It is easy to take these scenes from ‘deep time’ for granted. But they invoke a conceptual and material construction of a very peculiar kind. Their realistic style invites us to imagine that we are seeing the deep past with our own eyes, unproblematically, as if from a time machine. Yet we also know that in fact they are based on extremely fragmentary evidence, fleshed out with a complex network of theoretical inferences. Furthermore, a moment’s reflection shows that they are very far from any simple realism, not least because they crowd into one scene a variety of organisms that would unlikely to pose together so obligingly in real life
Rudwick is as interested in point of view as mis en scene: these snapshots of prehistory are always organized as if an invisible human being were the observer. The vanished but assumed human knower is omnipresent, even in dinosaur illustrations to this day, leaving invisible what is in fact a problem:
Scenes from deep time … had not been and could not be witnessed by any human beings at all. By definition they claimed to represent a human viewpoint in a world that was totally nonhuman because it was prehuman. Here, significantly, the only precedent that might have been helpful was one with which many ‘men of science’ were reluctant to be associated. Traditional biblical illustrations had always included scenes from the very beginning of time, before any human beings were present to record events depicted … However, that pre-Adamic human viewpoint was not a divine viewpoint, unless it was that of the anthropomorphic Yahweh ‘walking in the garden in the cool of the day,’ or, proleptically, that of the logos that ‘was made flesh and dwelt among us.'
The organizing principle of the picture, that which gives it meaning and coherence, saturates the visual field with human meaning. Inhuman history is made knowable by making it anthropocentric -- even in the supposed absence of the human.
I was thinking about Rudwick's book this morning while reading a review in the Washington Post of the new Ansel Adams exhibit at the Corcoran. Blake Gopnik writes about the POV in Adams' iconic nature photography and what vanishes from them. Gopnik is specifically interested in the various cars Adams used to transport himself to vistas that seem to lack human content:
Of course, none of those cars are visible in Adams's photos. (Or not in most of them, at any rate. More on that below.) But they are a hidden presence that helps give his photos force and builds their meaning. Adams and his images are a product of the glory days of Machine Age America, and they speak about it.
Adams's photos aren't just about landscape. They're about the particular confrontation between technology and landscape that made those photos possible. The images of the Sierra Nevada are as much about getting easy access to those mountains -- even with dozens of pounds of large-format camera equipment -- as about the mountains themselves. America's love affair with its landscape has never been only about the natural wonders it contains. It's been about pride in America's ownership of those wonders and the ability to go out from settled centers to take them in. Technology made it ever easier to make the trek; photographic technology made it possible to seize the instant of encounter and commemorate that ownership.
Gopnik even provides a commercial photograph that Adams created and which was discovered in a drawer at the Post:
Just by chance, The Washington Post also owns a bunch of Adams advertising shots, discovered in a drawer more than 10 years ago. There's not much of a clue to where they came from, but they feature trademark Adams subjects: the giant trees of northern California, the cliffs and peaks of Yosemite. Yet, in each shot, cars and roads bring people into the scene, so they can have fun and look sexy and, generally speaking, sell the tourist landscape all around them. One of them is a classically Adamsian shot of a famously huge tree -- with a shiny eight-door custom Cadillac parked at its base, disgorging happy city folk. In his commercial work, Adams depicted America's mechanized reality. His art displays its alter ego.
Though the website doesn't offer this image, it is quite intriguing: an absolutely immense Redwood with an absolutely immense Cadillac, Ansel Adams with the human that has always been his frame made suddenly and stunningly visible.