using photography to re-examine our environment

The striking collection of photographic art presented in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Widening the Lens is very much a revision of the long tradition of landscape photography in the US. It can be a very direct revision – as with AK Burns’ reinvention of landscape photographs literally torn from photo albums – or it can be much more subtle, as with Sam Contis’ careful deconstructions of the iconography of the American West. Be that as it may, this is a show that is very much about counter-narratives, hidden histories, reinscription, reinvention, and revision.

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Born from a desire to reflect on how our relationship with images has changed as photography has become shockingly more ubiquitous and prolific, Widening the Lens considers photographs both as individual objects and as pieces integrated into larger objects. It’s a show that strives to respond to how the boundaries between photography and other artistic media have become blurred, and a show that attempts to imagine what environmental photography looks like now.

In keeping with this long view of images and landscape, Widening the Lens is grouped into four broad lines: colonial legacies, landscape as a site of remembrance, human adaptability and mobility, and environmental anxiety. These themes take us through the past, present and future in time, providing useful ways to draw connections between the sometimes cacophonous array of artworks brought together for this exhibition. “We’re trying to tell these stories that have both happened in history,” says Dan Leers, curator of the exhibition, “but also hopefully chart some possible courses for humanity.”

If you look at Xaviera Simmons’ Sundown series, named after so-called sunset towns, which become extremely unsafe for African Americans after dark, you will find self-portraits in which the artist inhabits a carefully arranged tableau of elements that evoke landscapes in which black people were exploited. In each film, she holds up different images to the camera, inviting us to imagine how the visual history of the United States has shaped the identities of her subjects. One such image reads, “The myth of the American frontier still shapes racial divisions in the US,” suggesting that the deep history of the American landscape and its representation is still very much alive in today’s struggle over inequality.

A striking collection from the show are photographs from Justine Kurland’s now 20-year-old series Girl Pictures. In it, Kurland imagines a world of teenage runaway girls, in which her protagonists boldly move through various natural landscapes, both wilderness and liminal zones on the edges of urban areas. It’s a story about how these girls could travel across the country in a world that is much different and much safer for them to grow up in.

“It’s not a documentary, it’s not a reenactment, it’s about using photography to build a world that seemed fairer and more just,” Kurland told me. She shared that part of the drive to create Girl Pictures came from the problematic history of landscape photography, where the camera – usually held by a male photographer – has been used to conquer and dominate. On the other hand. she wanted to create a landscape in which the girls did not settle, but rather one in which the landscape held them, offering a sense of interdependence.

The photographs in Girl Pictures are primarily notable for the simple beauty that Kurland finds in the landscapes; her iconography comes across as gentle and intimate, seeing these places more in bite-sized chunks where the girls can find moments of refuge, connection, strength and play. The forest in particular, with the two large tree trunks that frame the image and provide a place of peace and connection for the girls, and with the soft layers of light drifting into the background depths, creates a sense of peace and harmony. This suggests a lot about what Kurland wants her landscapes to do.

“Even though Kurland’s images are among the earliest photographs in the exhibition,” Leers told me, “these photos feel so present and contemporary in so many ways. They are what a world could look like, populated by strong, young, independent women. It’s really exciting.” The Girl Pictures selections are easily one of the standout groups from Widening the Lens, and in themselves a good reason to see this exhibition.

Lucy Raven’s shadowgrams, made by shooting objects filled with magnesium, aluminum and gravel onto pieces of light-sensitive paper, appear mysterious and somewhat opaque. (It was probably not lost on Raven that shadowgrams were used to advance weapons and flight technologies, two key components in subjugating the West.) These pieces are a very different take on the photographic medium, one that challenges the idea of ​​representation itself, and That pushes Widening the Lens into completely different territory.

Another aspect of Widening the Lens is the six-part podcast released in conjunction with it. Based on themes of myth-making, rule, and impressions, the podcast welcomes guests including artists, curators, geologists, filmmakers, writers, poets, and more. It will be hosted by tennis great Venus Williams, who Leers explained was chosen after a lengthy search for the perfect person to work with. “We wanted someone with a bigger reach,” he said. “In speaking with Williams and her team, we understood that she is very deeply involved in the contemporary art world. She is very involved in thinking about the role that art can play.”

The podcast is part of a broader ambition for the Carnegie Museum of Art to connect with an audience that may never pass through the museum’s doors to attend Widening the Lens in person. According to Leers, these goals were prompted by the period of disconnection during the Covid shutdown. “We need to be more responsive to meeting our audiences where they are,” he said. “We want to give everyone the opportunity to participate in all our projects.”

Widening the Lens is a deeply diverse body of work, almost imbuing the show with a kind of “everything but the kitchen sink” feel, and its spaciousness and openness feels very appropriate for an exhibition that seeks to reexamine the rules for the American landscape. . It is also mainly about the question of how our past, both longer and more recent, will continue to develop in the future. It is Leers’ hope that everyone who visits Widening the Lens will take the time to consider the issue of consequences, and that this will form the basis for their future actions. “I hope that the public will think even for a second longer about the impact of their actions today on my environment, now and in the future,” said Leers. “I hope they will understand that these impacts can magnify, expand and resonate in the future.”

  • Widening the Lens: Photography, Ecology, and the Contemporary Landscape is now on view at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pennsylvania through January 12, 2025

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