Picturing Progress and Decline: Photography and the Interpretation of Industrial Landscapes

Authors: James Dickinson*, Rider University
Topics: Landscape, Development
Keywords: landscape,industry,modernity,post-modernity,photography
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/3/2019
Start / End Time: 4:30 PM / 6:10 PM
Room: Senate Room, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In this paper I explore ways photography depicts and interprets the industrial-urban landscape in two eras of development: “whirlpool” capitalist and socialist industrialization (modernity); and a “late” capitalist stage of globalized and decentralized development (post-modernity). To begin, I review the literature on cultural construction and interpretation of landscape. I then explore how selected photographers depict the evolving industrial-urban landscape, comparing and contrasting their work with respect to:(i) subject matter depicted; (ii) techniques used to compose and organize images; and (iii) the character of the visual narrative advanced. I distinguish between modernist interpretations such as those advanced by Albert Renger-Patzsch, Soviet pioneers Aleksandr Rodchenko and Boris Ignatovich, and the precisionist, Charles Sheeler, which variously present industrial landscapes as expressions of national power, the dignity of labor, or the virtues of technological progress; and postmodern interpretations associated with the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Robert Smithson, Lewis Baltz and other contemporary photographers who treat now ruined and exhausted landscapes as expressions of the failure of technology, the limits of economic growth, and the destructive effects of human activity on the environment. My conclusion is that photography is a fluid and dynamic art form which consistently supplies varied and interesting commentaries on powerful economic, social and cultural forces shaping and transforming the human-made landscape.

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