Landscape appeals to us, as music does to those who have no sense for musical form.—George Santayana, The Sense of Beauty1
Shut your eyes and change to and wake another way of seeing, which everyone has but few use.—Plotinus, The Enneads2
Devour the Land: War and American Landscape Photography since 1970 was a groundbreaking, sweeping, and haunting achievement. If the title implies a relatively constrained historiographic focus, that’s because all but eight of the photographs on view were created between 1970 and the present day. And yet, the looming legacy of war (and, more broadly, what President Dwight D. Eisenhower termed the “military-industrial complex”) upon the terrain and collective psyche of America, frames the photographs within a historical arc reaching back to the country’s founding. Included among the eight black-and-white images in the exhibition that pre-date 1970 were the following: four post–Civil War battlefield landscapes, captured between 1864 and 1873 by two stalwart field photographers of the time, George N. Bernard and Timothy H. O’Sullivan; Robert Frank’s photograph of a mid-1950’s Detroit automobile assembly line; and Ansel Adams’s 1958 photograph of aspens in Northern New Mexico. The rest of Devour the Land’s almost two hundred photographs—organized into six thematic sections—comprised the stunning, multifaceted visual terrain of the show. The term “visual terrain” here is used advisedly, not just because the vast majority of these works are landscapes, but, as curator Makeda Best writes, “Devour the Land embraces the terrestrial because marginalized and underfunded communities, land-based laborers and those suffering the ill effects of toxicity and pollution deserve our attention and scrutiny of what the planet’s natural resources offer in natural and economic concerns—and who benefits.”3
It is of signal importance that the visual terrain in question, though comprising masterfully executed photographs, is about much more than what meets the eye. Instead, the terrain turns out to be less terra firma than a volcanic landmass, beneath which stands a repository of trauma and toxicity derived from America’s centuries-long experiment with the war machine. What lies beneath the surface of what appears is in every instance a complex and nuanced story, and sets in motion an internal, conflicted dialogue within the viewer. And this felt response was ably assisted by the provision of display copies of the show’s impressive catalog upon entry (from which this review draws at length), as well as the didactics within the exhibition itself. In short, in a show of such historical weight and aesthetic magnitude as this, visual concentration might be essential, but context is king. The six sections into which the show was divided represent one aspect of this contextual armature, assisting the viewer’s intuition regarding each individual photographer’s motivations and concerns, as well as fostering meaningful associative connections among the photographs, and the issues, writ large. The titles of the six sections, in order of appearance, were Silent Spring, Arming America, Slow Violence, Regeneration, Other Battlefields, and Resistance.
The exhibition took its title from the pronouncement “We have devoured the land,” attributed to Union Major General William Tecumseh Sherman during one of the most destructive campaigns of the Civil War—dubbed “Sherman’s March to the Sea.”4 And lest one imagine the ripple effects of such devastating military conduct as Sherman’s stop at the water’s edge, Best asserts in the catalog introduction that, “by articulating environmental annihilation as a war strategy, Sherman’s orders also had far-reaching consequences for ecosystems around the globe.”5 America’s Civil War notwithstanding, the photographic works comprising Devour the Land bring into high relief a terrible irony encapsulated in the distinctly United States notion that “war is something that happens elsewhere.”6 If viewers of the show find it challenging to situate the familiar term “war” within the catastrophic environmental damage caused by the US military on domestic soil, that’s because Americans tend to view “war” as distinct from the domestic, environmental impact of the war machine. As Best writes, “the majority of environmental damage we live with was caused by our own military and the expansive network of industries supporting it.”7 While traditional studies of landscape and environment in American photography trace their origins to the Civil War era, Devour the Land cited federal initiatives reaching even as far back as the Revolutionary era, thus grounding its scholarship sixty years prior, in the prewar “national culture of militarism” that ultimately resulted in the formation of the Army Corps of Engineers in 1802.8 In this way, Devour the Land responded to many felt exigencies at the center of American life by enlarging the assumed purview of its subject, not least of which concerns the role played by each and every US citizen in the wantonly destructive legacy of the US military. To this and other such questions, the catalog’s foreword claims the photographs represent “an active invitation to look beyond the surface at what is unseen, a call to attention and at times a call to action.”9
If it sounds paradoxical or abstract to see the unseen, or to visualize the invisible, a key curatorial and photographic emphasis grounds this notion in the naked facticity of aftermath, expanding the term far beyond its usual application to sites of armed conflict. As such, Best considers the approach of many participating photographers to be correlative of “the forensic turn,” a phrase specific, we learn, to the practice of conflict photography, which “has been applied to works whose subject matter is linked to violence, but [not the depiction of] the actual act or victim.”10 It is in this gently profound way that Devour the Land made the bare act of looking transformative, led by the photographers themselves, whose work records the sifting of presence in absence through the concrete facts of what remains.
The temporal synthesis of Devour the Land’s curatorial approach (as referenced in the show’s subtitle) effectively disarms the viewer’s intellectual ability to process what engulfs them. Through the nesting of two temporal frames of reference, and the irreducible entanglement of visibility and invisibility, the interval between one’s capacity to feel and one’s capacity to understand widens, calling to this viewer’s mind the Nietzschean insight “When you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”11 Concerning visibility, it is often noted that landscape photography tends to avoid depicting humanity, except through its impact on the natural world. Here, even though human subjects appeared in approximately a third of the show’s images, Devour the Land still managed to exemplify the maxim to vertiginous effect. Unlike artworks that stand as testaments to the mythic grandeur of an unspoiled nature, the compounding emptiness one felt in the haunted presence of these works, whether human subjects are featured or not, seemed to confer upon the landscape its own kind of witnessing presence.
Although capturing the full complexity of the show is not practicable here, especially given the diversity of approaches included, attending to four works, reproduced here, will suffice in indicating key motivations and sensibilities at play. Given this challenge, the fact that three of the works referenced portray military test sites in the state of Nevada should not be taken as a representative geographical sampling, but rather as a taste of the show’s variegated aesthetic corpus. If this review’s foregoing emphasis on addressing the spoilage and misuse of the American landscape suggests that Devour the Land was short on beauty, perish the thought. As with so many works included in the show, Singaporean-born Sim Chi Yin’s photographs possess a truly halting and terrific beauty. Standing before her somber yet deeply luminous Mountain range surrounding the Nevada Test Site (2017) invokes the landscape’s witnessing presence mentioned above. It also engages a tension common among many landscape photographers: how to bring proper and sustained attention to environmental degradation in a manner that also aesthetically captivates. On this question, the catalog quotes one collector asking Sim, “How does it feel to make something so horrific look so beautiful?”12 One dual reality that seems clear for Sim and many other photographers in the show is this: that beauty, as such, is rarely an end unto itself, and that from the conflicted process of mining beauty in a realm of aftermath, there is ever the possibility that a nuance more profound than anything planned or imagined might issue forth. If the works of Sim and others confer a witnessing presence upon the landscape, it is not just an aesthetic feat that gives the viewer the feeling of being seen. It is also an indirect, though unmistakable, way of deepening within each viewer an awareness of his or her own role in the obscure process of what gets “seen,” and what remains invisible.
For its part, Sheila Pree Bright’s project Invisible Empire (2019–21) is a meditative landscape portrait of Georgia’s Stone Mountain Park—what Bright calls an exposed granite “monument to the Confederacy.”13 Though best known for her portraiture, in Invisible Empire, Bright chose “to photograph this landscape in order to show the root of racism in America and to explore the famous Southern symbol.”14 In Bright’s image, Cotton (2019), part of the Invisible Empire series, a poignant instantiation of the invisible within the visible is provided. In the photograph, the viewer confronts a richly adumbrated interior, with a table in the foreground, likely a kitchen table, and the back of a chair being visible. Within the shallow focus of the tabletop sit a few plates and cups, a couple of forks, a knife, and a small but visually arresting cotton flower. The eyes must calibrate to subtle changes in tone and focus in order to distinguish these objects, surrounded as they are by a rich, soft darkness that occupies most of the frame. The cotton flower, a soft, luminous white object, and its presence within the exceedingly dark interior, together begin to evoke what remains invisible, though undeniable, to the viewer. That the inspiration for the series came to Bright in the form of a W. E. B. Du Bois essay titled “Georgia: Invisible State” anchors what is felt here to an immense American gravity, hiding in plain view, within this and other sites of aftermath.15
In aesthetic terms, contemplating the collected photographic works featured in Devour the Land takes on something of an inverse sublime quality. Rather than a Romantic response to the unfathomable scale and phenomena of the natural world, the felt abyss here discloses a more malingering kind of beauty—a beauty hammered into existence by institutions ostensibly acting on the will of the American people. Not for the faint of heart, the immense visual power generated from the cumulative stillness of Devour the Land’s works, once seen, refuses to be stilled. Although unsettling, perhaps mirroring the photographers themselves, the viewer’s disturbed equilibrium turns out to be contingently salutary, as it confirms that the entreaty issuing from the works—to promote the active assertion of agency—has reached its intended target in the viewer.
Being “moved,” in the case of Devour the Land, means at the very least the intuiting of, if not the literal experience of, unspeakable pain. There is something mysterious at work here: in most cases, while the pain gets projected geographically (that is, in the framed absence of human subjects), the viewer’s empathy is neither speculative nor elective. The images do their work on viewers viscerally. Take Emmet Gowin’s Subsidence Craters on Yucca Flat, Nevada Test Site from 1997. At about fourteen inches square, the print’s scale invites the viewer’s intimate perusal, and whether they understand what causes subsidence craters hardly matters: there is a deep, sinking feeling that wells up within. The fact that underground nuclear explosions produce these depressions makes the isometry of this felt transfer especially uncanny. Furthermore, while it’s clear that the scene was captured from the sky above the Nevada Test Site, the craters resemble ruts or even puddles, so perception of scale oscillates between aerial and terrestrial frames of reference. Another reason for the sinking feeling: the implicit role of the citizenry. As Best states, “the forensic mode excavates a long history of militarized actions at these sites and beyond that implicate the viewer and taxpayer.”16
If Gowin captures the aftermath of nuclear testing indexically, and from an aerial perspective, Richard Misrach’s iconic photograph, Destroyed Vehicle with Active Eagle’s Nest, Bravo 20 Bombing Range, Nevada (1986), explores similar terrain intimately and poetically. Destroyed Vehicle’s placement in the fourth section of the show, Regeneration, intensified the image’s already potent, compact, and visually aphoristic quality. Taken together, the six sections of the show provided a sequential yet nonlinear juxtaposition of works. In the case of Misrach’s image, attention to juxtaposition takes center stage, focusing as it does on three symbolic elements: bombing site/destroyed vehicle/eagle’s nest. And the added referent of regeneration assists the three elements in moving beyond their figuration as simple tropes. The element that symbolizes adaptation and survival, the eagle’s nest, also makes a visceral connection within the viewer. While each of us seeks renewal through shared, chronological time, simultaneously we seek renewal within ourselves, in the interval of each passing breath. Likewise, while the totality of human-caused environmental damage might seem impossible to address on an individual basis, in poetry, each “nest” becomes a potential locus of universality.
The show’s placement at Harvard, one of the world’s premier institutions of higher learning, clearly informed Best’s twin emphasis on art and pedagogy. More than presenting each individual work, or series, as an isolated end product, Devour The Land instead highlighted works, and artists, that seek common cause well beyond themselves. In elucidating her motivations as curator, Best takes care to acknowledge that the show’s dual emphasis rests squarely within the legacy of Harvard Art Museums, a legacy that speaks “to the teaching collection as a mirror for society’s evolving social and artistic concerns, and to its unique potential to promote critical visual literacy within the university and beyond.”17 The show’s twin emphasis on art and pedagogy, as evident in the didactics within the gallery, becomes especially clear in the context of the show’s catalog. Beyond the works, in crafting more multivalent chronicle than conventional catalog for Devour the Land, one thing is abundantly clear: Best managed to recalibrate the very notion of historical context. Part of what makes Devour the Land’s catalog arresting is its multidimensional approach, interleaving brilliant essays (by Best, Steven Hoelscher, Abrahm Lustgarten, Courtney J. Martin, Katherine Mintie, and Will Wilson) with excerpts of interviews with participating artists, high-resolution color reproductions of the seminal works, reproductions of historical ephemera (including a vitrine filled with personal effects belonging to Misrach), and a timeline noting key turning points in the national arc of legislation, policy, oversight, activism, outreach, publications, and events since 1970. The catalog is also bookended by two exquisite works by poet Ed Roberson, including the lines “The gnomon, pointer / of sun, staked in the crown of earth’s curve, / falls down its side in rotation; the time bleeds.”18 There is more than enough illumination here, for scholars and newcomers alike, to enable Devour the Land to meet any viewer halfway.
Without a doubt, this diverse emphasis exemplifies the importance of the catalog as an extension of the art, but also shows the artfulness of the catalog. More than simply a textual, illustrative companion to the exhibition, Devour the Land’s catalog provides viewers with a set of useful aids that help elucidate the elaborate web of forces subtending the show’s imagery. To that end, viewers are called upon to cultivate a firmer, more nuanced understanding of the relationship between the historical stewardship and degradation of the American terrain, the rendering of these progressive transformations in photographic terms, and the essential, implicit role each viewer plays at every stage along the way.
George Santayana, The Sense of Beauty: Being the Outline of Aesthetic Theory (New York: Dover Publications, 1955), 85.
Veronique M. Foti, Vision’s Invisibles: Philosophical Explorations (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003): 1.
Makeda Best, ed., Devour the Land: War and American Landscape Photography since 1970 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Art Museums, 2021), 4.
Best, Devour the Land, 3.
Best, Devour the Land, 3.
Best, Devour the Land, 30.
Best, Devour the Land, 4.
Best, Devour the Land, 3.
Best, Devour the Land, vii.
Best, Devour the Land, 49.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (New York: Vintage Books, 1966), 89.
Best, Devour the Land, 30.
Best, Devour the Land, I-27.
Best, Devour the Land, I-27.
Best, Devour the Land, I-28.
Best, Devour The Land, 49.
Best, Devour the Land, ix.
Best, Devour the Land, inside front cover.