The landscape photographer Frank Gohlke, whose images have appeared in more than ten books, has a new show, "Accommodating Nature," at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. He spoke with the magazine's Anika Gupta.
You once said you try to create images that aren't about nature. Isn't that an odd statement from a landscape photographer?
In the 1970s, I developed this idea to look at the world we made, rather than the world we were born into. In essence, landscape is the biggest artifact that any culture creates.
Art critics say your photographs are meant to challenge the romantic naturalism of Ansel Adams.
That's a pretty fair statement. When I was coming of age as a photographer, Adams was the great figure in landscape photography. I admired his work, but I didn't feel as though his vision of nature's grandeur was something I could believe in. I was more interested in looking at urbanization and the seamless mix between the human world and the natural world.
You've photographed tornadoes, landslides and volcanic eruptions. Why are you drawn to natural disasters?
We're always trying to find certainty and security in a world that—even at its most civilized—is not very secure. We try to protect ourselves against volcanoes and tornadoes, but they overcome us despite our best precautions. So what happens after the worst happens? That's what I am after. Not the natural disaster, but the human response.
How should people react to your photographs?
I want people to get pleasure out of these images and come away with a larger sense of what's worth paying attention to. I want to convey a sense of how rich the ordinary world is.
The relationship between man and nature has changed since the 1970s, when you started making art. How have your photos changed in response?
Well there have been some changes in the landscape. When you walk around Mt. St. Helens the first thing you notice is the damage from the volcanic eruption. Then you notice that there's been a huge amount of change due to the logging industry. There's debris from logging sites, and patches of trees of a uniform age, which is the result of clear-cutting and replanting. In many ways logging has been more destructive to the environment than anything the volcano could do, and I do try to remark on that in my work. But mainly I want to present the images and the data so people can draw their own conclusions.
Some of your photos have people in them, others don't. Do you try to keep people out of a landscape?
I usually don't include people in an image because even though people are my subject, the images of people are not. I'm more interested in the effect that people have on land, and how land affects our sense of our place in the world. When I do include people, they're small and they're only in the picture because they were in the right place at the right time.
You've alternated between color and black and white work. Do you have a preference?
When I began photography in 1967, black and white were the colors of serious photography. Color was a commercial medium. Even when that began to change in the seventies, I continued to do black and white because I loved it. I loved looking at black and white prints and making black and white pictures. Everything I wanted to address in my work seemed more direct and uncluttered in black and white.
Then, after my fourth year of photographing at Mt. St. Helens I felt like I'd pushed black and white as far as I could. I thought color would be an interesting challenge. So then I worked in color exclusively for the next seven or eight years. Nowadays I work in both. I tend to have a color project and a black and white project going simultaneously, and I devise my projects with the color scheme in mind.