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Romanticism & Contemporary Culture

Landscapes and Kodak

Ron Broglio, Georgia Tech

  1. Students generally take to comparing and contrasting objects of study since they can use their observational skills to draw conclusions about a given topic. With such diverse objects as Romantic landscapes and 20th century photography, students enjoy the challenge and opportunity for creativity. The following sections show parallels between seemingly disparate forms of representation. While the objects in the photos differ from those in the picturesque, their optical perception derives from the same way of thinking about subject-object relations and the space in which the objects appear for the viewing subject. Having students connect ways of seeing and then applying them to their own picture taking is the goal of this exercise. One note of caution. The citations below are from Kodak's "Rules for Taking Pictures" in 2002. The company has since changed its guidelines for photography and changed its web site. Where still applicable, I’ve provided links to Kodak's techniques in composition of a photograph.

  2. Kodak’s first rule is to Always Keep a Camera Ready. After all, "How many once-in-a-lifetime pictures have you missed because you didn't have a camera with you? . . . Spontaneous moments make priceless pictures. To capture them, you need a camera with you." Gilpin begins his essay on picturesque landscapes from his Three Essays on the Picturesque with this same sense of urgency and immediacy for his tourists: "The first source of amusement to the picturesque traveler, is the pursuit of his object—the expectation of new scenes continually opening, and arising to his view. We suppose the country to have been unexplored. Under this circumstance the mind is kept constantly in agreeable suspense. The love of novelty is the foundation of this pleasure. Every distant horizon promises something new; and with this pleasing expectation, we follow nature through all her walks" (Gilpin 47). The Kodak moment commodifies the ephemeral quality of temporal experience by promising to capture the "priceless" moment for the mere cost of film and development (see Nancy West, Kodak). Landscape aesthetics commodifies sight as tourists "capture prospects at every ten paces" (Gray 1107). Tourists' need to go further, see more, and catch new prospects, so they can lay claim to having mastered a given topography; the land becomes a possession of the spectator’s gaze.

  3. Simplicity. [As of 2005 Kodack calls this Choosing a Main Point of Interest.] Diverse objects are brought together into a unified whole by selective framing and by choosing a particular object of focus. Wordsworth in his Guide to the District of the Lakes harmonizes a mountain scene by using a tarn as his central object: "one of these pools is an acceptable sight to the mountain wanderer; not merely as an incident that diversifies the prospect, but as forming in his mind a centre or conspicuous point to which objects, otherwise disconnected or insubordinated, may be referred" (40-41). Just as Wordsworth's tarn provides unity to the diversity of objects in the landscape, Kodak recommends a similar sense of unity in composition: "The first and perhaps the most important guideline is simplicity. Look for ways to give the center of interest in your pictures the most visual attention. . . . Arrange other parts of the picture area in such a way as to complement what you choose to be the center of interest." One of the elements governing unity is the duration of time one can capture in a picture or a flick of a camera shutter. Unlike a video camera that provides a panning movement through a scene over time, the aesthetics at work in the picturesque and the Kodak camera are governed by the still life. The picturesque eye works like a camera shutter. For example, in Kant, the human eye responds to the sublime in an augenblick, the blink of an eye. In a snapshot instant, the eye needs a single object of focus from which to arrange the framed scene (Burke 4.10). More than one focal point favors diversity over unity and causes an optical distraction. To keep distraction to a minimum, Kodak suggests simple backgrounds: "A simple background focuses attention on the subject and makes clear, strong pictures. Take control and move your subject or your camera to find a simple, uncluttered background." And in a like manner, Gilpin explains: "You must contrive to hide offensive parts with wood; to cover such as are too bald, with bushes; and to remove little objects, which in nature push themselves too much in sight, and serve only to introduce too many parts into your composition" (Three Essays 70). Additionally, consider the implications of a camera that automatically focuses on a central point in its field of view. The camera has built into its design the idea that the primary subject should center the picture and that this subject occupies a single area of focus, a middle ground, not fading too far back or too far in front of the focusing cross-hairs.

  4. Line. [As of 2005 called Using Leading Lines]. Clarity of line is so valued in the picturesque that one can hardly read a text that does not mention it. Clear lines belie the abstract and geometric construction of sight. For Descartes, corporeal bodies are objects with extension but bereft of secondary qualities we impose upon them. The eye presents to the mind objects with both primary and secondary qualities. But the mind with its "innate geometry" transforms optical perception into clear and distinct ideas (Optics 67). Coinciding with Cartesian optics is the birth of linear perspective. Prior to the Renaissance, painting concerns itself with individual objects, but the space which they inhabit fails to embrace or dissolve the differences in scale and position between bodies. Space acts as a simple superposition, a still unsystematic overlapping. With linear perspective comes an abstract spatial system capable of ordering objects as geometric points along a grid. Making the space of nature correspond to the space of geometry, both Gilpin and Kodak favor abstract spatial configurations. Consider Gilpin's geometry: "A little north of Brugh, the ground on the left, makes a singular appearance. A hill, on which a fair is held forms an exact, semi-circular convex. Scarce a knoll, or a bush break the regularity of the line. . . . Perhaps no disposition of ground was ever more totally unpicturesque; and yet even this if it be only bisected, and in a small degree adorned, is not wholly disagreeable" (Gilpin Guide 2.170-71, emphasis mine). Likewise, for Kodak the trained eye is one that can find clear, clean lines: "You can help yourself develop an artistic eye by studying pictures to find the strength of their lines, geometric shapes, and balance." Murky lines find disfavor in the picturesque most essentially because such vagueness disturbs clear and distinct ideas about what constitutes an object. While objects should harmonize and colors may blend, objects themselves should not merge into other objects in the landscape such that their identities become questionable. Gilpin's system of classifying bodies of water (lakes, pools, and tarns), elevations, and even picturesque animals (the cow rather than the horse and preferably in spring rather than summer) depends on the ability clearly to distinguish elements in the landscape. The ability to name and categorize objects marks the taste and sensitivity of the observer.

  5. Winners. [As of 2005 this category of the Kodak gallery has been eliminated. Either there are no winner or we are all winners or perhaps the criteria for winning is too variable to determine.] Kodak's gallery of exemplary photos announces, "Here's another winner. Why? Well because it's an extremely interesting picture that makes good visual sense, and that's just as important as our list of guidelines." Developing a "good visual sense" works much like developing taste in the aesthetics of the picturesque. One becomes indoctrinated by seeing masters at work, by studying scenes, and by travel to picturesque sites. Developing the habit of a "good eye" means training the physical eye and the mental construction of space to meet the strictures placed upon vision by optics that complement the picturesque and the Kodak moment. Finally, bending the rules becomes part of the rules as well. So as not to appear too much like a scientific treatise, the interplay between reason and the imagination should allow for some moments of "inspiration": "So study the photographs you especially like. Do they follow the guidelines we've mentioned? Do they bend the rules and exercise what might be called creative license? As you search for these answers, you'll start to develop a photographic eye of your own. Have fun!" [As of 2005 "fun" is eliminated from the rules of photography as an overly complex Althussarian hailing of the photographer.]

  6. Peter Galassi considers the history of linear perspective in art according to two dominant styles. From the Renaissance to the early 1800s "the point of view and the frame—the visual pyramid—are established first, creating a measured stage" while from the early 1800s onward "the world is accepted first as an uninterrupted field of potential pictures. From his chosen point of view the artist scans this field with the pyramid of vision, forming his picture by choosing where and when to stop." (Galassi 16). In the earlier style, disparate objects are brought together and synthesized as a whole on a canvas that serves as a universal and stable "measured stage." The later style considers the world to be a three dimensional setting from which artists chose a particular point of view to render only a small part of the whole set of possible scenes. The result is immediate, discontinuous, and unexpected forms. According to Galassi, photography comes into being as painting moves from the canvas as a synthasizing whole to the canvas as analyzing a part of a much larger scene. For Galassi, the immediacy, discontinuity, and intimacy of candid photos corresponds to landscape sketches of small, simple scenes such as John Linnell's rustic cottages as opposed to the "measured stage" of Claude's or Poussin's landscapes. Kodak's web site suggests "keep folks busy" [now called Directing] to provide candid shots and shoot close to the subject to provide intimacy. Despite these exceptions, most of Kodak's rules correspond to the painterly canvas as a synthesizing whole. Kodak wants pictures that represent a unified and architecturally balanced field as do many of the writers on landscape aesthetics during the Romantic period.

  7. It is worth exploring what is lost by the "measured stage." Those photos and landscapes that render only bits and pieces of the whole scene still utilize Cartesian perspective, but they do so with more awareness of the contingency and subjective experience of seeing. Ultimately, only by a loss of sight as the primary sense and figure for knowing can we hope to gain what Merleau-Ponty refers to as the felt relatedness of experience. Ponty rejects the Cartesian empiricist construction of vision as a camera obscura: "We have to reject the age-old assumptions that put the body in the world and the seer in the body" (Visible 138). In its place, he suggests we consider how experience comes to us all at once before experience is "worked over" by differentiation among the senses and even before subject-object distinctions. Ponty's representation of space accords with Wordsworth's spots of time where the patterns of the picturesque give way to a transformation in the poet's relation to the landscape. The tension between representation by rules of the picturesque and a rebellion against the "tyranny of the eye" both evident in Wordsworth's work is likewise part of our own frustration with the position we occupy as subjects under a pervasive scopic regime. The challenge is to find other ways to produce "the spontaneous organization of things we perceive" (Sense and Nonsense 13). I hope that as students play with forms of represention, they will gain a better sense of what is at stake as they take their experience of a particular place and transform it into a landscape to be viewed by others.

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February 2002