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by Mario Cutajar

Macduff Everton, “El Capitan
in Snow and Mist, El Capitan,
California,” photograph, 1991.

Macduff Everton, "Dawn, Bright Angel Point,
North Rim, Grand Canyon," photograph, 1996.

Macduff Everton, “Snow and Low Cloud,
Crater Lake, Oregon,” photograph, 1999.

(Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara) Photography's relationship to landscape, as to all of its subjects, is highly ambivalent, the medium's power to idealize being equal and inseparable from its power to degrade. The moment captured by the photograph lives on forever as a disembodied ghost, growing ever more sepulchral and sublime with the passage of time. The essence of the sublime is the removal of the sublime object from the mundane and the corporeal. Photography's mere act of framing and excising its subject from the whole cloth of experience is sufficient to effect this removal and transform the ubiquitous into the iconic. But the very ease with which photography removes things from their context, the way it strip-mines reality and makes it available for our effortless visual consumption, also has the effect of devaluing the extraordinary.

This power of photography to make the world submit to our capricious and shallow curiosity parallels the way technology has "opened up" the world to us by demolishing its resistance to our rapacious enjoyment of it. When it comes to capturing (a word that also implies taming) landscape, photography completely inverts the real relationship between subject and viewer: The all-encompassing landscape itself becomes encompassed. Vast, incommensurate spaces become framed images enclosed within the artificial space of the gallery or the page of a magazine, while the otherwise insignificant observer assumes the role of creator, dispensing the world to us as a manmade composition.

Like all magical or pseudo-magical powers, this ability of photography to summarily reduce reality to image comes at a price. Thanks to it, all our encounters with nature tend to be poisoned by the vague feeling that we've seen it before. By making the sublime commonplace, photography has rendered the authentic experience of the sublime quite rare. As a consequence, photographers such as Lewis Baltz and Roger Minick, who dwell on the physical and metaphysical degradation of landscape, seem to produce a truer account of our contemporary relationship with the natural world than latter-day transcendentalists following in the footsteps of the Hudson River School and Ansel Adams.

MacDuff Everton and David Muench, 80 of whose photographs are on display here, belong in the latter camp. Their peregrinations through the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado Plateau, the Cascade Range, Alaska, and California keep each of them on the road more than six months out of the year. They shoot in color, their compositions are formally exacting and bold, and their focus is unabashedly on nature's grander moments and vistas.

There are subtle differences in the way the two photographers frame their subject matter: Everton uses the panoramic format and masterfully exploits its ability to stratify distances, colors, light, and shadow into abstract bands; Muench sets up disjunctions between the near and the distant that are in tension with the visual affinities that link things like gypsum dunes and the wispy white clouds in the sky. Where they come together is in their common adherence to romantic nature worship. Images such as Everton's apocalyptic Approaching Rain Storm, Wupatki National Monument, Arizona, in which a slate-gray cloudburst descends on the desert like fallout from a doomsday weapon, and Muench's Sandstone Wave, Paria/Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Utah, in which the striations and undulations of the fiery rock seem to mimic the violence of the waters that have scoured it over the ages, do indeed communicate awe in the face of the elemental.

But the effect of these images is the exact opposite of cumulative. The more you see of them, the greater the impression they leave that nature is a show staged for our amusement, the vastness of the spaces they illustrate belied by the seeming ease with which these prolific photographers traverse them. The phenomenal beauty of Everton's and Muench's photographs is both their triumph and their undoing. It's a beauty that arrests attention only to disclose the inadequacy of looking at landscape without acknowledging man as one of the blind and powerful forces that shape it.

David Muench, “Avalanche
Creek Gorge, Glacier Montana,”
photograph, 24 x 20”, 1999.

David Muench, "Ancient Bristlecone
Pines, White Mountains, California,"
photograph, 24 x 20”, 1987.

David Muench, “Evening
Storm, Hovenweep, Colorado,"
photograph, 24 x 20”, 1985.