CAMBRIDGE — “Devour the Land: War and American Landscape Photography Since 1970″ is an ambitious and bewildering show that runs at the Harvard Art Museums through Jan. 16. The ambition is impressive and intentional. Presumably, the bewilderment the show produces is neither.
“Devour” consists of some 160 photographs, from 60 photographers. It also includes several display cases with ephemera: letters, drawings, artists’ books, even a piece of shrapnel. That’s an extensive exhibition. It’s even more extensive conceptually.
“The photographers featured in ‘Devour the Land,’ portray the consequences of military activity on American soil,” a wall text reads, and “their work prompts questions about public oversight, land use and management, human rights, the rights of government, the ethics of technology, and the function of photography as art and as document.”
“Military activity” is not construed narrowly. The show also touches upon racism, economic inequality, climate change, immigration, and incarceration. (One of the most arresting images is from Stephen Tourlentes, of the Nevada Death House Prison.) The earnestness of the show is unquestioned. Its coherence is not.
An exhibition that begins with several Civil War photographs — “Devour the Land” takes its title from a remark by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman — jumps ahead to the 1950s and ‘60s, then focuses on the past half century for a righteous, and relentless, tallying of failures of recent and contemporary US society.
There are many striking images. Will Wilson’s “Auto Immune Response: Confluence of Three Generations” shows the photographer, his daughter, and mother on the edge of the Grand Canyon under threatening skies. They are members of the Navajo, or Diné, tribe. Father and daughter wear gas masks, an allusion to the uranium on Navajo land whose mining the tribe has sought to prevent. The image is spectacular, turbulent, menacing.
It’s hard to imagine a more compact expression of the fundamental theme of “Devour the Land” — the impact on daily life of state-sponsored or -enabled violence — than the title of one of the six photographs in the show by Richard Misrach. He took “School Bus Target” in 1986 in the Bravo 20 bombing range, in Nevada. Seeing so homely and familiar an item as that yellow vehicle in a context of directed destruction is dizzying.
Some 400 miles away from Bravo 20 is the Nevada Test Site. Sim Chi Yin’s photograph shows a slice of it suffused with blue. It’s like a still from a western auditioning to be a horror movie.
The Misrach and Sim are in color. The 14 examples from Barbara Norfleet’s series “The Landscape of the Cold War” (1988-91) are in black and white. That her renderings of the Trinity site and abandoned military bases are visually subdued adds to their effectiveness. So does her having written caption information in cursive on each picture’s matte. The juxtaposition of something visibly personal with such impersonal subject matter makes the photographs that much more compelling.
It’s good to see Norfleet having so prominent a place in so prominent a show. Now 95, she taught at Harvard for many years and was curator of the photography collection at the university’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. Norfleet not only had a great and highly beneficial effect on photography at Harvard. Her championing of vernacular photography helped change how the medium is understood.
A further virtue of the Norfleet photographs is the sense of dislocation they offer: They don’t necessarily declare outright the nature of what’s being shown. They’re a reminder that devouring the land can be even more pernicious when it takes the form of infiltration rather than frontal assault.
There’s no confusion about what Per Brandin is showing in “Brookhaven National Lab, Control Room, Nuclear Reactor.” It has the spooky-techno splendor of the war room in “Doctor Strangelove.” One look, and you know why it’s in the show.
That’s not the case with another Brandin picture, of a guard at Brookhaven. Without a caption you wouldn’t know where he works. He could be a guard at a bank or a warehouse — or an Ivy League university. Is the implication that working at Brookhaven is dehumanizing? Or that he’s complicit in what’s going on there? Complicity is the word, since a clear implication of including the photograph is that there’s something wrong with nuclear power (the lab is run by the US Department of Energy, not the Pentagon). That view is widely held. Yet others see nuclear power as unavoidable in addressing climate change. Is there a debate to be had here? If so, it’s not to be found in the prosecutorial template the show adheres to.
Are the men and woman seen in Robert Frank’s “Assembly Line — Detroit,” circa 1955, working on armaments? The label doesn’t say. If not, does just the act of working in a factory make them “military-adjacent” (a term used in a different wall text)? Does their being racially integrated matter? What is the relationship between class and race? Is there one?
What about Mark Goodman’s “Untitled (young man in a military jacket)”? The jacket looks like the uniform of a West Point cadet. How does his wearing such a jacket have a different meaning from wearing, say, a baseball jacket? Does his doing so signify the perniciousness of military influence in US society? Or maybe he just thought it looked kind of cool. Does the young man’s being Black matter one way or the other?
Such questions may seem distracting, or even silly, but these photographs’ inclusion in the show makes them pertinent. Maybe the fundamental source of that bewilderment noted at the beginning of this review is how “Devour the Land” consists almost solely of declarative sentences. In a larger sense, yes, US society is being questioned, and that’s never a bad thing. But the show doesn’t question itself. Interrogatives need to be supplied by the museumgoer. “Devour the Land” wants museumgoers to feel — anger, disgust, moral superiority — rather than think. Or, rather, they’re meant to think a certain way, the answers having already been supplied by those statements.
The appeal of a declarative sentence is that it narrows and simplifies. It directs. “This is this, that is that.” Interrogatives widen and complicate, not least of all because they require answers. Answers contextualize — and, ideally, lead to further questions.
Return to the title. “We have devoured the land,” Sherman said, describing his inflicting on Georgia what would become known in the 20th century as total war, spreading a swathe of destruction from Atlanta to Savannah. This was the March to the Sea — or “infamous” March to the Sea, as an introductory wall text calls it.
That modifier offers a useful insight into “Devour the Land.” For decades it was infamous in Georgia, and much of the old Deep South. But not elsewhere. It was celebrated. What Sherman did was horrific. He knew it was horrific. (This was the man whose most famous statement was “War is hell.”) He ordered the ruthless despoliation of that portion of Georgia anyway, so as to ensure the defeat of the Confederacy, as the wall text goes on to acknowledge. He succeeded. “Infamous” as the March to the Sea may seem to us in a more environmentally alert age, it was being used to oppose something even more infamous.
To construct any sort of moral calculus as regards such matters is fruitless as well as odious. But it’s not pointless. To ignore the relationship between means and ends is asinine and even more odious. “Devour the Land” is a memorable title. Part of its effectiveness isn’t just its rhetorical power, which is considerable, but the degree of complexity it conveys. The show bearing its name largely ignores that complexity.
A telling example comes early on, with a reference to Dwight Eisenhower’s coining the term “military-industrial complex,” in his 1961 farewell address. The wall text reads: “in the decades that followed, the branches of the nation’s armed forces, along with the associated network of private and commercial institutions involved in the production of weapons and military technologies, expanded exponentially.”
Specificity is the glory and wonder of photography. Comparable specificity would be welcome here. In 1961, the number of active US military personnel was 2,483,771. As of last June, it was 1,346,400. This isn’t expansion. Furthermore, insofar as the US population in 1961 was 184 million people, and in 2020 it was 331 million, the shrinkage was far more considerable (anti-exponential?) than these figures might indicate. Even more telling, US military spending as a percentage of gross domestic product in 1961 was 9.16 percent. In 2020, it was 3.7 percent.
It feels strange to stick up for the Pentagon and that large portion of corporate America which profits off of weaponry (don’t expect to see any buses leaving the Raytheon parking lot for field trips to “Devour the Earth”). It feels even stranger to do so in the context of a museum exhibition. Statistics belong in a position paper, not an art review. But “Devour the Land” is an unusual show: not just in scope and ambition but also in being inherently polemical. Being polemical isn’t necessarily bad. That’s especially so if the polemic is directed against war and environmental depredation and injustice — and when you have art that backs it up, as “Devour the Land” often does. But it becomes bad when outrage and dismissal are made to do the work of reason and argument. That badness is exacerbated when the museum is a teaching institution.
Another wall text informs museumgoers that “contemporary photographers continue to grapple with how to negotiate militarist narratives, conventions of landscape and documentary photography, and the aesthetics of disaster.” It’s certainly true that “militarist narratives” are notorious for ignoring facts in favor of emotion and rhetoric. Apparently, anti-militarist narratives are, too. Art with politics can be greater art or lesser art. Either way, it remains art. Polemic without intellectual rigor is a form of moral self-congratulation.
DEVOUR THE LAND: War and American Landscape Photography since 1970
At Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge, through Jan. 16. 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.