PROVIDENCE — America has always been different from most countries. It’s so much bigger, wilder, more varied, and that much harder to comprehend. You “cannot discover America by counting,” Robert Lowell wrote. Assuming that Columbus didn’t retire the possibility of discovery, maybe the camera is as close as we can come to an effective tool. What the dynastic chronicler once was in the Old World, the landscape photographer was (and still is?) in the New: the provider of an introduction to national particularity and distillation of majesty. A portfolio of Timothy O’Sullivan’s work or Ansel Adams’s is our latter-day, democratic equivalent of the chronicles of Holinshed or Froissart.
O'Sullivan and Adams are among the many photographers whose work figures in “America in View: Landscape Photography Since 1865 to Now.” It runs at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art through Jan. 13. There are some 150 photographs in the show. Most come from the museum’s permanent collection. A few are famous, such as O’Sullivan’s view of Canyon de Chelly, Arthur Rothstein’s Depression-era icon, “Father and Son Walking in the Face of a Dust Storm,” or Berenice Abbott’s “New York at Night.” Others are little known. The delicacy of hues in an early-20th-century Autochrome by Christopher Grant La Farge, son of the painter John La Farge, is a revelation. Even when the photographer is well known, the image may not be — a Brett Weston picture of the Brooklyn Bridge, say, or a Harry Callahan view of Cape Cod.
Note that the Rothstein is centered on two people and both the Abbott and Weston are cityscapes. The approach that guides “America in View” is most famously stated by William Blake, “Where man is not nature is barren.” The show does not strictly construe “landscape,” nor should it. Taken simply as a study in the variation of angle and volume, the anonymous 1900 panoramic view of downtown Providence included here is as striking, and strikingly American, as an Adams rendering of the Sierra Nevada.
This emphasis on landscape as the relationship between man and nature makes sense in and of itself. A landscape photograph can’t exist without a camera and a person to work it plopped down, however briefly (or not), amid the pictured forest or peaks. But there’s an additional reason for this emphasis. “America in View” originated with a gift of photographs from the late Joe Deal and his wife, Betsy Ruppa. Deal taught at RISD and served as its provost.
The show includes 20 of his photographs. He was a member of the New Topographics school of landscape photography, which transformed the field in the 1970s. Other members included Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, Frank Gohlke, Henry Wessel, and Lewis Baltz, all of whom have work in the show. Their focus was on “a man-altered landscape,” as the subtitle of the 1975 “New Topographics” show put it.
Baltz stated the focus more pungently: “landscape-as-real-estate.”
At some point between the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” in 1962, and the end of annual publication of “The Whole Earth Catalog,” in 1972, “nature” became “the environment.” New Topographics reflected that change. The forthright sublimity of an Ansel Adams landscape is nowhere evident from Gohlke’s “Near Crawley, Texas” or Baltz’s “Model Home, Shadow Mountain.” But the former has a sense of sweep and a visual tension between house and plain, and the latter a quality of mystery and a tension between house and mountainous backdrop, no less powerful than Adams at his most exalted.
To be sure, exaltation can be found here — though often subversively so. Laura Mc-Phee’s image of smoke billowing from an Idaho wildfire is stunning, as is the sere lucidity of Richard Misrach’s “Battleground Point #20” or crystalline splendor of Edward Burtynsky’s large-scale rendering of a Vermont quarry. But just as “America in View” refuses to divorce man from nature, neither does it exclude less-exalted interpretations of the natural world. William H. Bell’s “Perched Rock, Rocker Creek, Arizona” possesses a deadpan comedy worthy of Buster Keaton. One more click of the shutter, perhaps, and that precariously poised stone just might tumble. (For that matter, in its visual neutrality and self-aware blankness, “Perched Rock” could be a New Topographics precursor.) The title of Laura Gilpin’s “Footprints in the Sand” summarizes what the photograph shows, a man walking in the desert and the evidence he leaves behind. It also conveys the irony of humankind’s supposed superiority to the natural world he traverses (we all know the fate of sandy footprints). As for Millee Tibbs’s “Self-Portrait in the Fog,” it really puts our species in its place: The fog obscures any human presence. That’s a funny joke. Even better, the title designates a lovely picture.