A Visual Artist in Today's Landscape

by Stephen Johnson

from: California History, Winter 1989-90

Presented at the Envisioning California Conference, February 10, 1989
Sacramento, California

Growing up in California gives an artist a significant visual advantage. This is a visually stunning place. Partially because of its remarkable landscape, California has played a unique role in the development of landscape photography as a respected and imitated art form. The California landscape has had dramatic influence on the history of photography and our national attitude toward conservation, parks, and our relationship to the environment in general. Both the majesty, and the threats to California's land have been significant in the development of a growing national environmental ethic.

In the nineteenth century, California became the land of gold, the terminus of our westward migration, and possibly, the end of our dreams of a limitless frontier. In the 1930s it was the promised land of milk and honey to a desperately poor, drought stricken mid-west. Hollywood became a symbol and a dream machine with global implications. More recently our state has been a magnet for people seeking sunshine and new economic opportunities. And for those who stayed elsewhere, our state is still often imagined as some eclectic gathering of surfers attending yoga classes discussing astrology. Accurate or not, in both positive and negative ways, these views of California have acted as a powerful symbol to our nation, and perhaps the world. An underlying theme to this conference is the desire that a more complex and realistic view of California will emerge.

As a visual artist I deal in symbols, my vocabulary is limited to what can be seen, or what can be made to appear to be seen. And as a native Californian, it is easy to succumb to symbolic, exaggerated views of an imagined California. My own homeland pride can easily deteriorate into little more than Chamber of Commerce rhetoric. Our landscape presents itself almost self-elaborated. Overly-romanticized descriptions of land can easily happen in a place like California, this land lends itself to overstatement. But the saving grace of this place, of what is perhaps a kind of California state of mind, is that we do, ultimately, confront both our opportunities and problems with some degree of realism, with unique energy and a somewhat naive belief that we can do anything. We are, afterall, Californians.

Much of California's population is descended from western Europeans who migrated north or west, bringing with them some notion of this land as a source of wealth, not just sustenance. That European immigration seems to have brought a generally consumptive attitude, that from our first penetration here, led to the exploitation of mission Indians, washed away mountainsides in lust for gold, divided the state into railroad-driven land baronies, turned our waterscape upside down, and waged what amounts to chemical warfare on our farmlands.

When photographer Carleton Watkins struggled with his mammoth-glass-plate camera up the steep sides of Yosemite Valley in 1861, I wonder if he had any notion that 27 years later he would be working on a commission for the Kern County Land Company's land promotion schemes near Bakersfield. I wonder if he would have seen any contradiction in the two efforts. I suspect not, because we have been a long time learning to distinguish between being impressed by landscape, and re-working it into profit. To the pioneer, it was one and the same, a continuum of thought: a new and beautiful place that could make a home was also a place to "work the land". With modern technology and transportation, and no new ethical guidelines to follow, it was still the same: magnificent landscapes where great profits could be made---through gold, lumber, agriculture, and tourism.

It is no coincidence that John Muir and Ansel Adams gained fame here. Nor that placer mining and corporate agriculture rose to such great fame and notoriety. Nor is it surprising that Delta farmers brought what may be the first environmental suit when they pressed the state to stop placer mining in the late 1870s.

Early photographers helped to glorify the majesty of this place. And though pictures of Yosemite and the rugged coast could never compete with the images of the gold rush, they did have an impact. Watkins' 18x22 inch photographs were circulated in Congress lobbying for passage of the Yosemite Act. In 1864, when Abraham Lincoln signed the law setting aside Yosemite "for public use, resort and recreation" and that such use "be inalienable for all time" he made a grand, sweeping gesture that in many ways founded the environmental movement.

It is into this complex context I was born and raised, and eventually settled on the arts as my life's work. My decision was due, in no small proportion, to the beauty of California's Sierra Nevada and Yosemite. But, I now know, that it was also due to those days riding my bicycle on the lonely backroads and farmlands of Merced County in the San Joaquin Valley. That long horizon and endless space had as much to do with my development as Yosemite's grandeur.

The Central Valley is a peculiar place. We know it is a valley, local car dealerships and newspapers carry the word "Valley" as an icon. But most of the time there are no mountains to be seen, the horizon seems to go on and on without end. And there can't be a valley without mountains. I was sure of it, I read it somewhere.

This strange sense of space breeds an unusual sense of place, and contradictory notions of limits and possibilities. The invisible mountains suggest that things are not always what they seem. The unending space suggests that there are no limits to what we can do, and yet inevitably makes us feel small and isolated. It insulates us from the consequences of our actions and encourages us to try almost anything. And then the sun comes out and changes everything. What seemed possible in the Spring, is often unimaginable by August. The summer sun settles all questions. In fact it settles any desire to ask questions.

With this as a setting, it was inevitable that political and environmental considerations would become a part of my decision to pursue art. In California, love for the outdoors often fuses into political activism. There seems to be no other choice. The French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson has been quoted as saying during World War II that he couldn't understand how Ansel Adams and Edward Weston could be running around California photographing rocks and trees while the world is falling apart. It is somewhat ironic that today, it may be the seeds sown by California landscape photographers like Adams--that so influenced the growth of the environmental movement--that is now doing battle with such global disasters as the elimination of rainforests, the greenhouse effect, and chemical/nuclear contamination. Threats, that when fully appreciated, are surely as ominous as war.

My crusades as an artist have been somewhat smaller in scope. In 1979 I initiated an effort to build a visual constituency for Mono Lake on the eastern Sierra. Mono Lake is dying because the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is exporting water from the Mono Basin. The lake receives less water, therefore it is shrinking and its fragile ecosystem will eventually collapse. I wanted to help. As a photographer I wanted to help.

With the help of fellow photographers Al Weber and Don Worth, and the support of David Brower at Friends of the Earth, we were able to put together At Mono Lake, a travelling fine-arts exhibit that toured the country from 1980 to 1983, reaching about two million people. In 1983 we published a book drawn from the exhibit, and I think we made a difference in how Mono Lake is perceived. In many circles, Mono is now a part of a mindset---a beautiful and important landscape being destroyed, that must be saved.

I knew at the time that I was merely taking up a long tradition of photography attempting to influence land use issues. In 1936 Ansel Adams took his Kings Canyon portfolio to Washington DC to lobby for the creation of a new national park. William Henry Jackson's 1872 photographs were used as evidence of the value of Yellowstone when it was under consideration as the first national park. Such traditions are certainly not unique to California, but it may well be that as technology and ever more intensive land use issues evolve here, artists in this state are in an increasingly unique position, and bear a special responsibility to stand up for endangered lands.

It is interesting to look at how photography is changing from the past traditions of the idealized western landscape. In contemporary landscape work it is ever more common to deal with how man-made constructions change the landscape, rather than seek those remaining pristine vistas that become romantic symbols of what once was. In photography, it is clear that the focus is shifting from the ideal, to the confrontational. And it is not hard to understand why much of this contemporary work has been done in California. Most of the work is not overtly political, but it functions in, and effects the charged political arena of contemporary California culture.

I know that much of this was on our minds when Robert Dawson and I took up photographing the Central Valley in 1982. The effort evolved into a travelling photographic exhibit we couldn't resist calling The Great Central Valley Project, after the giant federal irrigation project. The book from the exhibit with a comprehensive text by Gerald Haslam is being published by the University of California Press in 1990.

When I first returned to the valley to photograph, I was still struggling to understand the place. I remember using dense filters, attempting to cut through the haze and see the mountains. I was still trying to see those mountains, to make this place look like a valley. I was still trying to see the valley for what I thought it was, rather than what it now looked like. For the most part, those photographs were poor and unrevealing. But I kept working, left the filters behind, and the images got better. I began to see the Valley as the dynamic, evolving, and troubled landscape that it is. The vast space of the Valley and the often ironic human creations became the inspiration for making the photographs as often as the simple beauty of its rural landscape.

I knew that the Central Valley was a completely re-made land. What I discovered was just how dramatic that transformation has been. Early European explorers most often described the valley as a desolate land of miserable extremes. No doubt, they were seeing the valley through highly prejudiced eyes. Valley Indians certainly did not see their home in such grim terms. In fact, their lives were probably richer and easier than most Native Americans. Their population was surprisingly large, perhaps as many as 160,000 people.

The first white settlers viewed technology as the only way of profiting from this land. And they may have been right. Local Indians did not profit from the land, they were merely sustained by it. Therein lies an enormous difference. But now, the very technology that has made the valley bloom with crops, may be a source of its undoing. Massive irrigation is salting and polluting the soil. Groundwater pumping is draining and collapsing vital natural aquifers. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are poisoning our water, and possibly our food. Atmospheric pollution probably accounts for billions of dollars in crop losses each year. And we are having an ever more difficult time preserving prime farmland as suburban development pressures push out agriculture.

The arts have a role to play in the stewardship of our land. As artists, it is our job to help take stock of what we have done, and to find evidence, inspiration and metaphor for what appears to be coming. We can have a unique influence on questions of value, maybe not monetary value, but the more fundamental questions of what we draw sustenance from as human beings. Artists are accustomed to finding sustenance in something other than money. We have a good perspective on the subject.

It is unthinkable now, but if it had not been for Frederick Law Olmstead and Galen Clark's efforts in the early 1860s, our giant Sequoias might have been logged. It may be unthinkable now, but there was a time when discussions were underway to damn the Grand Canyon. And with Glen Canyon now drown under Lake Powell, there is ample evidence of how rational these developments can be made to sound. It should have been unthinkable to flood Hetch-Hetchy Valley. It was certainly irrational to have destroyed Owens Lake at the base of Mt. Whitney, and now to threaten Mono Lake. It is interesting to watch our state's largest lake, Tulare Lake, re-incarnate in particularly wet years---to the extreme frustration of those trying to farm its former lakebed.

It took visionaries to see the danger of sacrificing our land to destructive development. With California's exploding population and growing economic demands, it will take everyone with a vision of that danger, to commit themselves to battle for that delicate balance between development and conservation. As an artist whose vision was shaped by this landscape, the stakes are too high, and the opportunities too great, not to try.

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