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Posts Tagged ‘landscapes’

The Designed Landscape: An Interview with Carol Betsch

December 15, 2014 | by

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Carol Betsch, View from Mountain Avenue, below Washington Tower, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Boston, Massachusetts, 2005.

100 Years of Design on the Land,” a photography show opening here in New York this evening at 1285 Avenue of the Americas Art Gallery, explores ten historic American landscapes, from Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston, created in 1831, to the Camden Public Library Amphitheatre in Maine, created in 1931. The show presents contemporary photographs by Carol Betsch and Andy Olenick that have been commissioned for books published by the Library of American Landscape History (LALH). Robin Karson, the executive director and founder of LALH, curated the exhibition. As she says in an introductory statement in the show’s catalogue, “each of these places was shaped by a deliberate design process, and each has an individual story to tell. Taken together, they tell a much larger story of a nation’s beliefs and aspirations—who we are, where we long to go or what we want to get back to.”

The Library of American Landscape History, based in Amherst, Massachusetts, is defining the field of landscape history through its books about significant American landscape practitioners and places. LALH also organizes exhibitions that reflect the subjects of its publications, and, in partnership with Hott Productions of Florentine Films, produces a series of short films, North America by Design. Carol Betsch’s photographs have appeared in eleven LALH books (two are forthcoming). For the 2013 title The Best Planned City in the World, the author Frank Kowsky worked with Andy Olenick, an architectural photographer based in Buffalo, to document the key elements of the park system designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux for that city. This includes three large parks and a series of parkways to connect them, as well as Niagara Falls, which Olmsted helped to preserve from the destruction of local industries.

Olmsted Project

Andy Olenick, Delaware Park Meadow, Buffalo Parks, Buffalo, New York, 2013.

I first encountered Carol Betsch’s photographs at the exhibition “A Genius for Place,” at the PaineWebber Art Gallery in the fall of 2000. I was struck by the remarkable elegance and stateliness of her images. The landscapes pictured were stunning, with grand homes nestled among ancient trees, vast lawns, formal gardens, pools, ponds, and follies. I found the feeling of serenity in these places, the evocative light and space, tremendously appealing. Looking at these photographs felt like walking through these wonderful American landscapes and gardens, having just the right guide to take me to the best views, the most significant perspectives, and to create the opportunity for understanding some of the ideas behind the landscapes unfolding before me. The photographs looked like they could be the work of an artist from the late nineteenth century, but they had all been made during the last decade. Who was this photographer? And where were these places?

“A Genius for Place,” both the show and the book that followed, presented seven estates of the country-place era, roughly the 1890s to the 1930s, created by some of the most important landscape architects of the time. Written by Robin Karson, the chapters alternate between biographies of the practitioners and exploration of the places from the perspective of an art historian, looking at the landscape designs as works of art. Selecting the best of the sites that retained the integrity of the original design, and discussing them in chronological order, Karson reveals the trajectory and evolution of American landscape design, and the ways these designs expressed ideas in the larger culture.

In anticipation of this new show, I spoke with Betsch about her photography, and the process of working in these landscapes. Read More »

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Speaking American

July 7, 2014 | by

The varying temperaments of British and American storytelling.

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Lower Basswood Falls, Superior National Forest, July 1961.

In 1890, a thirty-seven-year-old Scot named James F. Muirhead arrived in America with the intention of carrying out an extensive survey of the republic for the “Baedeker’s Handbook to the United States.” Muirhead spent the next three years traveling to almost every state and territory in the Union, approaching his vast subject matter with none of the condescension often expressed by Victorian Englishmen of the era. In 1898 he published The Land of Contrasts—A Briton’s View of His American Kin, which he considered to be a “tribute of admiration and gratitude.” His colorful chapter headings show the range of his interests: “An Appreciation of the American Woman,” “Sports and Amusements,” “American Journalism—A Mixed Blessing,” and “Some Literary Straws.”

In that last chapter, Muirhead attempts to throw some light upon the “respective literary tastes of the Englishman and the American.” While he notes the grammatical wrongness of the American idiom—at least to his ear—in phrases such as “a long ways off” or “In a voice neither could scare hear,” he is most interested in “the tone, the temper, the method, the ideals” of an American writer. He singles out William Dean Howells—who challenged American authors to choose American subjects—as “purely and exclusively American, in his style as in his subject, in his main themes as in his incidental illustrations, in his spirit, his temperament, his point of view.”

But what does it mean to have an American point of view? Muirhead keeps trying to put his finger on this elusive quality: “Mr. Howells … possesses a bonhomie, a geniality, a good-nature veiled by a slight mask of cynicism, that may be personal, but which strikes one as also a characteristic American trait.” And then: “To me Mr. Howells, even when in his most realistic and sordid vein, always suggests the ideal and the noble.” Read More »

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