- The Eye is A Door: Landscape, Photography, and the Art of Discovery by Anne Whiston Spirn
By Anne Whiston Spirn. 2014. Cambridge, MA: Wolf Tree Press. $ 4.99 Kindle format, e- ISBN: 978- 1-941642-00-9
Anne Whiston Spirn’s e- book, The Eye is a Door, argues for a visual approach to understanding landscape. The marriage between photography and landscape architecture of course is not new. Olmsted made wide use of the photographic medium to document the pre and post conditions of many of his designed landscapes. William H. Whyte used photography as an investigative medium, employing a time- lapse photographic method to gather abstract and generalizable evidence of people’s interactions with urban landscapes and plazas. Dorothea Lange—one of Spirn’s sources of inspirations—is one of many documentary photographers who worked for the federal government and urban renewal agencies to support their vision of change. During the second half of the 20th century, University of California/Berkeley professor William Garnett captured through aerial photography the fast- moving development machine as it transformed the pristine California landscape into an extensive suburban fabric (Lange and Partridge 1994; Garnett and Sandweiss 1994). Anne Spirn’s [End Page 101] work continues this long tradition, but uses pictures to inform, inspire, and trigger in designers a deeper understanding of ecological, socio- cultural, and economic processes and their effect on the landscape. These pictures appear as pairs in a photographic essay that opens the book and another that concludes the book. This pair strategy is inspired by Dorothea Lange’s documentary work, used here in a dialogic exchange about the language, syntax, and meanings of the landscape (pp. 108–109). While these pictures are photographic masterpieces in their own right, it is through Spirn’s masterful storytelling that their true power is revealed, communicated, and passed on to the reader/viewer.
Spirn uses the powerful metaphor of the door to suggest a shift in paradigm from photography as a window, which was a distant view of the landscape towards photography as a way of experiencing the phenomenology of the landscape. Using a writing style reminiscent of a personal journal, she shares with the reader her experiences as a photographer, landscape architect, and academic both looking at and being in the world through the camera lens. Her narrative becomes a thick description of her personal epistemology, which includes her search for inspiration in the work of other photographers, her working process, choice of subjects, techniques for capturing ideal lighting conditions, and ways of making “design” sense of the information gathered. She then lays out her own approach and argues for its pedagogical and research values to landscape architecture and design practice.
The book narrative is organized into eight essays. The first, “Photography and the Art of Visual Thinking” outlines a brief history of photography, which is often regarded as an art at the service of science, a means for recording and cataloguing phenomena later to be analyzed for patterns, anomalies or breaks in unity. Yet, regardless of what or how photographers may have approached the task, Spirn argues, all photographers one way or another engage in visual argumentation by selecting, contrasting, distorting, or calling attention to particular moments of delight, drama, and or socio- economic and cultural impacts on the landscape.
“The Craft the Subject Demands” focuses on the tools of the craft, tracing the technological evolution of landscape photography and its influence on the field. It is the camera itself, with its size, weight, and bulkiness to frame and limit possibilities. Spirn reminds us that much of the monumentality of the characters depicted in Dorothea Lange’s pictures was due to the weight and design of her Rolleiflex camera, which needed to be looked at from above, as she walked toward the subject (p.55).
The recent technological shift from film to digital photography opens up opportunities, but also limits the choices available to any photographer. Yet the precision and universal accessibility of digital photography, Spirn notes, do not necessarily translate into better photography. At the foundation of good photography is an ability...