It’s been a long time since we’ve needed to leave our homes to explore the world. Longer still since ‘Explorer’ has been a valid occupation. We’ve mapped the Earth down to its dirt. The internet is our vessel now. We can ‘go’ anywhere, ‘see’ anyplace. For travels through American landscapes, we’ve swapped the once-required horse-driven wagon and months of dangerous journey for a few keystrokes on our computers; a flick of the wrist, really.
In order to voyage through Brea Souders’ Vistas, we must first understand how her pictures were made. The artist culls anonymous shadow selfies from 360-degree photographs of U.S. national parks found on Google. The image-stitching algorithms, as magnificent a technology as they are, have difficulty in knowing how to handle the shadows left on the ground by camera operators, leaving fragmented artifacts of human presence amid their techno-mediated views of the natural world. Souders takes these views, prints them, and applies watercolors to form resemblances of hand-colored travel postcards of an older time.
What results is a kind of picture that nimbly enters into numerous conversations old and new. In the history of Western art, the landscape picture is something of a vessel that carries within it the cultural and social values of its maker’s time. During the Renaissance, landscape rendering was cloaked in biblical narrative, a foil upon which depictions of mythology could perform. As the world moved toward the modern era, the landscape picture went through its own phases of romanticism, realism, impressionism, cubism, following along in the changes of its larger social contexts.
The lines of artistic tradition and definition in our current age are no longer so cleanly delineated. We live in a world of fragmentation, speed, and mass plurality of cultural expression. While the changes of physical land are measured in ages and eons, the changes to how we represent land now shift from second to second. It moves in all directions all at once, and in unpredictable ways. Landscape is a mirror for reflections of the day; reflections that are mired in ever-complicating social, ecological, and technological conditions. So the question comes now of what Souders’ Vistas carry within their frames.
The perspectival space in Souders’ images places our viewing of these fragmented figures as sights of our own shadows. From one picture to the next we enter into these spaces and take part in the artist’s game of association. In one scene we might be a cowboy. In another, a Victorian gentlewoman. We become adventurers and explorers, but we also become angels and demons, and sometimes outright monstrosities. There is a primitive signature in these grounded silhouettes, like contemporary cave drawings stamped onto ground and left as evidence for our speculation. The pictures illustrate evidence of their own makings, shadows of their original authors out in the natural world. But when we look at these pictures, we inevitably see ourselves, costumed, performing, taking on fantastical identities rooted in archetypal imagination.
Souders’ hand-coloring recalls a form of photography born in the late 19th century that had a particular ambition to circumvent the natural limitations of B&W’s illusion of reality. Color makes photographs more real, more present, and more in and of our world. In the context of Souders’ work, it’s only ironic that our growing dependence and assimilation into virtual space brings us further from the natural world, turning Vistas into a tug-of-war between what we once were as humans, and what we are now. Photography has changed us, the internet is changing us. And Souders’ work helps to illustrate just how so.
Within the simple structure of Souders’ pictures, there lie countless threads to untangle. Though beyond interpretation, what might be more valuable is to consider the various questions that Vistas poses to us:
Where are we now positioned in relation to the old traditions of American landscape photography? What was asked of landscape photographs in the 19th century, and what is asked of them today? How are we ourselves positioned in relation to the world within the omnipotent virtual realm? How has our relationship to the natural world changed in the last one-hundred and fifty years, or in the past five years for that matter? What ancient stories can we still connect to? What aspects of us, as humans, can never change? As wireless technology has placed all the world’s knowledge within the air that we breathe, what has this condition done to our curiosity, our imagination? Who are we on the internet, and what is the nature of an identity that becomes networked, fragmented across platforms, monitored, and mined for information? And how much further will we venture into the virtual world? What frontiers are left to explore in a digitized reality, and what will we leave behind in this journey?
Our photographic age is changing rapidly, excitingly even, and as technological shifts have churned us into a consistent state of upheaval, past photographic traditions must adapt rapidly to keep pace. Brea Souders’ Vistas represents a new kind of American landscape photograph, and a necessary one. Her pictures acknowledge the past if only to better consider the present. We don’t need more photographic documents of the landscape; it’s all been mapped and accounted for. What we need in this moment are thoughtfully considered reflections of what the land is now, and how our relationships to it are changing. The subject of Souders’ pictures is us. Me and you now staring into our screens, maybe wishing we were someplace else.