Books · Colonisation · Performance & Arts

Complicity with the Invaders

Magnum LandscapeMagnum Landscape by Ian Jeffrey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am beginning to feel there is something wrong with the concept of landscape. In the concluding essay of this book Henri Peretz writes:

Certain cultures are ignorant of the very word ‘landscape’, while others, like the European culture, use the term constantly and ambiguously.

What does the word ignorant really mean here? Does it mean that some languages have no equivalent word? And if ‘the European culture’, apparently monolithic, uses it ambiguously, how has Peretz determined its absence elsewhere? Whose studies has he read?

The landscape is at on[c]e an object and a representation. It is an actual place that we may traverse or alter, as well as the personal viewpoint of an artist or artisan. Landscape is no longer characterised by wild or unspoiled nature, for man has stamped his mark upon it…

Many of these images come from the USA or the global South, from countries where the ‘European’, global North-dwelling viewer sees through her heritage as a colonizer. One of the section introductions states that standing behind viewers of landscape provides ‘complicity with the natives and irony towards the invaders’, but I feel that in many cases this insider status has been appropriated rather than invited.

What happens to our idea of foreigners’ ignorance when totalising constructions of ‘landscape’ as created by photographer-artisans are narrated, as by Ian Jeffrey in the opening essay, where he speaks of Magnum’s work as ‘adventure photography’ and frames its practitioners observing survivors of post-war devastation and unease in the context of a planet that has now been seen from the outside?

There is something privileged and entitled about our idea of landscape, this place that is in front of us and outside of us, a place we ‘stamp’ with our ‘mark’ of ownership, a place we exploit, a place whose native residents appear to us as parcel with it and ours to use or remove at our aesthetic or practical convenience. A place becomes ‘landscape’ by being constructed by and commodified for the White gaze

Having said all this, my criticism of this book is more of the framing, not the images. My favourite resource during my photography A level, it is a collection of extraordinarily beautiful and interesting images, made by talented artists, who I am not inclined to hold individually responsible for all the crimes of imperialism. Some of them are activists who make their work to bear witness to atrocities so that those who can prevent them have no excuse to sit idly consuming the lovely view.

Rene Burri, Sao Paulo

I have read Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’ twice (perhaps I need to read it again). I would welcome recommendations for essays on the ideology of landscape that addresses the concerns I mention here…

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