A defense of romanticism

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by · Posted in: musings · new images · wilderness

I've been thinking a bit about the influence of nostalgia and romanticism in landscape photography. While there is certainly an aspect of romanticism that dwells in nostalgia (our good friends over at sohothedog make some interesting points in this regard), it is not the defining aspect of Romanticism. But the defining aspect of Romanticism is difficult to identify, made more so by the sloppy habit of writers equating it with sentimentality and picturesque art while ignoring its dark critique of human knowledge. Isaiah Berlin has suggested that at its core romanticism is a reaction against the ideas of the enlightenment. Berlin describes the situation:

There are three propositions, if we may boil it down to that, which are, as it were, the three legs upon which the whole Western tradition rested...First, that all genuine questions can be answered, that if a question cannot be answered it is not a question. We may not know what the answer is, but someone else will. We may be to weak, or too stupid, or too ignorant, to be able to discover the answer for ourselves. In that case the answer may perhaps be known to persons wiser than us—experts, an élite of some sort. We may be sinful creatures, and therefore incapable of ever arriving at the truth by ourselves. In that case, we shall not know it in this world, but perhaps the next. Or perhaps it was know in some golden age before the Fall and the Flood had rendered us as weak and sinful as we are. Or perhaps the golden age is not in the past, but in the future, and we shall discover the truth then. If not here, there. If not now, at some other time. But in principle the answer must be known, if not to men, then at any rate to an omniscient being, to God. If the answer is not knowable at all, if the answer is in some way in principle shrouded from us, then there must be something wrong with the question. This is a proposition which is common both to Christians and to scholastics, to the Enlightenment and to the positivist tradition of the twentieth century. It is, in fact, the backbone of the main Western tradition, and it is this the romanticism cracked.
The Roots of Romanticism

Is the above photograph nostalgic, romantic, or both? In The Landscape Photography Repertoire I am rather critical of photographs of the national parks which give the false impression that the photographer is standing in the wilderness when in fact he is standing in a parking lot next to a trash can among a herd of other photographers. This kind of photography perpetrates a lie of omission and suggests that wilderness is the vista that exists on the other side of the parking lot. It exalts wilderness in the same way a photographer at a zoo exalts wildlife, standing outside the cage, cropping out the bars and the kid with cotton candy to show the proud lion. The difference is that the wilderness is not in a cage, it is more often the case that the photographers are in a cage of their own making. They could leave the parking lot and head down a trail in order to actually experience the wilderness, but they so often don't. I would like to dispense with that criticism in the above photo by pointing out that Lake Clark is a much larger place—there are no roads, trails, and very few people. I have no doubt that if a road were built and a parking lot constructed here, this view would be an instant repertoire piece. But without the intrusive elements, a photographer in this place is always torn, not by how to crop, but by the unfortunate fact that one must crop—as much as you'd like to, you can't include the whole scene. Here one is in the middle of wilderness, subject to its whims and privy to its charms.

Is the photograph nostalgic? I don't think so, not in the sense that it is looking back at a golden age or longing for something lost. There is an undeniable stylistic pedigree that ties works like this to past work by artists like Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, or John Constable, but continuing the vernacular of a tradition is not the same as longing for its return. This place is here, right now, as you read this. That it has existed in its current state for a long time does not change that these mountains, this lake, and these rocks are still a fact of the contemporary world. One of the points of this image is to remind people of this. The forces that carved this lake and raised these mountains are still here. They may operate on a time scale below our perception, but this does not immunize us from their effects. This is essentially a message of conservation. It is not a nostalgic attempt to recapture a golden age, a common criticism of both conservation and landscape photography, but rather a reminder that we live at the pleasure of nature and that we ignore the natural world at our own risk. To forget that everything in our civilized world rests on a natural foundation is to live in dangerously illusory frame of mind.

Is this photograph based in the romantic tradition? Unabashedly yes. It says, show me your portraits of everyday life, your values, your wealth, and this landscape will dwarf them. For me, this image evokes Job's voice from the whirlwind and offers a buttress against hubris. It reminds us that almost everything we consider important in life is small and temporary. It wasn't here in the past and will be gone in the future. Our certain knowledge, our closely-held beliefs, our morality, our language, our medicine and science: none are permanent fixtures in this world; time has been, and will continue to be, merciless with the works of humankind. Even our legislated rights and freedom are meaningless here where one can be snuffed out by a chill, a fall, or a bear unaccountable to human morality and with little regard for what we call 'natural rights.' From within its framework we may think civilization has smothered the earth and exiled the wilderness to some tidy borders, but our cities are built on a fragile film of cement riding on a sea of magma swayed by same tectonic forces the raised these mountains and will one day swallow them. Wilderness goes all the way to the core of this world and our human works merely dot the surface. The knowledge of the Enlightenment may be useful and even true, but it is not complete. Science has cataloged every the fish in this lake and packed the entire flora, right down to the lichen on these rocks, into a tidy taxonomic scheme, but as sensible as it all is, when you stand here with your feet in the water you can't help wondering if it is all rather beside the point—inadequate knowledge compared to the whole scene before you. Being here tempts one to doubt the Enlightenment idea of nature-as-machine and to suspect a qualitas occulta, (to borrow Schopenhauer's term) below the observable surface. That is what this photograph tries to capture. Isn't that what all art tries to capture—those things which cannot be reduced to formulas or derived from axioms? I'm not convinced its a success—it's an ambitious goal after all, but I won't apologize for the romantic nature of the attempt because I am certain that we have not come to terms with the critiques raised by the romantics. They still resonate with modern life no matter how hard we try to dampen or ignore them.