Thirdly, we can interpret the term ‘landscape’ as that of ‘environment’, as a result of an ever more pressing need to concern ourselves with the degradation of the natural environment from nuclear bomb tests, mining, agriculture, bushfires and climate change. Suddenly the remnant rain forests in Australia, such as the Otways in Victoria, become very precious indeed.
The concept of the landscape is complex as we are basically working with two differing conceptions of landscape: one is a broad conception, the physical landscape constantly renewing itself, and the other is a sense in which landscape is a historical representation. We can, however, view landscape as a mutual shaping of people and place: people shape the land, and the land shapes people.This means that are many ways of interpreting landscape.
This is especially the case after the horrendous mega fires on the eastern seaboard in Victoria’s East Gippsland and the NSW South Coast in early 2020 that were started by dry lightening in remote terrain. These were the most destructive fires in Australia’s history and they resulted in vast tracts of our remnant native forests go up in smoke, and more than 3 billion animals incinerated or displaced. This Black Summer was a glimpse into our future in the Anthropocene.
The climate models project that on our present path global warming will see an average warming of 2.7 to 6.2 degrees by 2100, which will render large parts of the Australia continent uninhabitable. The new normal is one of hotter bushfire seasons, more punishing droughts and increasingly erratic rainfall. The emergence of Covid-19 pushed all this collective trauma of a burning world (what Stephen Pyne called the Pyrocene, or the fire age) associated with the existential threat of climate change aside into the background.
Though the collective trauma of the plague became front and centre in 2020, the tradition of the representation of the landscape in environmental terms continues remain vital and contemporary. There is a large amount of data from the IPCC and in academic journals about the long-term risks of global heating, but global and (Australian national) climate action is too slow. The Earth may have already passed several dangerous tipping points, including melting ice sheets, the slowdown of Atlantic circulation and the dieback of the Amazon rainforest.
From this perspective we can now see that the label ‘New Topographics’ neglected the immanent references to the environment made by photographers starting in the 1980s. These references come to mind: Richard Misrach’s Bravo 20, The Bombing of the American West and Petrochemical America; Lewis Baltz’s San Quentin Point; Martin Manz and Reinhard Matz’s Unsere Landschaften (Our Landscapes); Wout Berger’s Poisoned Landscape. The New Topographics movement contributed to establishing critical environmental representations in the canon of artistic photography.
‘Environmental photography’ has adapted the New Topographics exhibition’s subtitle of a ‘man-made landscape’, to point out that the negative influence of humans on the Earth and the need for the world to stay within safe limits of global heating. The problem here is that landscape and its representation have been tied to a certain notion of the subject, or to subjectivity.That notion of the subject begins, perhaps, with Descartes, and culminates in romanticism in the eighteenth and nineteenth century; it entails an individual subject for whom the world becomes a picture, so that the visual relationship is primary. The Cartesian model is one of a disembodied consciousness in which the viewing subject is separated from the viewed world.