Nature reorganized

The history of humanity is a story of organized action upon the land, whether that is considered as a complex ecology that includes living and non-living things or as a functionally empty surface for the imposition of efficient systems and forms. If a place teems with hidden riches then these can be extracted as valuable views and useful materials. Such organization of the natural and its opposite is one of the first and perhaps most fundamental architectural acts.

Article 12 of 16

Olmsted, Burley, Friedlander, James

Three contemporary photographers interpret the work of Frederick Law Olmsted

“I don’t think there was ever a time when we went out together and were interested in the same thing. But then, we’d go out independently and wind up photographing the same tree. ”
— Lee Friedlander

Frederick Law Olmsted shaped much of the public landscape of North America in the second half of the 19th century. He is best known for his urban parks, including Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. But his enormous output also included entire park systems (The Emerald Necklace, Boston); suburban communities (Druid Hills, Atlanta); university campuses (Stanford University, Palo Alto, California); private estates (“Biltmore,” the George Vanderbilt Estate, Asheville, North Carolina); cemeteries (Mountain View, Oakland, California); and conservation schemes (Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Big Tree Grove, California). His vision of how planned green spaces might function in the life of increasingly crowded cities would influence public space in North America for generations.

By giving the photographers the opportunity to visit the sites many times in different seasons, or in the same season several years later, the Olmsted commission sought to create an intense concentration on place. The 74 representative sites in the project were selected by Olmsted scholar Cynthia Zaitzevsky, who provided documentation to the photographers on each location. The photographers brought sharply different approaches to the commission. Robert Burley created chromogenic colour prints, using a 4 × 5 view camera. Lee Friedlander worked in black and white, using a Leica, a 2¼ square Hasselblad, and a panoramic camera. Geoffrey James also worked in black and white, using an 8 × 10 view camera and a panoramic camera. The photographers’ personal visions and their ideas about Olmsted were equally distinct, evolving gradually over the course of the commission.

Through a commission from the CCA, three contemporary photographers spent six years interpreting the work of Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), North America’s most important landscape architect, and producing a range of photographic evidence.


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