As noun, landscape is: 1) a picture, sketch, etching, photograph, map or other representation of inland scenery, as of prairie, woodland, mountains, etc.; 2) the branch of painting, photography, etc, dealing with such pictures; 3) a view, prospect or vista of scenery or tract of land with its distinguishing characteristics either natural and/or man made. As verb, landscape is: 4) the act of shaping land so as to make it more attractive or useful. 

The word landscape first appeared printed in English in 1603 and has origins in Middle Dutch ( landscap ) meaning region, German ( landschaft ) and Old Norse ( landskap ). A previous formation in English was landskip. Also note that the suffix –ship is closely tied to –schaft meaning constitution, condition or shape.

Scape refers to a view of any scenery and thus does not always refer to a portion of the earth but can include interior architectural spaces and, increasingly, virtual digital (cyber)spaces. Other scapes include dreamscapes, seascapes, townscapes, roofscapes, moonscapes and cityscapes. These scapes serve as environmental media that envelop the observer. Scape can also be used to describe the impression or quality of a thing or action. The suffix ‘scape' in ‘landscape” posits the presence of a unifying principle which positions one view, a bounded landscape, as representative of the larger environment or entire landscape. [i]

Central to landscape is the role of the spectator. In the case of direct observation, landscapes require a beholder to set the parameters of scope, depth and details within the vista. Generically, landscape is a term that refers to the visible world and “a particular landscape is that portion of the world visible by an observer from a specific position." [ii] The body serves as a medium for the reception and interpretation of the scene governed by corporal position and orientation within the landscape and the outer limit of sight located at the horizon. 

As a medium, landscape is can be described in three ways. First, as the product of an artistic endeavor wherein a landscape (view) is represented. The three-dimensional scene is rendered in two dimensions on a surface. In this case the landscape is the content of the work of art expressed through the medium of paint, charcoal, ink etc. Combined with the beholder/artist's body these materials create a channel (medium) through which the landscape moves from the real to the representational. Second, landscape can serve as a medium itself that carries messages and meanings embedded in the environment/scene and can be extracted and decoded. A third meaning of landscape has recently been posited by which landscape is explored as a social practice. These three approaches are described below.

Landscape representation (generally painting) is commonly considered to have begun in 17th century Europe becoming, arguably, the dominant genre of Europe's visual arts. [iii] As Ann Adams describes, “Something dramatic happened around 1620 in Haarlem, so the narrative goes, as if scales has suddenly and collectively fallen from seventeenth-century Dutch artists' eyes, and they could suddenly see, and faithfully transcribe, the land in which they found themselves." [iv] The efforts of European landscape artists fell into genres of the ideal, pastoral, heroic and the Netherlandish naturalism. The sites represented in European landscapes were generally historical, agricultural, urban and industrial settings and their representations often expressed a network of social hierarchy and moral standards. [v] For example, Adams shows how 17 th century Dutch landscape paining portrays a narrative of identity formation in a period of fragmented economic, geographical, political and religious change. 

Landscape painting marked a new focus on the observation of the natural world and social processes therein. The images demonstrated a process of investment/extraction of meanings into and out of landscape images and these works often served as expressions of the social changes, cultural sensibilities and conflicts of their eras. There is a rich literature on these subjects, which explores the meanings found in these images. A touchstone of this literature is Kenneth Clark's Landscape into Art (1949) which argued that landscape painting “marks the stages in our conception of nature. Its rise and development since the middle ages in part of a cycle in which the human spirit attempted once more to create a harmony with its environment." [vi] Clark's assumptions and statements were challenged over issues regarding imperialism, class power and cultural hegemony by John Barrell in The Dark Side of Landscape (1980) and Ann Bermingham's Landscape and Ideology (1987). [vii]

Landscapes are normally thought of as formed by and consisting of natural and cultural forces which can be identified and studied. In this case, landscape is the medium that holds and channels these forces. The study of these forces and their inter-dynamics is the subject employed by geographers, sociologists and historians. This academic tradition of “reading,” decoding and interpreting landscapes is an approach aimed to extract meanings from the landscape as a visual text. In his essay “The beholding eye: ten versions of the same scene,” Donald Meinig identifies ten approaches to this discipline. As described by Michael Conzen they are: “ nature (stressing insignificance of man), habitat (as man's adjustment to nature), artifact (reflecting man's impact on nature), system (a scientific view of interacting processes contributing to a dynamic equilibrium), problem (for solving through social action), wealth (in terms of property), ideology (revealing cultural values and social philosophy), history (as a record of the concrete and the chronological), place (through the identity that locations have), esthetic (according to some artistic quality possessed)." [viii]

Recent notable works in the tradition of the interpretive approach as described above include The Image of the City by Kevin Lynch (1960), Life and Death of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs (1961), The Making of Urban America by John W. Reps (1965), A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander (1971), Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott-Brown & Steven Izenour (1977), Common Landscapes of America, 1580 to 1845 by J.R. Stilgoe (1982), Discovering the Vernacular Landscape by John Brinckerhoff Jackson (1984), Nature's Metropolis by William Cronon (1991).

W.J.T. Mitchell counterpoises two established approaches to landscape and posits a third method for examining landscapes in his book Landscape and Power (1994). First, he addresses the representation of landscapes (painting, drawing etc.) as the modern “progressive movement toward the purification of the visual field,” and a process of contemplation and naturalization of cultural and social constructions. In this case the landscape is the content within the medium of painting. This interpretation is contrasted with a second, post-modern interpretive approach of making the landscape an allegory for the psychological and the social that requires decoding. In this latter case, landscape is the medium itself which carries the messages extracted from the scene as described above in Meaning's ten approaches.

Mitchell refutes the idea that landscape is a solely European/western phenomenon originating in the 17 th century and introduces an approach that asks not what landscape “is” or “means” but rather what it “does” and how it works as social practice. [ix] Here Mitchell concludes, “landscape circulates as medium of exchange, a site of the visual appropriation, a focus for the formation of identity." [x] Ultimately, for Mitchell, landscape is about power.

Technology is intimately tied to the subject of landscape as mechanisms of mediation that play a role in the perception of the scene and its resultant representations in a variety of formats (pictures, photographs, digital media etc). In each case media are nested within one another in increasingly complicated configurations through history.

Renaissance techniques of perspective created depth in landscape depictions previously unseen and revolutionized the depiction of space in painting and etching. In the 19th century European artists employed tinted mirrors called Claude glasses that transformed reflected landscapes into desirable images of the Roman campagna in the fashionable style of the painter Claude. [xi]

Because of the intimate relationship of the viewer and environment, transportation has played a large role in shaping perceptions of landscape. Perhaps the most dramatic change came as a result of the introduction of the railroad in the 19th Century. Beyond the new environs of track and tunnel required for the railroad, “the traveler perceived the landscape as it was filtered through the machine ensemble. [xii] Track and steam power combined to produce a new found speed at which locomotives could travel over the land and thereby shrink time and space. Erwin Straus describes this effect as a change from the experience of travel through landscape in which “each location is determined [mediated] by its relation to the neighboring space within the circle of visibility. But geographical space is closed, and is therefore in its entire structure transparent. Every place as such a space is determined by its position with respect to the whole and ultimately by its relation to the null point of the coordinate system by which this space obtains its order. Geographical space is systematized." [xiii] Perhaps the best example of this change in the perception of space was the introduction of American time-zones by act of congress in 1883 which roughly corresponded with the rise in traffic along the transcontinental railway (completed 1869). Increasingly landscape was to be traveled not in but through. [See time, space.]

In post-WWII United States the automobile and the interstate highway system (car and road) extended this doubled dynamic introduced by the railroad wherein the landscape of the road serves both as a medium of observation and the medium to be observed. Through the car window we watch the road and its associated landscapes of gas stations, fast food establishments, strip malls. This system had dramatic effects on the morphology of post-war suburban landscapes and the new life styles developed therein.

Developments in aerial photography also produced landscapes before unimaginable in detail and scope. This new perspective gave viewers a new sense of the scale of impact man could make on the landscape and aided practitioners of landscape design in the further shaping of the land. Images shot from airplanes were instrumental in creating new urban plans by urban planners like Robert Moses who reshaped the landscape of New York City by introducing an auto-centric system of motorways. In this case the technologies media of photography, flight and the automobile all combined to affect the landscape and in turn, these new landscapes affected their dwellers.

Electronic media have also created new landscapes via the influence of television, space flight, satellite imagery and new virtual digital technologies. These technologies play a central role in mediating our contact with landscape by offering instantaneous access to information creating a further acceleration and shrinking of time and space and leading to issues related to decontextualization of experience. Marshall McLuhan brought the effects of electronic media to public attention in the 1960s in his books Understanding Media (1964) and The Medium is the Massage (1967). More recent work in the field focuses on the effect of the internet on conceptions of space in an age of globalization.

Landscape also enjoys a grand tradition in the manipulation of the earth for the purposes of visual beauty and efficiency. Garden design has a rich history. Frederick Law Olmsted, Chief Architect of Central Park in New York and landscape designer for Chicago's World Columbian Exposition of 1893 is one of the United States' most influential landscape architects while Baron Georges-Eugène Haussman, responsible for the late 19th Century transformation of Paris, can be described as Olmsted's European counterpart.

To summarize, landscape can be the content of a representation wherein it travels through a medium (paint, television, digital screen), it can also itself be a medium which carries social, geological, historical messages or it can be considered a medium of exchange and social practice expressing visual appropriation, identity and power. The changing technological apparatus used to view, represent and interpret landscapes affect the operations, outcomes and meanings within these three frameworks.

Benjamin Lorch
Winter 2002