There is an image I like to show my environmental history classes at the beginning of every semester. It acts as a sort of litmus test to gauge their attitudes towards the subject matter we will spend the next fifteen weeks examining: human interaction with the natural world.
George Innes’ 1856 painting The Lackawanna Valley [above] depicts a pastoral scene with a lone figure lounging in the foreground, gazing at a relatively innocuous roundhouse and railroad in the middle distance. The railroad’s innocuousness is questioned, however, by a nearby stand of trees that have been reduced to stumps—presumably to provide material for the railroad. Whether my students see sublimity, nostalgia, pro-industrial boosterism or a lament for destroyed nature tells me a lot about where we are beginning our journey.
In 1964, cultural historian Leo Marx famously described the artistic depiction of the tension between the pastoral ideal and technological innovation as “the middle landscape.” In Marx’s definition, the middle landscape was a “new, distinctly American, post-romantic, industrial version of the pastoral design.”
This series builds on Marx’s assessment and pushes it to its extreme. Capturing graphic and clean scenes of the “natural” world, I create a calm space for the viewer to enter. Yet by placing the focal point—sometimes banal, other times more sinister—in both the middle of the scene and in the middle distance, I ask the viewer to take the place of the lounging figure in Innes’ painting and contemplate his relationship to his surroundings.
Editors’ Note: David Bernstein is a member of the LensCulture Network, a recent initiative we launched with the idea of offering talented, accomplished photographers a place to showcase their work on a global stage while also giving them a place to share, learn and engage with one another. The LensCulture Network began with a small number of hand-picked members, and we are very excited to watch it grow and evolve.
If you enjoyed this article, you might like one of these other features: The Stateless, Placeless Desert, a series on the relationship between body and home for Iranian refugees; Überblick: California Skies, a three-part series that turns man’s impact on the landscape into sweeping, poetic vistas; and Belgopolis, a reincarnation of the familiar terrain that surrounds us.