“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.
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.
Has the landscape always been your primary subject?
Yes. I came to photography through studying nineteenth-century American landscape painting, particularly the Luminists, so landscape has always been my only interest.
What have been some of your other projects?
My first major commission was photographing the H. F. du Pont estate Winterthur for The Winterthur Garden. I lived on the estate for periods of time during the spring and summer of 1990, so I could photograph at all times of day. Years earlier, in 1985, I spent five months living and photographing on Dartmoor in England, a personal project.
Was A Genius for Place your first collaborative project?
I did work closely with the people at Winterthur in choosing the areas of du Pont’s gardens to shoot, but my collaboration with Robin on A Genius for Place was of a different order—much deeper.
How did you get started in photography?
I became interested in photography in college, when I encountered the American Luminist painters of the mid-nineteenth century and began thinking about how photography must have affected vision and sense of time. I first started photographing one summer while I was working on Nantucket—I borrowed an old Voigtländer camera. My parents gave me a Nikkormat for my birthday that year.
What kinds of cameras do you work with?
I started using a Hasselblad in 1978, and continued also using a Nikon, but I loved working in a square and composing on a ground glass. When I began to photograph gardens, just before the Winterthur job, I bought a Toko 4×5 wood-field camera. Working with it brought me even closer to composing, slowing down. For several years now I’ve been using a Canon digital camera, since I’m photographing for magazine and book publication primarily.
Do you prefer shooting digital or film?
Film, though I discovered when I went back to it this summer to shoot a couple of the sites for “100 Years”—it’s far more anxiety-provoking. And expensive. But with film you can make much larger prints, so if you’re shooting for an exhibition, unless you have a hugely expensive high-end digital camera, you need film.
And what about black and white versus color? Or does it depend on the project?
Black and white, for sure. Although for some projects you need to work in color. That’s what—or one of the things that—made A Genius for Place and my collaboration with Robin so amazing. Because she saw it so clearly, that to express these landscapes, these spaces, and the spirit in them, it had to be black and white.
Are you also involved in printing your work?
Many years ago I printed my own black-and-white work, and I loved being in the darkroom. But I could only make up to 11″ x 14″ prints, so for the LALH exhibitions, we began working with professional printers. That was scary, but I was very fortunate to find a sympathetic spirit in Jacques Charlas, a photographer in New York City, who made the prints for “A Genius for Place.” I was again fortunate, years later, to find Paul Sneyd at Panopticon, who is also an artist in the darkroom, and if he doesn’t get it just right, understands what I want and can make it right.
How do you go about exploring a landscape and finding the places you want to photograph?
One of the gifts I’ve been given in this life is photographing for LALH projects—that has given meaning, purpose, to my photographing. Exploring the designed landscape is a layered experience. Robin and I explore them together, and part of the experience for me is learning about the design intention and process, the history. The creation of imagination and mind, nature and light and spirit. And then photographing what is and what is no longer there.
My time on Dartmoor was a personal pilgrimage. I wanted to be in and photograph this place that was so ancient. I had read that there were more megalithic sites on Dartmoor than anywhere else in the world. They’re not of the same scale as Stonehenge or Callanish, but the place is filled with spirit. Or was, thirty years ago. They were going to run a motorway across the northern edge of it.
A full-time job cuts down on my time and energy just to explore. I see photographs I want to make when I’m walking our dog. Most often in old farmland and meadows. I have hopes for my retirement …
What are some of the challenges with this kind of photography?
Being time-bound and dependent on the weather is stressful. But more, trying to express what was created that doesn’t exist anymore, just a remnant or a neglected, degraded place. Like a Manning wetland garden that’s been bisected by a highway and bordered by an industrial park. Negotiating the frequent despair at what’s been lost.
Looking at the photographs, I don’t immediately think, This is late twentieth-century America—was it hard in some of these places avoiding evidence of the present day?
It’s extremely challenging. There aren’t too many places, especially public spaces—the park along the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg that Manning designed, for example—that don’t involve a fair amount of avoidance tactics. Trash cans, cars, debris, highways and high tension lines, a homeless person’s sleeping bag on the embankment. And then, when you think that many of the landscape architects were distraught themselves at the obliteration of the landscape—in 1910—it puts the challenges we face in 2014 in even more painful perspective. The places that have been preserved and stewarded, these are the exceptions. And they are the reason why this work is meaningful. Because these books, these exhibitions, have made a difference. When people know a place, feel connected to it, they care about it. When they understand what went into creating it, they can better understand how to care for it.
Jonathan Lippincott is the design manager at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and the author of Large Scale: Fabricating Sculpture in the 1960s and 1970s.
“100 Years of Design on the Land” will be on view from December 15, 2014, through March 5, 2015. The opening is from six to eight tonight; all are welcome.