The Hudson River: A Great American Treasure
Photographed by Greg Miller, Foreword by Bill McKibben, Introduction by Ned Sullivan
$50.00 (US), $57.50 (CAN)
ISBN: 978-0-8478-3152-4 (0-8478-3152-3)
A selection of 18 photographs is on exhibition at the Rensselaerville Institute through May 31.
The Romantic Landscape: Photographs in the Tradition of the New York Hudson Valley Painters, by Stan Lichens, Introduction by Lois Guarino, Pomegranate Communications, 2004
You will find absolutely no scarcity of books about the Hudson River these days: guide books, history books, ecological books, picture books. My purpose here is to discuss two examples of the last category, Scenic Hudson’s panoramic Rizzoli volume with photographs by Greg Miller and Stanley Lichens’ intimate book of hand-colored black and white photographs. These are by no means the only photographic collections of the Hudson on the market, but they have come to my attention in their own ways, and they illustrate two radically different modes of seeing this familiar, but, as Henry James said, “perpetually interesting” river—especially interesting today, as its hard-won cleanup progresses, restoring somewhat the Hudson that James, and even earlier, proto-industrial visitors knew, if still a far cry from the Hudson of Washington Irving.
It is curious to note that photographs of the picturesque sort that we find in these books are a relatively recent phenomenon. Early photographers seemed disinclined to tackle the Hudson in the way Carlton Watkins explored Yosemite or Timothy H. O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson explored other parts of the American West, even though the Hudson was one of the earliest features of the American landscape to be discovered as a locus of transcendent beauty. It was likely the Hudson’s very fame and its celebration by the Hudson River School painters that discouraged photographers from attempting to compete with these consummately ambitious paintings, which were inherently about color. Their intense, strange palette, which some critics used to perceive as kitsch, was only a slight exaggeration of the tremendous atmospheric effects over the Hudson River Valley. A monochrome photograph, especially with the red-sensitive emulsions of those days, could record this only inadequately, although many of the inartistic commercial views of the river were hand-colored, just like the countless steel engravings and lithographs that were produced in their own debased romantic style, inconsistently showing their inspiration in the work of Cole and his followers. It has been noted that, when photographers did set to work on the Hudson, they adopted the picturesque viewpoints made famous by the artists, but they adhered to a more mundane, documentary aesthetic, often including human activity and industry in their scenes.
The Hudson was, in fact, not only a river of awesome beauty, but a busy aqueous thoroughfare where fortunes were to be made in manufacturing and transportation, and photographers did not always ignore that fact. It was also an easy and inexpensive tourist destination, accessible to most New Yorkers, not only the fabulously wealthy industrialists who had built palaces on the banks closer to the city and hunting lodges farther upstream in the Adirondacks. In the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries bank-tellers and shop-girls could take a day-trip by steamer up to Albany, enjoy the sights along the river, and either stay overnight in the capital or return by night, when the principle sights were illuminated by spotlight. It was the New Yorker’s ideal outing: no inconvenience, no country clothes, no hiking up mountainsides. One could wear one’s city suits and frocks according to whatever level of fashion one could afford—and not leave one’s urban concerns behind. Panoramic views and plans were published, which were practical and specific in nature. The riverbanks, mountains, and towns were shown in a straightforward, recognizable way, and labeled so that the day-trippers would have no trouble recognizing the sights. They would take these home as a memento—not as an imitation of the beauties they saw, but as a record.
This history already suggests some larger force at play in the experience of the Hudson, which defies the lens and emulsion. Henry James hints at it in his account of an eastbound train journey from Chicago, which took him through Albany. The lack of “accent” he writes of hints at the difficulties encountered by photographers looking for focal points in their compositions. The beauties of the Hudson are not of the El Capitan-Half Dome sort, and it takes a James, not a Watkins or an Adams, to capture it:
Letting that pass, at all events, I still remember that I was able to put, from the car-window, as many questions to the scene as it could have answered in the time even had its face been clearer to read.
Its face was veiled, for the most part, in a mist of premature spring heat, an atmosphere draping it indeed in luminous mystery, hanging it about with sun-shot silver and minimizing any happy detail, any element of the definite, from which the romantic effect might here and there have gained an accent. There was not an accent in the picture from the beginning of the run to Albany to the end–for which thank goodness! one is tempted to say on remembering how often, over the land in general, the accents are wrong. Yet if the romantic effect as we know it elsewhere mostly depends on them, why should that glamour have so shimmered before me in their absence?–how should the picture have managed to be a constant combination of felicities? Was it just because the felicities were all vaguenesses, and the “beauties,” even the most celebrated, all blurs?–was it perchance on that very account that I could meet my wonder so promptly with the inference that what I had in my eyes on so magnificent a scale was simply, was famously, “style”? I was landed by that conclusion in the odd further proposition that style could then exist without accents–a quandary soon after to be quenched, however, in the mere blinding radiance of a visit to West Point. I was to make that memorable pilgrimage a fortnight later–and I was to find my question, when it in fact took place, shivered by it to mere silver atoms. The very powers of the air seemed to have taken the case in hand and positively to have been interested in making it transcend all argument. Our Sunday of mid-May, wet and windy, let loose, over the vast stage, the whole procession of storm-effects; the raw green of wooded heights and hollows was only everywhere rain-brightened, the weather playing over it all day as with some great grey water-colour brush. The essential character of West Point and its native nobleness of position can have been but intensified, I think, by this artful process; yet what was mainly unmistakable was the fact again of the suppression of detail as in the positive interest of the grand style. One had therefore only to take detail as another name for accent, the accent that might prove compromising, in order to see it made good that style could do without them, and that the grand style in fact almost always must. How on this occasion the trick was played is more than I shall attempt to say; it is enough to have been conscious of our being, from hour to hour, literally bathed in that high element, with the very face of nature washed, so to speak, the more clearly to express and utter it.
Such accordingly is the strong silver light, all simplifying and ennobling, in which I see West Point; see it as a cluster of high promontories, of the last classic elegance, overhanging vast receding reaches of river, mountain-guarded and dim, which took their place in the geography of the ideal, in the long perspective of the poetry of association, rather than in those of the State of New York. It was as if the genius of the scene had said “No, you shan’t have accent, because accent is, at the best, local and special, and might here by some perversity–how do I know after all?–interfere. I want you to have something unforgettable, and therefore you shall have type–yes, absolutely have type, and even tone, without accent; an impossibility, you may hitherto have supposed, but which you have only to look about you now really to see expressed. And type and tone of the very finest and rarest; type and tone good enough for Claude or Turner, if they could have walked by these rivers instead of by their thin rivers of France and Italy; type and tone, in short, that gather in shy detail under wings as wide as those with which a motherly hen covers her endangered brood. So there you are–deprived of all ‘accent’ as a peg for criticism, and reduced thereby, you see, to asking me no more questions.” I was able so to take home, I may add, this formula of the matter, that even the interesting facts of the School of the Soldier which have carried the name of the place about the world almost put on the shyness, the air of conscious evasion and escape, noted in the above allocution: they struck me as forsaking the foreground of the picture. It was part of the play again, no doubt, of the grey water-colour brush: there was to be no consent of the elements, that day, to anything but a generalized elegance–in which effect certainly the clustered, the scattered Academy played, on its high green stage, its part. But, of all things in the world, it massed, to my vision, more mildly than I had somehow expected; and I take that for a feature, precisely, of the pure poetry of the impression. It lurked there with grace, it insisted without swagger–and I could have hailed it just for this reason indeed as a presence of the last distinction. It is doubtless too much to say, in fine, that the Institution, at West Point, “suffers” comparatively, for vulgar individual emphasis, from the overwhelming liberality of its setting–and I perhaps chanced to see it in the very conditions that most invest it with poetry. The fact remains that, both as to essence and as to quantity, its prose seemed washed away, and I shall recall it in the future much less as the sternest, the world over, of all the seats of Discipline, than as some great Corot-composition of young, vague, wandering figures in splendidly-classic shades.
Henry James, The American Scene, III.v
James travelled by train, deploring the ugliness of the tracks all the way. It would be interesting to know more about the decline of the day-trips by steamer. I seem to remember that one or two companies still provided them when I was growing up in New York. Perhaps the day-trips to Albany had become too long and too socially demanding by then, just as the steamboats were overcome by rust and rot. It is as if New York City’s once vital umbilical chord to the American heartland was at some point severed.
Greg Miller has found an effective solution to the Hudson’s intensely dramatic subtleties: he shoots panoramas. Indirectly (and most likely not deliberately) alluding to those long strips of paper sold to the day-trippers of yore (at least one of which was based on one of the painted panoramas so popular in the nineteenth century), Miller immediately enters into the world of Cole, Bierstadt, and Gifford. Using mostly Fujichrome Velvia 4×5 film, he finds a way to make the chromatic language of pre-digital illustrative photography, that of the Hudson River School, and the wild angelic language of the Hudson speak together in a macaronic effusion. Using straightforward, mostly analogue photographic techniques, he has captured unique characteristic of the Hudson River Valley landscape. As technically impressive as his rather highly saturated color photographs are, Miller depends on another equally important asset, his thorough knowledge of the Hudson’s topography. Between the maps on the inside front and back covers, and the somewhat randomly organized photographs themselves, one can get a sense of his favorite haunts.
Ultimately the Hudson isn’t about Mont Blancs or El Capitans, but about space and the atmosphere that fills it—negative space, to borrow an academic term. Greg Miller’s rendering of space in these panoramas, whether it is across a ploughed field, from outside into a garden, or from one side of the great river to another, opening up, say, the expanse of the Catskills, is virtuosic and dramatic in the spirit of those bold nineteenth century painters, if not quite so deeply infused with divine awe—something Mr. Miller, as a creature of our time, cannot help. No matter how hard we may meditate, pray, teetotal and vegetarianate, we just can’t bring it off with the old hands’ panache.
The Hudson River, A Great American Treasure serves a different faith, one which is not so exalted, but more practical than the pantheism of the Hudson River painters or the aestheticism of James. One could explore almost endlessly the changing meanings of landscape from Egyptian Nile scenes, Roman frescoes, and Leonardo’s pioneering view of the Val D’Arno, through Watkins and the views just mentioned to the ubiquitous wall calendar. The meaning of Ansel Adams’ landscapes altered within his own working life as he evolved from “the photographer of the West” to an environmental activist, who led the way for photograhers like Robert Dawson and Robert Adams. Almost the first thing that springs to most people’s minds at the mention of the Hudson is the river’s almost miraculous retrieval from its dismal condition in the 1960’s, when years of use as a dump for sewage and chemical waste, made it unapproachable for fishermen, yachtsmen, swimmers, as well as anyone who might wish to walk its banks and enjoy its natural beauty undisturbed by foul odors and unsightly water-born trash. Two leading figures from the environmental movement introduce Greg Miller’s photographs. Bill McKibben provides a brief, graceful, and witty preface, and Ned Sullivan, president of Scenic Hudson, a more detailed account of what this book is really about: it is a commemoration of the pioneering work of this important organization, which began in 1963 with the battle it waged with Con Edison over Storm King. The utilities company planned to build on the mountain, around it, and within it the world’s largest pumped-storage hydroelectric plant—which Scenic Hudson succeeded in stopping after a 17-year court fight, laying the foundation for environmental law and other methods for preventing the environmental destruction. As Sullivan points out, many of Greg Miller’s views would look quite different without their work.
A photomechanically reproduced photograph has limitations a painting or an exhibition print is free of. Rizzoli does a good job, however, of reproducing Miller’s originals—within the usual standards of coffee-table publication—and his saturated approach to color can’t have been easy to work with. While I recommend the book warmly to anyone who has fallen under the Hudson’s spell, it is not without its flaws. The impressive panoramas are interspersed with scenes in more conventional formats, and some of these are conventional in other ways as well. There are too many banal magazine-illustration shots among them, and they distract from the main thrust of the book, which is not clearly expressed through the selection and ordering of the photographs. Perhaps I am hyper-critical. This is, after all, a Rizzoli coffee-table book, destined for a commemorative place in its owners’ living-rooms, and few people are likely to peruse it cover-to-cover, as a reviewer must do. You may not be struck by the tedium of its lack of structure, but you are likely to find annoyance in the clichéd images of Main Streets and joggers on a riverside path, etc., etc.
Stan Lichens’ The Romantic Landscape is on an entirely different level in terms of the photographer’s relation to the region, the landscape, and the art and craft of photography. Lichens, a RISD-trained designer and architect, as well as a photographer, has been intimately connected to the Hudson landscape since childhood. He spent much of his childhood at his family’s country house on Hunter Mountain and camped around the Hudson Valley as an Eagle Scout. His love for the region led him to purchase the former Astor gatehouse in Rhinebeck, where he has lived for many years, actively photographing the Hudson Valley landscape for over twenty. In spirit, the images in this intimately proportioned book evoke Henry James’ literary and psychological response, as well as Lichens’ own intimate interpretation of the Hudson River painters and there resplendent palette. If they were striving for coloristic symphonies, he is writing for a solo instrument. Using an unusual and complex technique of his own, he expresses a thoroughly personal experience of pockets of the landscape he obviously knows extremely well. Avoiding the familiar touristic views, he seeks out less obvious subjects, places which reflect human activity, farms and gardens, places of work and leisure, as well as the spectacular views of mountains and waterfalls. Some of these will evoke the nineteenth-century stereoscopic scenes I’ve mentioned above, but they serve no public or professional agenda beyond the advancement of the art of photography and the creation of beautiful objects, which express his own relation to the scene as man and artist, as well as a very specific relationship to his predecessors in a variety of arts. Stan’s photographs are simple in gesture, but rich in feeling, and jaw-droppingly sophisticated in technique.
The final works either look deceptively straightforward, are subtly suggestive of antique hand-colored photographs, or challenge the viewer with a fauve surrealism, which even goes beyond the Hudson River artists’ grand gesture. It is hard to believe that these colors exist in nature, unless one has actually spent time in the Hudson Valley and experienced one of those unforgettable orange and pink sunsets. But this wild reality is also a path into the photographer’s mind and imagination, which, if this book is any evidence, is as rich a place as his chosen physical environment. Great photography is a meeting of what is on both sides of the lens. It is all at once an event which is striven for and anticipated for years, a happy stroke of luck at the moment, and—especially in work like Stan Lichens—a product of laborious craft and finishing.
The book is divided into four parts, corresponding to the four seasons. The photographs are interspersed with intelligently chosen and enlightening quotations from authors who knew the Hudson Valley and is introduced by a fine essay by the artist and writer, Lois Guarino, who is also Stan Lichens’ wife and is hence well-informed about his travels and techniques.
Oh yes, I should mention that one thing you will not find in The Romantic Landscape is a great many scenes of the river itself. The book is more about land—farms, forest, roads, and the meticulously designed gardens of the splendid estates of the Gilded Age. The human presence is not always evident in these photographs, but it is never far away, both in the sturdy farmer’s sweat and James’ “presence of some seated, placid, rich-voiced gentlewoman.”