Landscape as Photograph : by Estelle Jussim and Elizabeth Lindquist-Cock (Yale: $35; 168 pp.)

Photographers have seen American land aspire to heavenly status, level off in bleakness and descend into pits of commercial development. They have focused on the country's mountain peaks and construction runoffs, cornfields and deserts, billboards and roadside stands, as they pictured breathtaking wilderness, civilization's pockmarks and surreal collages of popular culture.

Early explorers--sent out with their cameras on government expeditions--have preserved the unimaginable grandeur and limitless promise of the land that stretched before them. Jaded contemporary photographers have symbolized the failure of humankind to live up to that prospect in pictures of soul-destroying company towns or crumpled beer cans bearing the likeness of native Americans. As if looking weren't enough to capture the feel of America's sporadically empty and impacted spaces, photographers also have made pictorial equivalents to music--hearing the land as everything from Ansel Adams' Wagnerian symphonies to cowboy ballads and lonesome-road whistles.

So pervasive is landscape and so varied its appearance in the annals of American photography that even when it falls out of fashion, the genre persists and soon returns to prominence, recycled by a new generation of artists. Little wonder, then, that a slim historical review of American landscape photography, from the 1840s to the present, falls short of surveying the territory. Little pity, too, for the literature is more in need of fresh insights than of encyclopedic listings.

Estelle Jussim and Elizabeth Lindquist-Cock have only a little broom at their disposal as they sweep a few dozen pictures by about 50 artists into piles called "Artistic Genre," "God," "Fact," "Symbol," "Pure Form," "Popular Culture," "Concept" and "Politics and Propaganda," then sift through them in search of meanings.

The authors are slow, thoughtful, even poetic inquisitors, sometimes meandering but never plodding. The most serious flaw in their mode of operation is that it produces a tentative tone. They provide so many more questions than answers that they seem uncertain and occasionally ingenuous. Their denials of value judgment and whole paragraphs of rhetorical questions often leave the reader feeling deserted.

Still, if the two women had done nothing more than speak up against the current clamor of anti-aesthetic photography criticism they would have performed a service. That they also have examined such issues as the conventional wisdom about pictorialism, women's entrance into a man's field and landscape photography's artistic and philosophical context makes the contribution significant.

Looking at landscape as a "construct of the 'real' world and as an artifact communicating ideologies about it," Jussim and Lindquist-Cock venture into "assigned meanings" with full assurance that they will never exhaust the subject. And arguing that human interpretation governs meaning, they allow for conflicting readings of the same picture.

In the chapter on "Landscape as God," we're soon asked, "Which God?" In "Landscape as Fact," we're told, "A photograph is as much an act of interpretation as it is an artifact" and advised to observe who's doing the looking before we assess meaning. "What determines the 'fact' of a photograph is the use to which it is put."

Furthermore, the authors say, people confronted with political or propagandistic pictures use them to confirm already formed opinions and simply refuse to look at upsetting images. Grappling with interpretation is no way to establish a concise thesis about landscape photography, but it is an honest and provocative approach to an enormously complex body of photographic material.

Jussim and Lindquist-Cock initially stake out their turf by distinguishing between Nature as a primordial force and nature as particular manifestations of flora and fauna. It's a start but ultimately not expansive enough to allow for Jack Wellpot's amusing picture of a truck with a landscape painted on its side, in an attempt to make it invisible, or for Roger Minick's view of a Holiday Inn sign, taken from his car.

The pure view of landscape as wondrous temple, or even as wholesome breadbasket, finally has to accommodate roadsides cluttered with kitsch and land as fodder for conceptual artists. That's all right with Jussim and Lindquist-Cock, who convince us that the truth about landscape photography isn't allied with any one of the ideologies between these covers but with the panorama of all of them.

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