Alan Ward’s Luminous Landscapes

Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts / copyright Alan Ward
Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts / copyright Alan Ward

“Someone once asked the nature photographer Ansel Adams, ‘why are there no people in your photographs?’,” said Susan Piedmont-Palladino, curator at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., at the opening of Luminous Landscapes, a new exhibition featuring the landscape photography of Alan Ward, FASLA, a principal at Sasaki Associates. “Adams replied that there are always two people in his photographs — the photographer and the viewer.” Piedmont-Palladino added that in Ward’s photography of landscape architecture, there is always a third unseen person: the landscape architect. The exhibition covers landscape works from before 1900, “before the profession of landscape architecture,” then the period from 1900 to World War II, and, lastly, post-war modern and contemporary landscapes.

Ward said photography is his second career, but his decades-long immersion in this art form is symbiotic with his day-job, which is planning and design. His first photograph, taken back in 1978 with 30 pounds of equipment, including an unwieldy tripod, was of Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts (see image above). The cemetery, which features prominently in the first part of the exhibition, opened in 1831, so it even predates Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park. It was one of the first picturesque Romantic landscapes in America, and Ward’s photograph similarly evokes that style’s wild feel.

The exhibition features Ward’s black and white photography, which he seems to prefer to color. As he explained, “color photography can just have too much information. Black and white helps simplify and also abstract the forms in the landscape designs.” Ward mostly takes his black and white photos in the early morning or late afternoon in order to capture the “very soft light and not over-expose.” He looks for ways to “put all the information together into a coherent image” and create a story of a landscape defined by both stark contrasts and subtle shifts of tone. Capturing all these complex layers, Ward says, is made possible through black and white, which is best at isolating the effect of light on the landscape.

Perugino view, early morning / copyright Alan Ward
Perugino view, early morning / copyright Alan Ward

Color photography, Ward added, is “often treated at face value, like reality.” But all photography, color or black and white, is highly manipulated to achieve correct tones and sought-after representations. All of photography plays with the idea of what is real. “Photography is not quite a lie, but not quite the truth. There is a lot of abstraction.”

Leaving the heavy camera behind in favor of a Canon Mach 2, Ward today contemplates the challenges of digital photography. The old camera forced photographers to be very deliberate in setting up shots, but now with a digital camera, “most take dozens of photographs and figure one will come out well,” he laughed. “Digital photography may diminish your looking and framing.” It’s important, Ward said, to continue to apply “rigorous seeing and visualization” when using a digital camera.

As we wander over to the last room filled with the modern and contemporary landscapes, we reach the photographs that made Ward so well-known among landscape architects — his shots of Dan Kiley’s Miller Garden in Columbus, Indiana. Because the garden wasn’t open to the public then, most designers only got to experience the site through Ward’s photographs. Seeing Ward’s consideration of the garden for the first time, I began to understand why so many contemporary landscape architects find the landscape so appealing. Kiley took traditional French garden forms, like allees of trees and rectilinear arrangement of hedges, and made them modern. But it’s Ward’s photographs of them, with his Modernist framing, that further “amplifies the design.”

Miller Garden / copyright Alan Ward
Miller Garden / copyright Alan Ward

Ward riffed on why photography can amplify the design in some landscapes and not others. He argued that Olmsted’s picturesque Central Park is so hard to shoot because the curved paths and vast meadows recede away from you, proving too elusive for the photographer to capture. The totality of the experience is somehow beyond representation. But modern landscape’s bold shapes and orthogonal forms seem to be only heightened by the framing of the photographer. “The bold use of geometry lends itself to powerful images.” Ward said that taking those photographs helped him understand what Kiley set out to achieve, and that understanding greatly influenced his own designs.

Piedmont-Palladino added later that one can see a great difference between architecture that predates photography and architecture from the era of photography, perhaps speaking to the influential role of photography in shaping our expectations of the built environment. Ward, who started out as an architecture student and first took photographs of buildings, said still to this day, the ideal architectural photograph shows sharp light cutting across a building facade — quite different from his “soft light” used to capture landscapes. Those shards of light are now often found in actual building designs; just look at Daniel Libeskind’s work.

One question the exhibition brought up: What is the role of fine black and white photography today? It can now be considered an ancient art form when compared with today’s iPhone and Instagram-generated ephemera. Piedmont-Palladino discussed the ubiquity of Apple’s new advertisements lauding the photographs taken with its latest iPhone, which make anonymous and interchangeable the person who actually made the image. She questioned whether the technology — the phone camera — mattered as much as the photographer, “the person with the great eye,” who makes the photograph possible. In the era of instant, throw-away photography, what happens to the appreciation of what Ward achieves?

Blue Steps (Birch Walk) / copyright Alan Ward
Blue Steps (Birch Walk) / copyright Alan Ward

And if black and white or even color photography doesn’t quite tell the truth, does another representational art form get us closer to the experience of a landscape? What about video, used more and more to convey both idealized and real landscapes? In the future, will we go to exhibitions of landscape video art, which can better capture landscape change and sound and may have new resonance in our multimedia world? Or will we continue to delve further into abstraction, with online collections of landscape Instagram or Vine works, just as there are now collections featuring animated GIFs from the 1990s?

The most reasonable conclusion may be that all media are “not quite the truth.” And, as Piedmont-Palladino said, “perhaps the truth isn’t what we are after.”

The exhibition runs through September 5. If not in the area, check out Ward’s book, American Designed Landscapes: A Photographic Interpretation.

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