THE RHETORICAL FORCE OF LANDSCAPE ART Kevin DeLuca Pennsylvania State University
Why talk about a rhetoric of images? The most obvious answer is that we
live in an image-saturated society and a relevant rhetoric must pay
attention to images, that W. J. T. Mitchell  is right when he suggests
that the rhetorical turn is being displaced by the pictorial turn.  Beyond
the obvious, the answers are multiple and layered.  I want to suggest some
answers by looking at some old pictures: Carleton Watkins' landscape
photographs of Yosemite and William Henry Jackson's landscape photographs
and Thomas Moran's water colors and paintings of Yellowstone.  	
At a basic level, if rhetoric is, at the very least, about persuasion in
conventional politics, images merit a look and have for centuries.  The
cases of Watkins, Jackson, and Moran are instructive.  The fundamental role
of Watkins' landscape photography in the creation of Yosemite as the
world's first wilderness area "for the benefit of the people, for their
resort and recreation, to hold them inalienable for all time" (the bill
quoted in Schama, 1995: 191) is evident in the story that  California
Senator John Conness, when introducing the bill to preserve Yosemite to
Congress in March of 1864, also passed Watkins' photographs around the
halls of Congress (Palmquist, 1983, pp. 19-20; Fels, 1983, p. 34).  The
legislation passed and was signed into law on June 30, 1864 thereby deeding
Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California.
Watkins' role in preserving Yosemite extended well beyond the Congressional
floor.  Thousands of people on the East Coast saw Watkins' photos, either
in art galleries or as reprints in their homes.  His images garnered such
popular support that it led Edward Wilson, editor of the Philadelphia
Photographer, to comment, "It has been said that&emdash;the pen is mightier than
the sword,' but who shall not say that in this instance, at least, the
camera is mightier than the pen?" (Quoted in Palmquist, 1983: 20).
Moran and Jackson accompanied the U.S. Geological Survey of the
Territories to Yellowstone in 1871.  Their presence was not accidental.
Jackson had recently become a permanent member of the expedition.  Moran
was sent with the backing of the Northern Pacific Railroad and Scribner's
to join the expedition.  Ferdinand Hayden, the expedition's leader, was
aware of the value of public relations and was also under orders from the
Secretary of the Interior to "secure as full material as possible for the
illustration of your final report, such as sketches, photographs,
etc.,"(quoted in Kinsey, 1992, p. 49).  As photographer Jackson recalled,
"No photographs had as yet been published, and Dr. Hayden was determined
that the first ones should be good.  A series of fine pictures would not
only supplement his final report but tell the story to thousands who might
never read it" (1940, p. 196).  Jackson's photographs and Moran's
watercolors and illustrations were instrumental in the successful lobbying
effort to get Congress to designate Yellowstone the country's first
national park.  
More significantly, I contend that the landscape art of Watkins, Jackson,
and Moran are not merely evidence in a conventional political argument.
They are not simply representing reality or making an argument about
reality.  Instead, I am making the stronger claim that the pictures are
constituting the context within which a politics takes place^÷they are
creating a reality.  In this position I am taking a cue from John Hartley's
analysis of the politics of pictures.  Hartley suggests that there is no
real public, but, rather that the public is the product of publicity, of
pictures. The public's fictional status, however, should not be "taken as a
disqualification from but as a demonstration of the social power (even
truth) of fictions" (Hartley, 1992: 84).  Pictures, then, are important not
because they represent reality but create it: "They are the place where
collective social action, individual identity and symbolic imagination
meet^÷the nexus between culture and politics" (Hartley, 1992: 3).  In
pushing this perspective in my reading of the pictures of Watkins, Jackson,
and Moran, I understand their images not to be representing nature but
creating it.   Watkins' pictures do not represent the reality of Yosemite.
Instead, in conjunction with the discourses of tourism, nationalism,
romanticism, expansionism, and religion, they construct Yosemite.  Yes,
Half Dome exists, but its meaning as icon of pristine wilderness is the
result of the work and confluence of multiple discourses, especially a
photographic discourse of which Watkins' images are paradigmatic.
Crucial to Watkins' imagining of sublime wilderness was his erasing of the
marks of human habitation--no Native Americans or their homes, no
sheepherders, no miners, no loggers.  Considering that the military had
just purged Yosemite Valley of its native human inhabitants in the
preceding decade, the absence of Native Americans constitutes an imagistic
genocide that echoes the military one.  These absences are the foundation
for Watkins' creation of Yosemite as pristine wilderness.  This creation,
in turn, becomes Yosemite.  As cultural historian Solnit remarks, "And so
on man who had never seen the place [Senator John Conness] induced more who
had never been near the state [Congressional members and Lincoln] to
preserve it for a public which had hardly reached it" (1994, p. 243).  
What was true then is even more so today, as millions make touristic
pilgramages to the iconic sites of Yosemite wilderness to confirm the
images of Yosemite that have created "Yosemite" for them.  The park itself
has been developed to make accessible and preserve these iconic images.  In
other words, the park is managed in its own image.
Similarly, the images of Jackson and Moran created Yellowstone, crown
jewel of the national park system.  Known for the first half of the 19th
century as a fabled land of damnation, Yellowstone was called "Colter's
Hell" in response to the description of geysers and bubbling cauldrons by
John Colter, the first "white man" to see Yellowstone.  In a matter of
months, Jackson's scientific photographs and Moran's brilliantly colored
sketches transformed Yellowstone from a fabled Hell to a fabled Wonderland
(tirelessly promoted by Northern Pacific Railroad as a tourist Mecca).  As
art historian Kinsey notes, Yellowstone "was transformed from a remote hell
on earth into America's wonderland in the public imagination" (1992, p. 58).  
Moran's creation of Yellowstone is most evident in his famous painting,
the Grand Canon of the Yellowstone, an image reproduced, copied, and
promoted endlessly.  Although assumed to be representing the view from
Artist's Point toward Yellowstone Falls, it is actually a composite of that
perspective and the view from the top of the falls looking toward Artist's
Point (Kinsey, 1992, pp. 54-58).
In emphasizing the creative force of Watkins, Jackson, and Moran's images,
I am suggesting a sense of rhetoric that exceeds a narrow notion of
rhetoric as political persuasion, so that the realm of rhetoric entails the
articulation of identities, ideologies, consciousnesses, communities,
publics, and cultures. 
I want to close with a quick consideration of the benefits of images for
retheorizing rhetoric.  Most clearly, images dissolve the basic
speaker-text-audience model of rhetoric.  Even a glance at these images
undermines the notion of intentionality at the heart of such a model of
communication and meaning.  Intentionality has rested on a humanist
subjectivity.  The landscape pictures of Watkins, Jackson, and Moran
announce not so much the death of the author as its fragmentation, so that
the labels Watkins, Jackson, and Moran name corporate entities and unfold a
plethora of intentions.  For instance, Watkins and Moran clearly aspired to
create high art.  They also wanted to create commercial art that would
grant them financial security.  The geologist Hayden, the leader of the
Yellowstone expedition, wanted scientific pictures to document the
territory.  He also wanted pictures that would fan public interest, thus
securing continued Congressional funding of his expeditions.  Both Watkins
and Moran were directly funded by business interests.  In the case of Moran
and Yellowstone, the Northern Pacific Railroad sponsored his trip,
publicized his work, prevailed on Hayden to recommend the establishment of
Yellowstone Park in his official report to Congress, and orchestrated
lobbying efforts.  The railroad conceived of Yellowstone as a gold mine of
tourist profits.  They were correct and later nicknamed themselves the
"Yellowstone Park Line."  The proposal was also seen by business and
congressional interests as the key to development of the region.  
Given the swirl of intentions surrounding Yellowstone, it is worth noting
that none were explicitly environmental.  The point is that neither an
exhaustive accounting of multiple intentions nor an elaborate construction
of the "original" context would sufficiently explain the rhetorical force
of these images.  Exceeding any discernible intentions, the landscape art
of Watkins, Jackson, and Moran become founding documents of the
environmental movement, creating a pristine wilderness that becomes
environmentalism's sublime object.


Fels, Thomas  (1983)  Carleton Watkins: Photographer. Williamstown, MA:

Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.  Jackson, W. H. (1940) Time
Exposure.  New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.

Kinsey, Joni (1992) Thomas Moran and the Surveying of the American West.
Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.	

Palmquist, Peter  (1983)  Carleton E. Watkins: Photographer of the
American west. Albuquerque:   University Of New Mexico Press.

Schama, S.  (1995)  Landscape and Memory.  New York: A.A. Knopf.


Return to Lookout