If you haven’t yet been to the Denver Art Museum’s New Territory: Landscape Photography Today exhibit, clear some space in your calendar, because it ends September 16 and it’s well worth seeing. It features around 180 works from 40 artists, and it will likely challenge your notion of what landscape photography is. “Museum goers should expect to be surprised,” says DAM’s curator of photography Eric Paddock. “If they have fixed ideas of what landscape is, or what a landscape photograph is, they should expect to meet some challenges.” Below, Paddock tell us more about the exhibit, how it came together and how it’s challenging the notion of the genre.
The idea for New Territory came up roughly six years ago. I’d been seeing a lot of work that didn’t fit the usual description of “photography,” and wondered why. I started looking for, and paying closer attention to, unconventional photography and talking to the people who make it because I wanted to understand their motivations as well as their techniques. The more I learned, the more interested I got. I ended up studying the work of somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 photographers and looked at several thousand pictures. I didn’t want to do a show that was entirely about “process” and “technique,” though: limiting the exhibition to landscape photography gives people a chance to see how experimental work changes—or doesn’t change—the way we think about nature, the environment, and human landscapes in today’s world.
The exhibition as a whole explores the different values we attach to landscape. Landscape can be the focus of deep reverence and wonder. It can be the place where societies or ideas conflict. It can evoke human history, express environmental values, or be a treasured thing in someone’s memory. The curatorial challenge was to identify photographs that address that variety of meanings. Some artists do that in rather straightforward ways that viewers can understand just by looking; others make work that is pretty unusual, and requires a bit of explanation. We combined works from across the spectrum, organized them into groups, and created turns through the gallery where one kind of feeling or experience might give way to another, entirely new one.
Many people who hear the term “landscape photography” envision the kinds of things they see in travel brochures, engagement calendars, and screen savers: sunsets, brightly-colored images of exotic places, bright fields of flowers. Those certainly are landscapes, and some of them are very soothing or inspiring. But landscape isn’t just something “out there,” a place of refuge or escape: it’s something that surrounds us all the time, wherever we go, and looking at it can help us understand where we have been, where we are, and what we are going through as individuals and as a society. Contemporary and emerging photography is all over the map—both geographically and philosophically. There are plenty of truly great landscape photographs that follow the tried-and-true traditions of photographers like Ansel Adams, William Henry Jackson, or Robert Adams, and some of those are represented in the exhibition. Those kinds of photographs rely very strictly on the descriptive power of the medium, and many of them are deeply informative, meaningful, and moving. There also are plenty of great landscape photographs that depart from the norm and that don’t look like anything we’re accustomed to, and although they may not impart the same kind of information that straight photographs do, they can be just as meaningful and moving. Sometimes more.