point may be Church’s monumental depiction of Niagara Falls (1857). This picture caused a sensation when it was first exhibited to the public, and it was eventually reproduced as a lithograph in thousands of copies. It is widely regarded today as the most influential landscape painting of its period. A major reason for its success was the point of view from which Church had chosen to show the scene. Previous pictures had usually positioned their viewers on the banks of the river beyond the falls, giving them a frontal view of the descending sheets of water. But Church’s painting puts the viewer above the falls, on the brink of the cataract, looking down at the waters as they cascade into the unseen depths below. Furthermore, Church’s point of view completely eliminates the foreground of solid land which was customary in earlier portrayals. This choice of perspective has the dramatic effect of suspending the viewer in mid-air, but it also has another implication: It erases almost entirely any evidence of human activity related to the falls. Only in the distant background of the picture, at the far end of the scene, is there a thin strip of land, and one has to scrutinize the canvas closely to notice that there are actually some buildings there, partly hidden among the trees.

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The sense of unspoiled nature resulting from these aspects of Church’s painting was actually quite spurious. By the time the painting was made, Niagara Falls had already become a major tourist destination, receiving over 60,000 visitors a year, and the area around the falls had been transformed thoroughly by commercial enterprises catering to these visitors. There were souvenir stands and sideshows, fences and ticket booths, walkways and staircases, and even an observation tower built in the rapids at the edge of the falls (the only structure which is clearly visible in most reproductions of Church’s painting). It is these discrepancies between the picture and the reality of the place that make this picture a particularly clear illustration of the following point: Although it may be easier to find unpeopled, untransformed scenery in the West than in the East, the pristine-landscape convention is ultimately a result of choice and preference, not location.

This point has in fact been made about both of the sets of Western images that led us to this discussion. In the course of an analysis of Carleton Watkins’s photographs of Yosemite, Weston Naef has observed that Watkins’s compositions “studiously omitted” the hotel and other “traces of human settlement” that were present in the Yosemite Valley when he began to work there. And, while there were no hotels in Yellowstone when William Henry Jackson and Thomas Moran first encountered it, tourism had already begun in the area, and a “small group of invalids” had established a camp near Mammoth Hot springs, hoping to take advantage of the supposed medicinal properties of the waters. However, not surprisingly, the selective omission of human presence becomes considerably more critical to the viability of the pristine landscape convention when we move closer to our own time. Among 20th-century artists whose work has had a bearing on environmentalist matters, the name most prominently associated with the pristine-landscape genre has undoubtedly been that of Ansel Adams. Like Watkins, Adams produced much of his work in the Yosemite area, which he visited regularly beginning in the 1920s. By that point, the Yosemite Valley was already well on its way toward becoming the congested complex of tourist facilities that it is today. Yet, with few exceptions, Adams’s photographs recapitulate Watkins’s avoidance of such things. In his written account of how he created some of his best-known images, Adams also makes it clear that he would not hesitate to manipulate a negative in order to eliminate unwanted signs of human impact on the land. Specifically, he describes removing the initials of a local high school from a hillside in his famous “Winter Sunrise” of 1944..

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The broad popularity and pervasive influence of Adams’s work make it a good starting point for an investigation of the pristine landscape’s significance to environmentalist thought and action. Although he claimed never to have taken a picture specifically intended for environmentalist purposes, Adams was an active environmentalist throughout his adult life. His photographs appeared frequently in the Sierra Club Bulletin and other periodicals; they were used repeatedly, by both Adams and others, in lobbying campaigns; and, perhaps most significantly, they were featured prominently in the series of large-format picture books that the Sierra Club began to publish in 1960. David Brower, who initiated this “exhibition-format” series as executive director of the Sierra Club and then developed a similar series at Friends of the Earth, has given the following rough estimate of what these books, together with calendars and other related publications, have meant for these two organizations: “About twenty million people spending some fifty million dollars in the marketplace to read the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth message at the buyer’s expense.” But what was that message?

In an appraisal of Ansel Adams’s work published after his death in 1984, photography critic Andy Grunberg writes that Adams’s landscape photography “shows us a natural world so precisely ordered and so cleansed of ills that we might suspect it had been sanitized by a cosmic disinfecting agent.” In support of this point, Grunberg quotes from a letter that Adams had written in 1922 to his future wife, Virginia Best: “How I wish that the [Yosemite] Valley could be now like it was 40 years ago a pure wilderness, with only a wagon road through it, and no automobiles nor mobs.” What Grunberg seems to be saying is that Adams saw the presence and the impact of people as an infection of the natural world – and that his photographs were expressions of a desire to wipe that infection out. In other words, Grunberg appears to be equating absence of humans with antipathy to humans. This kind of criticism of Adams’s landscapes, i.e., the contention that they stemmed from hostility or, at best, indifference to people, had been made repeatedly during his lifetime, and his published correspondence contains several defensive references to such perceptions of his work. A 1944 letter to his close friend and occasional collaborator Nancy Newhall contains a long list of statements that, in Adams’s view, were characteristic of how other people saw him. This list concludes with three items: “I don’t like people,” “I don’t understand the BIG social problems of today,” “I’m precious.” Adams was clearly pained by such charges, to which he would usually respond either by arguing that there were human benefits to be derived from wilderness or by pointing out that some of his work did in fact portray people. But even his most sustained series of human portraits, the photographs of Japanese-American internees in the World War II “relocation center” at Manzanar, were dismissed by people whose views of Adams had evidently been shaped irrevocably by his landscapes (e.g., see the comments of Dorothea Lange on this subject).

As a characterization of Ansel Adams’s personality, the accusation of lack of concern for people is bizarre. Wallace Stegner, who knew him well in his later years, pointedly says that he “had family obligations because he treasured them, hundreds of friends because he welcomed them, thousands of admirers to whom he granted the courtesy of polite attention;” and Adams himself proclaimed: “I was born to be gregarious” (in a 1943 letter to Alfred Stieglitz). Adams aside, however, the broader possibility that love for wilderness in environmentalist rhetoric (whether visual or verbal) may imply dislike of humanity deserves closer scrutiny. The contention that environmentalists are unconcerned about other people or actively hostile toward them is a major component of contemporary anti-environmentalist rhetoric, expressed vividly enough in the charge that environmentalists are radicals who care more for spotted owls, snail darters, and other “obscure” species than for human beings. How valid is this kind of indictment?

It is certainly true that some environmentalistsbroadly definedhave made statements every bit as extreme as anti-environmentalists have claimed. The view of humanity as an infection has been put forth explicitly in the theory that global warming is equivalent to a fever, an attempt by the earth’s defense systems to get rid of overpopulation. Along related lines, an infamous article in the Earth First! Journal once pondered the following question: “Is AIDS the Answer to an Environmentalist’s Prayer?” It may also be worth noting that similar sentiments pervade the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, whose descriptions of nature are often quoted in environmentalist publications (for example, on page 2 of Ansel Adams’s autobiography). Although Jeffers’s most frequently cited line (from the poem “The Answer”) is the injunction to love the whole of life, “not man apart from that,” elsewhere he says such things as: “I would rather be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man” (from “original Sin”); “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk” (“Hurt Hawks”); “the breed of man … looks like a botched experiment that has run wild and has to be stopped” (“Orca”). Jeffers may be especially pertinent to the question we are considering because, at the same time that he was making such pronouncements, he was also composing verbal portraits of wild nature that are unsurpassed in power and evocativeness. He therefore raises much more explicitly than Ansel Adams does the question of whether love for untouched nature necessarily implies hostility toward human beings.

Why exactly people love wildernesswhat kinds of satisfaction they get from contemplating or being in an environment that they are not exploiting economicallyhas long been a puzzle to philosophers and other writers who have tried to think about this issue with precision. Among the various rewards that wild nature can provide to humans, one that seems common (and is commonly recognized) is the sense of vicarious participation in a realm where the frustrations and disappointments and other adversities of one’s social life have no meaning. In exceptional cases, when dissatisfaction with one’s ordinary social identity is particularly acute, this aspect of the appeal of nature can lead to the kinds of withdrawals into extreme environments described famously by Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire or, more systematically, by Yi-Fu Tuan in his penetrating writings about desert and polar exploration. But more moderate versions of this sort of impulse are surely quite widespread. For example, the landscape theorist Alexander Wilson had this to say about the Disney wildlife movies that he saw in his youth: “Amid the race-related violence and catastrophic urban ‘redevelopment’ of the U.S. city I grew up in, … (not to mention the disintegration of my family), Disney’s stories of a nature ‘in balance’ and somehow outside of history functioned as a kind of utopian fantasy for me.”

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It may be, then, that an element of dissatisfaction with society, or even revulsion from it, is indeed a common ingredient in feelings about nature and in responses to artistic representations of wilderness. But, having said this much, I should immediately add that by no means do I see this observation as a reason for environmentalists to be particularly apologetic. For one thing, as Martin Lewis has acknowledged in the course of a thorough and balanced assessment of the state of contemporary environmentalism, the kinds of extreme positions I have cited above are confined to a small, unrepresentative segment in the spectrum of environmentalist opinion. More significantly, though, I would emphasize the following point: since it is the social impact of environmentalism that critics are ostensibly concerned about, a response to their criticism should deal with environmentalist motives and rhetoric in terms of social, not psychological implications. As an individual personality trait, misanthropy is a pathology. But, as a component of a political concern, suspiciousness of the impact of peopleof their sheer numbers, as well as their ways of using resourcesis arguably a reasonable response to the fact that we live in a world of limits. In fact, it would be considered pathological – for a society as a whole, if not for all of its individual membersto do otherwise.

But there is another side to the impact of wilderness imagery and, in particular, the pristine landscape tradition. In practice, at least, the actions that it has tended to give rise to are mainly negative: the blocking of road or dam construction; the halting of logging or drilling; the withdrawal of land from economic use. What is largely absent from the visual rhetoric of environmentalism is a blueprint for positive action in those parts of the environment that are not wild. A comprehensive environmentalist program should encompass a positive vision for these aspects of the environment, and appropriate imagery should lend its rhetorical support where possible. These points have been argued eloquently in an article by Wes Jackson, of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Jackson begins with the observation that many environmentalists have made pristine wilderness “a prime candidate for ecological sainthood.” Then he says this: “To have a designated holy land and ignore the rest – to treat our wilderness as saint and Iowa farmland, or for that matter an East Saint Louis slum, otherwise – is a form of schizophrenia. Either the whole thing is holy or it isn’t.” Jackson’s article concludes with a plea to parents to educate their children in the appreciation of agricultural landscapes. As examples of how such education might be accomplished, the article offers the photographs of Terry Evans: Kansas farmlands and prairies shown in aerial views, in which the features of this flat land can be apprehended more readily than they would be from the ground.

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For an example of how Ansel Adams himself dealt with agricultural subjects we can turn to This Is the American Earth, the 1960 volume (reissued in 1992) with which he and his co-author Nancy Newhall inaugurated the Sierra Club’s “exhibition-format” series. This book is particularly interesting because it contains an explicitly programmatic section in which Adams’s photographs and Newhall’s text address this question: “What, to continue their renewal, do air, water, life require of man?” One of the answers is: “–Only that Man use water wisely, to help life and be helped by it.” Below these words appears an Adams photograph labeled “Irrigation, Salinas Valley, California.”

In many respects this photograph is a typical Adams panorama: a vast stretch of land extending into the far distance, framed by towering mountains in the background. And yet the actual content of this composition a geometric pattern of lettuce rows and irrigation ditches succeeding each other with mechanical regularity across the entire surface of the valley floor clearly could not be expected to have the same type of appeal that we associate with Adams’s wilderness views. For that matter, the intended meaning of this image also seems quite different from the meaning of Terry Evans’s pictures. Such difference suggest the possibility that there may be several distinct dimensions to our appreciation of the varieties of wild and cultivated landscapes. In other words, we are confronted once again with the problem of accounting for our responses to images of the environment. This problem will be addressed more systematically after we have looked at a second major category in the imagery of environmentalist rhetoric, namely, the “damaged landscape.”

Advertising U.S. Environmentalism – Part 1: Origins

In his foundational history of the intellectual origins of American environmentalism, Roderick Nash makes a distinction between utilitarian and aesthetic motives for environmental concern. The classic example of the former is George Perkins Marsh’s 1864 book, Man and Nature. Arguing that the aridity and unproductive soils of some of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea were “man-made,” the results of the chopping down of ancient forests, Marsh urged his fellow citizens to avoid repeating in the United states the land-use practices that had caused so much damage to agriculture and to the sustainability of human settlements in the “Old World.” This kind of argument for the protection of naturean argument concerned primarily with human material welfareprovided a major impetus for much of the organized action which laid the foundations of American environmentalism. For example, in 1885, when the legislature of the State of New York set aside 715,000 acres of the Adirondacks as a “Forest Preserve,” it did so with the express purpose of protecting the watershed of the Hudson River, one of the state’s major economic resources.

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In Nash’s view, such utilitarian considerations still provide the most persuasive argument for environmental protection. Nevertheless, the utilitarian strand in American environmentalist thought has always been intertwined with other ideas whichsuperficially, at leastare less clearly concerned with the material benefits which nature can provide to humans. Nash uses the term “aesthetic” as an encompassing label for most of the other ideas that played a role in the early development of American environmentalism. In certain respects, this term is problematic, and we will presently have to deal directly with some of the problems it entails. For the moment, however, the term is especially appropriate, because it draws attention to the fact that a significant source of burgeoning environmentalist consciousness was the work of visual artists.

Among American artists who were active in the first half of the nineteenth century, one of the most influential was the painter Thomas Cole (1801-1848), who is generally seen as the founding member of the artistic movement that has come to be known as the Hudson River School. Cole’s major subject was the American landscape. In addition to sketching it and drawing it and painting it, he also wrote about it extensively. In his best known piece of writing, the “Essay on American Scenery” of 1836, he asks a question with significant environmentalist implications: How does the aesthetic value of the American landscape compare with the merits of the landscapes of Europe?

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Cole had made a careful study of the work of European landscape painters during two trips abroad, and, like . many of his compatriots, he was anxious to create an American artistic tradition that would be the equal of its European predecessors. (The fact that he himself had been born in England and emigrated to the United States in his late adolescence may have been an additional reason for this concern.) In his essay, he observes that the American landscape lacks an important ingredient of its European counterparts, namely, visible evidence of a centuries-old history of human activity. This is a point that he might have been less inclined to make if he had had any familiarity with the area encompassed by the present-day Southwestern states; but, although he does briefly mention other parts of the country (e.g., “the distant Oregon”), his principle frame of reference, as he himself acknowledges, is the Northeast a landscape which did indeed lack the “venerated ruins,” “castled crags,” and other kinds of features which might evoke a sense of past achievement to Europe-trained eyes. This absence of a human imprint on the land was, for Cole, a defining characteristic of “American scenery,” and the major argument of his essay is that this characteristic should be seen not as a deficiency, not as a sign of American cultural rawness or primitivism, but as a virtue. The essay thus becomes a celebration of American wilderness, whose various featuresmountains and forests, lakes and rivers and waterfallsCole describes in detail and at length, in a series of rhapsodic word-portraits.

In celebrating the beauty of wild America, Cole’s aim as an artist was to educate the eye of his public and to influence the work of other artists. But he was also very much concerned with the moral implications and practical consequences of aesthetic sensibility, and his essay makes clear enough his hope that the cultivation of a “loving eye” for nature might serve to temper the spirit of his age, “when a meager utilitarianism seems ready to absorb every feeling and sentiment, and what is sometimes called improvement in its march makes us fear that the bright and tender flowers of the imagination shall all be crushed beneath its iron tramp.” Elsewhere in the essay, he speaks with regret of the likelihood that the United States may attain the “cultivated state” of Europe and that “with the improvements of cultivation the sublimity of the wilderness should pass away.”

The nationalistic element in this plea for wilderness might sound somewhat unfamiliar to present-day environmentalists. In other respects, however, the sentiments expressed by Coleespecially his distaste for a “meager utilitarianism”are quite characteristic of much subsequent environmentalist rhetoric in the United States. What are the implications of this rhetoric for the visual portrayal of the American landscape? Reading Cole’s essay, someone who knew nothing about his paintings might reasonably expect a heavy emphasis on untrammeled wilderness, depicted with a “loving eye,” or, alternatively, perhaps some negative portrayals of the damage caused by human activity and the spread of population. In fact, however, much of Cole’s work does not fit these categories very well. While he certainly did paint many reverent scenes of wild nature, and while an occasional painting of his does cast a negative light on the results of human development, there is another aspect to his art which goes beyond this simple dichotomy. There is no better example of this additional aspect than the much-analyzed canvas which is usually referred to as “The Oxbow” (1936).


This picture gives us an elevated view from the flanks of Mount Holyoke, in Massachusetts, down into the valley of the Connecticut River. The mountainside, covered with a dense, tangled forest, is on our left. Beyond it, on our right, the placid waters of the river form a wide, smooth oxbow bend as they wind their way through the floor of the valley. On either side of the river, the land has been cleared for agriculture and divided into well demarcated fields. Orderly rows of trees form the boundaries between some of these fields, and rows of trees also line the riverbanks presumably as planned protection from erosion. Since this scene is shown from a distance, individual details are not easy to make out, but, if we look closely, we can see boats on the river, people and animals in the fields, and, in the background, a few buildings and an occasional plume of smoke rising from a chimney.

The contrast between wild woods on the left and cultivated land on the right makes it clear that Cole must have intended this picture as a meditation on the relationship between wilderness and human activity. But what attitude towards that relationship does the picture’s design imply? Is the painting a lament for the inevitable replacement of nature by culture? Is it a plea for balance between the two? Both interpretations could be justified, depending on how much meaning we wanted to read into the left-to-right sequence of woods and fields or the fact that the border between them is not vertical but diagonal (suggesting, perhaps, a mutual interpenetration of the two parts of the scene). One could even argue, in line with some of Cole’s other work, that the shape of the forested mountainit forms a rightward-pointing wedgeis a sobering reminder that human achievement is transient and that wilderness may one day return to reclaim the land.Of course, there is no need to choose a single interpretation. Indeed, as others have noted, the picture’s tone seems deliberately ambivalent. Nevertheless, one thing is clear: contrary to what one might have expected from the skeptical words about economic development in Cole’s essay, the cleared, cultivated landscape in this picture is presented positively, as something pleasing to the eye. I have already tried to convey this aspect of the picture in my description of the river and the fields. But there is an additional element that reinforces the point. Cole paid much attention to the skies in his paintings, and in this case his atmospheric effects are striking: On the left, towering storm clouds turn the sky above the mountain a deep dark; but the sky on the right is clear, and the fields below are bathed in the warm colors of late-afternoon sunshine.

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Despite his emotional attachment to wilderness, thenan attachment expressed in this picture by the fact that the artist himself is portrayed among the trees and rocks on the mountainsideCole’s view of human impact on the land was not necessarily dark. In fact, affectionate portrayals of an inhabited countryside occur in several of his paintings, and even his essay on American scenery, which is largely a catalog of natural wonders, does contain an occasional word of praise for the cultivated landscape, including the villages and fields of the Connecticut River valley. Benign views of land shaped by human economic development are also common among the works of Cole’s contemporaries and successors, especially those painters now usually referred to as “luminists”: Fitz Hugh Lane’s exquisite renditions of the coast of New England invariably include boats and buildings, as well as people going about their work, while Martin Johnson Heade’s ineffable depictions of coastal marshlands treat the haystacks dotting the landscape as integral parts of its appeal. Furthermore, as such writers as Oswaldo Rodriguez Roque and John Sears have noted, it was not uncommon for mid-19th-century painters and illustrators to cast an approving eye on environments containing full-fledged evidence of industrial transformation: railroads, factories, and mines.

The fact that these artists were able to fit the changes made by humans into a positive vision of the American landscape is consistent with contemporaneous verbal opinions on environmental matters. Nash has pointed out that the design of Cole’s “Oxbow” corresponds to “the idea Henry David Thoreau accepted as axiomatic: man’s optimum environment is a blend of wildness and civilization,” while Leo Marx’s (1964) well known discussion of early depictions of railroads has documented the relationship between these images and a broader cultural ideal of a tamed landscape: wilderness transformed into garden. It would be interesting to speculate about the direction subsequent environmentalist thought might have taken if such images and such an ideal had continued to play a major role in it. However, as we turn to the environmentalist imagery of later years and of our own time, one of the most striking things we encounter is the almost complete disappearance of these early ingredients.

Interview with LORIN ROSER: Digital Media, Architecture, Animation

Lorin Roser is a distinguished architect based in New York City. He is also a remarkably versatile artist who is equally fluent in visual media and in music. I interviewed him on the occasion of his participation in the New Museum’s IDEAS CITY Festival, which featured Roser’s recent work in collaboration with painter Nina Kuo. As Roser points out in the interview, there is a direct connection between his art and his experiences as an architect. Roser belongs to the cohort of architects whose working methods were transformed by the advent of digital media. By adopting computers in the process of architectural design, architects gained tremendous new powers in the representation of space. The transition from a two-dimensional architectural plan to a photorealistic representation of a three-dimensional structure could now be accomplished by a machine instead of human labor. Moreover, that machine could shift the representation’s point-of-view (from front to side to overhead to anything in-between) automatically, and it could produce a whole series of shifting points-of-view as well. In other words, computers made it much easier for architects to visualize the experience of moving in and around a 3D space.

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At the same time that this development was occurring in architecture, a very similar process was taking place in animated movies. In the late 1990s, when computer-generated images replaced hand-made animation in big-budget Hollywood cinema, the most striking thing about digital animation was not greater realism in its characters’ shapes (which remained, in many cases, quite cartoonish) nor greater realism in its characters’ movements (which hadn’t yet benefited from the full development of motion-capture technology) but, rather, greater realism in the representation of the 3D spaces occupied by those characters. This affinity between digital design in architecture and digital animation in movies has been an important factor in Lorin Roser’s work as an artist. Using digital tools originally designed for architectural visualization, Roser has been creating animated videos about the structure of urban spaces. Taking as their starting point the urban forms envisioned by the immensely influential architect Le Corbusier, Roser’s animations use random manipulations to explore a world of hitherto unseen shapes and structural possibilities. In my discussion with Roser, I started out by asking him for a capsule description of his current work.

PAUL MESSARIS: Could you give us a brief overview of CorbuRuption, i.e., the project that is going to be featured at the New Museum’s IDEAS CITY Festival?

LORIN ROSER:  The animation shows the hidden structure of the Invisible City. The forms of the architect, Le Corbusier, are deployed using physical simulation algorithms. The resulting eruption generates possibilities unforeseen by Urban Renewal.

MESSARIS: What kinds of digital tools have you used for this project? And, as a follow-up question, could you comment on how digital media have influenced your work as an artist, not just in this project but over your career as a whole?

ROSER:  The structures were modeled in the computer using Autodesk software and rendered in VRay. I began using CGI to enable architectural visualization. I began doing 3d when Tom Hudson was developing consumer software at the same time he did the T-1000 mirror man for Terminator 2  [1991]. Visualization is a great tool for architecture because building bricks and mortar is so expensive and computer animation mimics the unfolding of space as you walk through a building. Now I am obsessed with using math to create music and form. The computer excels at this type of exploration.

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MESSARIS: In your statement of purpose, you imply that you hope your current project will contribute to a new understanding of public space on the part of your audience. At the risk of violating the boundaries between audio-visual meaning and verbal messages, would you care to spell out this aspect of your goals in a little more detail?

ROSER: Corbusian ideals were corrupted by Urban Renewal into stark (not Tony Stark) housing projects, which sometimes needed to be demolished (e. g., Pruitt-Igoe). By using stochastic amalgamation I hope to show the formal beauty that might be possible using these same historical forms. In Richard Bender’s A Crack in the Rearview Mirror, he makes an argument for utilizing the computer to increase the diversity of design versus homogenizing fabrication. Three hundred years ago a matched pair of objects was a desirable thing. Now we long for bespoke items tailored to our disappearing identities.


MESSARIS: Your work appears to draw on a variety of cultural traditions. For example, one of your earlier projects with Nina Kuo featured animation based on painting that was described as “Asian-inspired.”  We live in an age of increasingly hybrid cultures, and, in my field, there is much discussion of the fact that audiences around the world are increasingly attracted by cultural hybridity in audiovisual media – for example, the hybrid styles of Bollywood dance scenes or of Korean music videos. Would you care to comment on this phenomenon as it pertains to your own work or to work that has influenced your own? What is your understanding of the growing international appeal of hybridity in art and culture?

ROSER: Globalization and the Internet meld cultures in a creative way. As the recent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum on Chinoiserie in design showed, this is not a new phenomenon, but technology has increased the pace of these developments to a dizzying degree.

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Advertising the Future: Cameron vs. Kubrick Part 1

In an earlier post on this site, Moira O’Keeffe talks about her research on the kinds of images that inspire young people to become scientists and engineers. In her interviews with science students and professional scientists of all ages, science fiction was a recurring topic. As O’Keeffe points out, movie critics and scholarly writers have often pondered the cultural significance of mad scientists, Frankensteinian experiments, doomsday weaponry, and the various other fictional conventions that the creators of science fiction employ to build drama into their stories. This kind of analysis of science fiction usually focuses on the narrative content of movies rather than their visual style. But style has its own meaning, its own appeal, and its own ways of advertising a worldview. Style can sell, and it’s fascinating to try to figure out what and how.

Science fiction is not lacking in examples of great-looking movies, but any short list would have to include James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Both movies are major milestones in the history of special visual effects. Taken as a whole, the range of techniques that Kubrick used to create a scientifically informed vision of space travel can fairly be considered the high point of pre-digital effects, and they won Kubrick the only personal Oscar of his career. The brilliant technical innovations that Cameron developed for Avatar’s 3D effects, and the exceptional artistic intelligence with which those innovations were deployed, are, to this date, the most compelling reasons for believing that 3D will becomes a permanent feature of visual media, and that the earlier history of 3D movies (born in the early 1950s and dead before the decade was over) will not be repeated.

Beyond technical excellence, 2001 and Avatar have few things in common. In many respects, the two movies are polar opposites of each other. Indeed, one way to describe Avatar is as an explicit rejection of the future envisioned in 2001. Kubrick’s movie was written in close collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, master of “hard” (scientifically plausible) science fiction. The story line is a methodical, rationally worked-out account of what humanity’s first encounter with aliens might look like. Because the earth is so much younger than the universe as a whole, Clarke and Kubrick assumed (in common with other science-minded writers who have speculated on this topic) that the aliens would get here first, and that they would be technologically superior. For unspecified reasons, 2001’s script also portrays the encounter as benign: the aliens trigger humanity’s evolution from primordial apedom to the technological sophistication of a civilization capable of flying to the moon. When humans do get to the moon, the aliens set in motion an even greater boost to their evolution.

Avatar is sometimes referred to as a rare example of a contemporary Hollywood blockbuster whose script was not based on an existing book, movie, comic, or other property. But the movie’s story line, created by Cameron, draws very heavily on two themes with a very long prior history in both literature and cinema. As in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, the interplanetary encounter portrayed in Avatar is initiated by a technologically superior species with malevolent goals. Wells wanted to make his British readers see the evils of colonial conquest, the invasion of the earth’s weaker peoples by British “aliens” intent on economic exploitation. Cameron’s purpose in Avatar is the same, but his method is even more direct than Wells’s. The War of the Worlds invites readers to see the beleaguered earthlings as stand-ins for the victims of colonial oppression. In Avatar, the viewer doesn’t need to make any metaphorical leaps. The humans are the bad guys. Moreover, drawing on a second fictional convention, this time from Westerns (e.g., Broken Arrow) rather than sci-fi, Cameron portrays the put-upon victims of humanity as a tribe living an Edenic existence in perfect harmony with nature. The movie’s upshot can be seen as a reversal of the evolutionary trajectory traced in 2001. Declaring that the material achievements of human technology are worthless, the movie’s hero abandons his human identity permanently, and chooses to live on in the form of his alien avatar, as an adopted member of the aliens’ tree-worshipping tribe.

Avatar’s message is spelled out explicitly by its central characters, and in any case it is a message that anyone growing up in the US has heard repeatedly from her/his teachers, as well as from movie stars and other celebrities: The only thing that deflects Avatar from perfect alignment with contemporary environmentalist advocacy is the fact that the aliens’ skin color is blue instead of green. But what is the viewer supposed to think about the things that happen in 2001? It is easy to imagine a critic – a fan of Avatar, perhaps – taking a disapproving view of the proceedings: aliens messing with the natural course of evolution, disrupting the apes’ harmonious existence with nature, and unleashing the development of the destructive human species. I described 2001’s aliens as benign, but no one in the movie says anything like that. 2001 is famous for containing less dialogue (much less) than any other Hollywood feature film since the advent of talkies in the 1920s.

It is fascinating to compare 2001 with the two movies that are most like it, because they were partly based on it: Robert Zemeckis’ Contact (1997) and Brian De Palma’s woefully under-appreciated Mission to Mars (2000). In both of those movies, the character who gets to meet the aliens expresses her or his attitude toward the experience verbally. But the astronaut protagonist of 2001 remains totally mute. During the entire last section of the movie, after he has played the recording that reveals the hidden purpose of his mission, not a word is spoken. If we want to know what Kubrick wanted us to think, we have to look at the movie’s visual content: the production design, the cinematography, and the appearance and demeanor of the actors.


After 2001 makes its stupendous, four-million-year leap from a mob of growling pre-humans to a graceful procession of early-21st-century spacecraft, almost everything that happens in the movie takes place in structures fabricated by humans: a space station, a moon base, and various types of space vehicles. In the unfiltered sunlight beyond the earth’s atmosphere, the outsides of these structures become patterns of gleaming reflections. Every shape is perfectly smooth, and every surface is immaculate. The interior spaces are spotless, and the objects inside them are arranged with meticulous precision: the very first act that we see when the camera moves inside a spaceship is a flight attendant retrieving an errant pen from its zero-gravity wanderings and restoring it snugly to the breast pocket of its sleeping owner.

The visual qualities of the production design are echoed in the cinematography. 2001 was the first movie in which Kubrick made extensive use of two devices that became trademarks of his later style: (1) tight compositional symmetry in the framing of his images; (2) smooth, steady, perfectly controlled camera movement. Anyone who has made movies knows that both of these ways of shooting a scene require a lot of effort. When a shot is framed asymetrically, the camera’s position can often be displaced substantially without doing any perceptible damage to conventional artistic criteria. But when the framing is symmetrical, the tiniest displacement completely destroys the intended effect. As for camera movement, even when the camera operator is using a Steadicam (which didn’t exist when 2001 was made, although Kubrick did employ it in later movies), it is very hard to keep the movement’s pace absolutely even and the direction absolutely consistent.

What does all this add up to? In one word: control. Kubrick’s vision for the future is of a world in which humans have attained perfect control over the rough edges of existence. It is a hard-won control. When the movie’s most famous character, the supercomputer HAL, malfunctions, he kills all but one of the humans on the spaceship that he has been guiding. But the remaining human uses his own knowledge of the spaceship’s workings to subdue HAL and take over command of the mission. Humanity’s intellect and physical daring once again bend the rest of the material world to their purposes. With the lone surviving astronaut at the helm, the spaceship resumes its stately progress through the solar system and arrives at its intended rendezvous with the aliens.

It is instructive to take one more look at the differences between 2001, on the one hand, and Contact and Mission to Mars, on the other. In Mission to Mars, the astronaut who meets the aliens has a look of ecstatic, transcendental anticipation on his face as he prepares for the encounter. In Contact, the scientist who sets off for the world of the aliens is terrified by the memory of an explosion that obliterated an earlier version of the spaceship that she is about to board. But the astronaut of 2001 goes about his mission with no visible display of emotion. Keir Dullea’s tightly focused, self-contained performance in this role is one of many examples of 2001’s very high level of visual intelligence.


Dullea’s demeanor is the logical complement of the movie’s broader vision of where we humans might be headed for. By appealing to our admiration for elegance, order, and precision, Kubrick’s imagery is an advertisement for a future in which we use the powers of technology, science, and reason to make all of reality a work of human art. That was what Kubrick was selling. Have viewers bought it, then or now? Very few other movies, before or since 2001, have looked anything like this one. However, there is considerable affinity between 2001’s production design and the sleek, stripped-down geometric forms favored by mid-twentieth-century Modernism, as exemplified by Eames furniture or such glass-and-steel skyscrapers as the Lever House in mid-town Manhattan. There is even greater affinity between Kubrick’s visual compositions and the work of the photographers who documented Modern architecture and design, such as the renowned, Los Angeles-based Julius Shulman, or his equally distinguished East Coast counterpart, Ezra Stoller. If we wanted to figure out what 2001’s specific style has meant to viewers over the years, we would have to do a lot of guessing on the basis of stray and fragmentary evidence. However, the American public’s feelings about Modernism as a whole are much better known.

Anyone interested in understanding the cultural implications of visual style needs to take a close look at the writings of Virginia Postrel. The Future and Its Enemies, Postrel’s first book, was published more than twenty years ago, but it remains the most perceptive and subtle analysis of the ways in which people’s stylistic choices reflect broader aspirations – and apprehensions – about the kind of society they would like to live in. In the book’s introduction, Postrel talks about the evolution of Disney’s Tomorrowland. In its earliest version, which opened in 1955, this section of Disneyland featured integrated design and simple, smooth architectural forms. Postrel describes it as a place of “impersonal chrome and steel.” By the late 1990s, however, when Postrel wrote her book, Disney’s designers had loosened the relationships among Tomorrowland’s new structures, and they had introduced greater architectural complexity and more extensive vegetation. Postrel sees these changes as responses to the public’s distaste for the uniformity and encompassing vision of Modernist design. Instead, she says, people prefer variety, choice, and the mingling of old and new. That may well be. But, back in the world of science fiction movies, things seem to be heading in a different direction. The line from 2001 to Avatar does not lead to a future of fruitful coexistence between human technology and non-human nature. It leads deliberately backward, to a world that wouldn’t be able to recreate any of 2001’s technological marvels even if it wanted to. TO BE CONTINUED….


Postrel, Virginia. (1998). The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress. New York: The Free Press.

Postrel, Virginia. (2003). The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture & Consciousness. New York: HarperCollins.

Patton, Phil; Postrel, Virginia; & Steele, Valerie. (2004). Glamour: Fashion, Industrial Design, Architecture. New Haven: Yale University Press.

The Digital Transformation of Visual Media: 5 Key Developments

I was recently looking at old syllabuses from my introductory graduate course on visual communication, and I noticed an interesting trend: the rate of change from one year’s syllabus to the next one’s has been much more rapid in recent years than in the past. The major reason for this trend is that visual media themselves have been changing so rapidly in recent years as a result of digitization. Moreover, to a considerable extent these changes have entailed genuine innovations in the forms and functions of visual media. In other words, while some developments in digital media are mainly concerned with doing a better job in tasks that older, analog media were not very good at (for example, 3D movies), digitization has also enabled visual media to do some things that analog media couldn’t do at all.

What are the most significant developments in the digital transformation of visual media? Opinions undoubtedly differ, depending partly on one’s time-frame. In the 1990s, when Photoshop was still new, the manipulation of photographic truth was a major focus of research in visual communication. Today, photo-manipulation software is a mature technology, and, while the concerns it gave rise to have by no means gone away, the most eye-catching changes in the visual media landscape seem to be happening elsewhere.

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From my perspective, there are at least five big developments whose impact is still very uncertain – and, therefore, very deserving of closer scrutiny. In my view, these five developments will need to figure very prominently in the future work of visual communication researchers if our field is to keep up with the explosively rapid evolution of digital media.

For more than a decade, digital animators have been working towards the attainment of two major milestones in the development of visual media: first, the achievement of “perfect photorealism” – i.e., the ability to mimic not just the momentary appearance of visual reality (as in present-day digital images) but also its appearance over time (without relying on motion capture, which is essentially a relic of traditional cinematography); second, the ability to simulate the appearance (over time) of actual people, such as deceased actors. These developments have received some attention from media scholars, but it may be fair to say that, for now, the most promising lines of inquiry actually come from outside of communication, in studies of people’s responses to humanoid robots and visual displays. Research on the much-discussed but little-understood “uncanny valley” phenomenon is a good example of this area of scholarship


As computers and, hence, digital media have become cheaper, aspects of image creation that previously required substantial resources have become increasingly affordable and accessible, resulting in a democratization of visual production. This development is evident not only in the ubiquity of photographic and video devices, but also in the increasing ease with which photographs and video can be manipulated. (The emergence of consumer-level editing software in the late 1990s was a particularly noteworthy innovation for anyone who had previously had the extremely cumbersome experience of editing in celluloid-based film.) While there is a growing body of good scholarly writing about the dissemination of nonprofessional images (which I will refer to further in the next paragraph), there is surprisingly little systematic research on everyday people’s manipulation of images.

As I have implied above, I think it is useful to distinguish the democratization of visual distribution, for which, of course, we can thank the Web, from the democratization of production. The radical transformation in the distribution of new visual media is one of two items (out of my list of five topics) that have already been written about quite widely by media scholars. There are several books about YouTube, and a growing number of studies of Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, and other platforms.

The fourth item on my list (although, chronologically, it is actually the first) has to do with the emergence of videogames as a major visual medium. This phenomenon can be seen as part of a broader evolution in audiovisual technology, allowing the users of that technology (gamers, etc.) to project a controllable visual avatar of themselves into a virtual environment. In contrast to the previous two items on my list, the emergence of this type of avatar represents a qualitative (i.e, not just quantitative) break with the past. There is nothing in previous visual media that can give the user the same experience of an externally viewable but internally controlled projection of one’s self. Research on the visual aspects of avatars suggests that they can have profound implications. For example, they can have enduring effects on gamers’ or VR users’ aggressiveness, sociality, and attitudes towards people who are demographically different from their real selves.

The final item on my list is also related to games and other media that provide their users with the experience of interactive virtual environments. The ability to affect a virtual environment through one’s own actions represents another significant break with the past history of visual media. The purposive use of virtual environments as means of low-consequence training for high-consequence real-world activities (e.g., flight simulation, practice surgery) has been studied quite extensively by researchers from a wide variety of disciplines, including communication. Moreover, communications researchers have also devoted considerable attention to the more nebulous cultural consequences that may flow from people’s experiences in virtual worlds. All the same, I think it’s safe to say that to date we have barely glimpsed what lies ahead in this area of visual media. Perhaps more than in any of the other areas on this list, the technology and the social practices associated with this area seem to be changing more rapidly than our projections. PM

Anti-Subliminal Advertising: Ford Fusion

In his book-length cultural history of subliminal perception and persuasion, Charles Acland suggests that there is some similarity between subliminal advertising and UFOs: People are endlessly fascinated by both one and the other, even though there is scant evidence for the existence of either. What accounts for subliminal advertising’s enduring appeal? William O’Barr’s highly informative overview of the topic points out that the idea of “subliminal seduction offers a means to displace personal responsibility.” A consumer who regrets having bought something can pin the blame on invisible corporate manipulators. Along somewhat similar lines, Acland argues that the public sees subliminal advertising as a symbol for the mysterious manipulative powers that the mass media as a whole are thought to possess.

These concerns and worries are based on the assumption that advertisers have something to gain by hiding or disguising their persuasive appeals. Otherwise, why bother with all the rigmarole that is required to make a message subliminal instead of obvious? And yet there doesn’t seem to be any good evidence in favor of that assumption. To test the assumption, we would need to compare the effectiveness of two ads featuring the same message. One ad would hide the message by presenting it very briefly or camouflaging it. The other ad would eschew any subliminal techniques. In order to be able to claim that subliminal advertising has any special powers that advertisers might covet and consumers might fear, the experiment would have to find that the former type of ad is consistently more effective than the latter. But such evidence does not exist. In fact, research on subliminal effects has typically been based on comparisons between subliminal messages and no messages, rather than subliminal and non-subliminal versions of the same message. Moreover, research on non-subliminal advertising suggests that, if anything, prominent messages have a more enduring impact on viewers than less obvious ones.

It should come as no surprise, then, that advertisements containing easy-to-miss images or words often make a point of drawing viewers’ attention to those contents. Such ads openly proclaim their elusiveness, instead of seeking to conceal it. In their form and function, they are anti-subliminal. An excellent recent example of anti-subliminal advertising is the series of still-image ads produced by advertising agency Team Detroit for the 2013 Ford Fusion. The head of the car’s exterior design team has said that “We put a lot of emphasis, to create something that we think will be different in the marketplace. We’ll have a sophisticated feel. We’ll be elegant. We’ll be somewhat unexpected in North America, from Ford, and we’ll set ourselves apart from Camry and Accord. We wanted to create a beautiful-looking car. That’s always been our number-one objective” (Chris Hamilton, quoted by Todd Lassa). Team Detroit’s ads are direct expressions of the objectives contained in that statement. The ads emphasize the car’s beauty, its sophistication, and, above all, its distinctiveness.

How does one make the point that a car stands out from its competition? In Team Detroit’s ads, we see street scenes featuring the Ford Fusion in the foreground and comparable cars by other manufacturers in the background. The Ford Fusion’s design features are traced precisely in the gleaming contours and occasional discreet highlights of automotive photographer Jeff Ludes’s pictures. But all the other cars have been camouflaged so as to blend in with the buildings and other objects behind them. Instead of clear images, we see semi-transparent shapes. In other words, these ads are completely straightforward visualizations of the idea that the Ford Fusion’s superior qualities make other cars fade into the background by comparison. In some of the ads, this message is also spelled out verbally in the captions. For example: “Feels like the only car on the road. Even when it’s not.” However, all the ads in the series, regardless of their primary captions and other text, contain the following statement, highlighted in yellow: “See how we camouflaged the cars in this ad. Visit social.ford.com/hidden.”

A viewer who follows this invitation will find a completely explicit verbal description of the ads’ rationale, but he/she will also discover something else that will most likely come as a surprise (as it did to me): The semi-invisibility of the background cars was not achieved by digital photo-manipulation. Instead, the illusion was created by a painstaking process of actually painting the surfaces of real cars to make them blend into the background. The process was designed and supervised by Chinese artist Liu Bolin, best known for “Hide in the City,” a series of photographs of himself covered with paint in such a way as to appear to merge with the scenes behind him. Ford’s website contains a time-lapse video of Liu’s team as they prepare the cars for Jeff Ludes’s camera, and more video about the production of the Ford Fusion ads is available on YouTube.


Why go to all the trouble of hand-painting the semi-invisible cars and laboriously matching the paint to every detail of their surroundings? Todd Ruthven, Creative Director on the project, has said flat-out that “This would certainly be a lot easier doing this on a computer.” But having an artist do it by hand accomplished at least two different things for Ford: First, because of Liu Bolin’s considerable reputation as an artist, his participation in the project was a way of emphasizing Ford’s aspiration to create a beautiful and sophisticated design. Second, it gave viewers something unusual and noteworthy to spend time on if they did indeed follow the ads’ invitation to look up the online explanation of how the cars were camouflaged. The second point brings us back to subliminal advertising. Some of the background cars in Ford’s ads are so well-hidden that it’s easy to overlook them, and the ads’ captions might not have provided a clear enough hint about their presence. The invitation to go online for further information is the only part of the ads’ texts that refers explicitly to camouflage, and therefore increases the likelihood that the ads’ central message will not be lost on the viewer. In other words, the ads go out of their way to prevent their images from being subliminal. When advertisers put money and time into an ad, the illusory promise of subliminal effects is unlikely to outweigh the simple need to make sure the viewer gets the basic point.

Related Reading:

Messaris, Paul. (2013). How to Money Money from Subliminal Advertising and Motivation Research. International Journal of Communication, Volume 7.

O’Barr, William M. (2013). “Subliminal” Advertising. Advertising & Society Review, Volume 13, Issue 4.

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