“Toward Careful Listening”
A Review of
Thoughts on Landscape:
Collected Writings and Interviews
by Frank Gohlke.
Reviewed by Brent Aldrich,
ERB Art Editor.
Thoughts on Landscape:
Collected Writings and Interviews
Paperback: Hol Art Books, 2009.
Buy now: [ From the Publisher ]
[ Read a two-chapter excerpt from the book! ]
Photographer Frank Gohlke has been making pictures for over thirty years, and accompanying those images is a large number of essays, artist statements, and interviews. His new book Thoughts on Landscape: Collected Writings and Interviews compiles these texts chronologically, as they developed alongside Gohlke’s photographic practice, and in some ways they serve to clarify it. But like any successful writing about art, this book drew me back to look at Gohlke’s photographs again, more closely than before.
So to begin, looking at an image might be helpful, such as a complicated photograph (which recently served as the cover for Gohlke’s Accommodating Nature) in which a woman points a hose, watering rows of crops planted in red clay, late afternoon sun illuminating the fields spread before her, and the water making shadows on the soil. But what exactly is going on here? What is really the scope of the care this woman can give to this wide open space with that one hose? Seemingly, it can’t stretch any further, and the woman’s finger creates a jet on the nozzle to extend the spray further, but it’s nowhere near that field of young corn. Meanwhile, the roof of the shack continues to melt off, and the tractor may or may not ever run again. Either way, there’s work to be done to maintain this landscape ‘Near Kirkville, Mississippi,’ and both the woman with her hose, and Gohlke with his camera are doing just that work.
Indeed, if anything ties together Gohlke’s work – in images and in these writings – it is this tenuous space where distinctions between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ give way, where the woman with her hose is inseparable from the tree line and sprouting plants. Always looking at landscapes as the site and sight – the site where people give tangible form to ideas about the land, and literally, the ensuing sight – Gohlke asks, “What is the web of relationships that one perceives in the visual appearance of things,…what particular objects in the landscape – natural or human – give one a sense of that incredibly complex tissue of causality, that makes things look the way they do?” (49) Landscapes are emblematic of natural histories as well as particular cultural histories, each always informing the other, and inseparable from each other. For Gohlke, to even begin to talk about landscapes includes the act of looking itself, as well as the other more obvious ways humans interpret the land: “a landscape, as opposed to the land, is a human creation…What makes us judge one feature of the landscape to be more fitting than another is the total system of values that we bring to the act of perception” (73).
And so photographs of landscapes refer to the embodied practices and relationships of particular people in particular places. Photographs, more so than other mediums, are bound to their places in ways that are “vivid, precise, intimate, local” (213) by sheer virtue of how the mechanism of the camera reproduces, but Gohlke would like to reinforce the significance of these adjectives as they relate to his work as a landscape photographer: “In other times and places there has been a real conversation between people and the spaces they occupied; what people did, the kinds of places they created, had something to do with the messages they received from their surroundings about the effects of actions already taken…I would like to suggest that one function of landscape art in the late twentieth century is to help restore that lost faculty, if nothing else, by providing examples of careful listening” (179).
Throughout Thoughts on Landscape, then, a few places in particular take on the greatest importance because of the amount of pages (and years) spent investigating them, and the affection evident in words (and photographs); Gohlke’s hometown in Wichita Falls, grain elevators in Minneapolis and the larger Great Plains, Mount St. Helens, and the Sudbury River in Massachusetts all are places where Gohlke has spent the time doing “careful listening.” This listening, of course, has as much to do with the people of a place, as with the land, and Thoreau becomes an interesting antecedent to the Sudbury River, as it flows into the Concord River, know from Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers. Gohlke photographs the Sudbury, which is close to his home and “just the right size…It’s scaled to an individual human being’s physical and mental capacity (this human’s anyway)” (181). His failed canoe trip on this short river is delightful to read, and the photographs are some of his finest, in ways that are ‘vivid’ and ‘intimate.’
A significant difference between this collection of writings by a photographer and a similar book of essays by say, Robert Adams, is that Thoughts on Landscape is drawn exclusively from essays originally written for other publications, interviews, or transcribed lectures, whereas Adams often writes specifically for books. This being the case, though, it is possible to trace Gohlke’s own understanding of his art, which is a fascinating look into a creative process, as similar turns of speech, phrases, or ideas that stick will evolve and turn up in different forms over the course of the book, as ideas are crystallized or new perspectives added to the mix.
In a conversation with students, Gohlke describes in broad terms what he’s ultimately after as an artist, when asked about why he must ‘get used to the place’ before photographing. After a specific example with Mount St. Helens, Gohlke elaborates, “Taking photographs is dangerous…It’s a process that’s easy to abuse. I feel that ultimately the photography ought to contribute somehow to caring for the places I photograph. It has to do with caring and caregiving…It requires you to bring all of yourself to it” (159). Photographs of the land are synonymous with physical uses of that land, and can, in the best cases, provide a model of care such as Gohlke describes; Thoughts on Landscape describes thirty years committed to such work, listening to places, asking questions of them, and sharing what has been found.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com