A Sense of Place

In this age of transient lifestyles, who hasn’t been asked, “Where are you from?” Where we were raised and where we live are central to our sense of identity. And identity is at the core of the art we create, be it painting, sculpture or photography. Sometimes the place itself is the subject matter, as in landscape photography. Sometimes it’s the essence of the place that is the actual subject of a photo, as with conceptual photography. Even still life photography will frequently draw subject matter from the local environment, giving us a sense of place.

The places we know have changed through the years. Our childhood home has been remodeled or the subdivision has been enlarged. Countries have come and gone. Rainforests have been decimated and because of economic pressures, middle class citizens make homes in tents. Cyberspace has dissolved boundaries so the world is in our living room. The sands of a far-off desert become an unlikely host to a futuristic city. And we watch the world unfold. And it affects our expression.

Atlantic Wall by Jetelova
Atlantic Wall by Jetelova

All of these places mean something to us. Whether it be personal or public, when we learn that something has occurred in a place, that event has changed our perception of that place. Within World War II, there were monumental changes across many countries. Magdalena Jetelová created a show called Atlantic Wall in which she photographed her conceptual work along the coastline of Jutland. The Nazis built bunkers between 1942 and 1943 from Norway to Spain. Jetelová projected phrases from Paul Virilio’s book Bunker Archaeology onto the ruins with laser lights. These were not performance pieces. The photographs are the only record. They are a stark reminder of the physical change that was created along an otherwise romantic seacoast, and the emotional outcome of that change.

Chicago Board of Trade by Gursky
Chicago Board of Trade by Gursky

In contemporary photography, less work is made of natural places, unless it is the encroachment of population upon those places. Andreas Gursky photographs on a huge scale. His work shows a place defined by people. Distanced from nature, his works overwhelm us with details and crowds. Ironically enough, the population is not observed on an individual level but as a single organism—the organism that created such a place.

Falke Mitchell Butte
Mitchell Butte by Falke

Even a sense of place that is based in nature is frequently less about wild places and more about our impact on such places. With a sense of humor, Terry Falke photographs the American Southwest. His project entitled Observations in an Occupied Wilderness makes a visual connection between the southwest’s beauty and the human presence. His love of this place is obvious. His photograph is poignant.

Finally, there is a place that doesn’t exist. This theme of place is created by the photographer. Diorama has been a form of expression for centuries. The creation allows the photographer to express and idealized view of place. Because of its long history, contemporary dioramas are really metaphors for an aspect of existence. We know the place is artificial so we seek the deeper meaning.

Untitled by Nkanga
from Alterscapes by Nkanga

Otobong Nkanga’s project Alterscapes of 2006 shows us the bare topography of her native Nigeria. She looms over the diorama, literally spilling waste over her homeland. It’s an obvious but powerful interpretation that relates back to Gursky’s human organism­—here affecting the place in a more literal sense.

No doubt our sense of place will change a lot in the coming years. Just as the New Topographics show exhibited expansion into the desert areas of our country, it’s likely  our grandchildren will witness its withering, as aquifers are depleted. Global warming will require our retirees to move inland as the seas rise and hurricanes become more prevalent. And global communication means that our neighbors may be continents away but the sense of place we share is right next door.

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