It was seeing Peter Brown’s image of Aquifer Lake that made me stop and want to write about landscapes in general, and Peter Brown’s work specifically. Much like his recollections of travel across the country in his youth, his photos reminded me of a lake near my house growing up where I swam during the hot summers. At that moment, I realized that I did not have a way to really appreciate an image other than a visual visceral reaction. Walker Evans was quoted by Peter as referring to a “lyric documentary” 1 style “that bridges subject matter with a photographer’s psyche” 2. Peter describes his landscapes to me as “cultural landscapes” that may have a “lyrical documentary” bent behind them”. He infuses his landscape images with experiences from his youth crossing America by car, now enhanced with years of study of photography, photographers, writers and poets describing a land and its people. I wanted to go deeper into the image than just a pleasing visceral reaction and better appreciate his approach to landscape photography.
To understand why and how he captures images of the landscapes he treasures, I studied his prior interviews, read his books and visited with him myself. With the Great Plains, Peter’s images are “ informed by all these years of experience … so what he sees is something that he knows will make a compelling picture.” 3 I placed three of his images in this commentary to illustrate what I learned from him that might impact a viewer’s understanding of this genre of photography.
What do you see when you really look into an image such as the “Cake Palace”? Is the image of the land without the presence of people or evidence of civilization and his/her impact on the land? 4 In Peter’s images this is an important element: “…pictures of the landscape are often not about the landscape but about what people do to the landscape…”. 5
Does the image contain a “facade”? “The facades are the persona of some of the inhabitants while the landscapes offer the freedom of an unobstructed vantage point”. 6 In the “Cake Palace” we see a stand alone building, presumably in a small town, that proudly expresses it presence with humor. A writer and artist of landscape design, John Brinckerhoff (J.B. )Jackson, who Peter knew and traveled with, coined the term “vernacular (or cultural) landscapes”. Carl Sauer, an American Geographer, defined “[ T ] he cultural landscape (as) fashioned from the natural landscape by cultural group. Culture is the agent, the natural area is the medium, and the cultural landscape is the result”. 7 A building in an image can have more significance than just an image of the structure. We can learn something from the image, and even more if we already know something of the people in a particular area. Its not just a random sample of architecture. The building is selected for a reason. Its may be what’s written on the building, or its condition, or the history carried in a surprisingly well cared for door and window. In this image, it tells us about the pride and independence in this place. A photographer might include a structure or building that is more of a “Curiosity” that does not contribute to the image as a landscape. A curiosity is defined, in part, by Webster’s New World College Dictionary 8 “as … anything strange, rare or novel.” That is not the case with Peter’s images. Peter was influenced by J.B. Brinckerhoff’s caution that “photographers are constantly pulled toward curiosities rather than the larger picture” 9…”which he viewed as photographic traps.” 10 The “Cake Palace” is not a “Curiosity”, its part a reflection of the spirit on the Plains.
How the horizon line is handled may hint at how the photographer might want to direct the viewer’s eye. Are there clouds, or not, in the sky and how are they presented? “(C)louds or their lack, give images time, depth, form and sometimes meaning”. 11 What time of day was the photograph taken: morning light, mid-day, or late afternoon, evening light? The “Levelland, Texas” image of a furrowed field shows the vastness of the Plains, the infinite horizon, and the work of men and women to make the land productive to feed a nation. The image would be significantly different if there was a cloud in the sky, or taken at a different time of day or under other weather conditions.
Was the perspective in the image done with the photographer’s feet on the ground, or was it from an elevated or aerial view of the landscape? The perspective changes the drama of the land. “It is from the air that the true relationship between the natural and the human landscape is first clearly revealed. The peaks and canyons lose much of their impressiveness when seen from above. What catches our eye and arouses our interest is not the sandy washes and the naked rocks, but the evidence of man”. 12 This image would be very different if taken from the air rather than standing at ground level. The land and the furrows would have a graphic abstract look no doubt, with a very different impression on the viewer. Yet, despite any form of analysis, does the viewer get a feeling that “…there’s a kind of beauty that I can believe in”? 13 The “Levelland, Texas” image captures in a clear and concise manner the beauty of an open field against a clear sky.
What else can make a photograph of the land become a more special image? In Peter’s landscapes, composition is an “intuitive response” to what he sees, and the rules of “photographic composition” 14 do not control his way of presenting what he captures. Peter notes, “As for style, I never looked for one. I never have given style much thought actually. I recall Winograd saying that the subject matter of a photograph should dictate its form, and Robert Adams writing about the tautness of the surface of the picture-that it should be like a trampoline-but beyond a few thoughts such as these, I’ve photographed in ways that have simply felt right. I move around the subject mater that interests me until it makes sense-until it locks into position-and then I take the picture. It’s very simple and very intuitive. It looks right; it describes something with clarity; there is an indefinable element there as well-and within those parameters, a small world comes into being”. 15
These photographs become a visual dialogue or story. As Kathleen Norris wrote in the introduction to Peter Brown’s book “On the Plains” 16; “As a storyteller, I appreciate the narrative quality of Brown’s images, tales told with such subtlety that they often require rereading”. I believe this to be the mark of any good and important image. An image must draw us in time and again, regardless of what we know about the photographer. But, knowing the photographer, and where they are coming from, both literally and figuratively, helps us appreciate an image more deeply. Kent Haruf wrote in Peter Brown’s book “West of Last Chance” : “You have to know how to look at this country. You have to slow down. It isn’t pretty, but its beautiful”. 17 I believe it applies to any landscape image that one views and wants to thoroughly appreciate.
All images included with the permission Peter Brown.