So just what are cultural landscape studies? As the study of them plays a significant role in my academic work, I get asked this question a lot, so I felt I should try and answer it here. Consider this, then, the most cursory of definitions, leaving much out, and concentrating much on my own personal experiences and studies.
The term “cultural landscape” is not new, in some circles of geography its study is considered a bit outdated. In simple terms, the idea is that by studying the landscape—literally, the shaped land—for how humans have altered it, one can infer knowledge of local life. Conversely, this also assumes that human cultures vary over geographic space and alter those spaces in distinct ways. The local landscape means not just land itself, or things altered in the land such as plantings, crops, water courses, and the like, but essentially all human alteration to the world’s organization, including built form. It is an interpretive art, and in some ways it is kin to the way that archaeologists interpret the ruins of long-gone cultures.
John Brinckerhoff Jackson (1909-1996) did not invent cultural landscape studies, but he was perhaps one of the most influential American forces shaping it in the second half of the last century. That era’s thinking about place has been a huge influence on my photography, my writing, and my own thinking. One of the reasons I applied at and eventually entered graduate school at UC Berkeley was the ability to work with Paul Groth, one of Jackson’s protogés, and the person who inherited teaching his landmark undergraduate class, American Cultural Landscapes. Last semester, I had the honor and privilige of working as a graduate student instructor for the B-half of the course, which covers from 1900 to present.
“Landscape” is a key word, and it was also the title used by Jackson for his publication on the cultural geography of America. Founded in 1951, Landscape was part magazine, part literary publication, part academic journal. In it, he republished European pieces about cultural geography along with writing about the American landscape. Jackson particularly loved the Southwest region—the magazine was based in New Mexico. Often he wrote the pieces himself, sometimes using his own name, and often using pseudonyms. We still don’t know how many of the latter he used, and this sort of thing—along with a lifelong aversion to footnotes or citations—made him a bit of an academic rebel. Yet his sense of observation was keen and interpretations brilliant. By the mid 1960s, this man—without an advanced degree—was lecturing at Berkeley and at Harvard, teaching his American Cultural Landscapes course.
For photographers of landscapes and industry, cultural geography in the vein of Jackson’s provides a strong philosophical basis for work. For example, the concept of a “sense of place” has become so used by photographers that it is now nearly a cliché. In a broader sense, the idea that landscape itself tells a story, even before photographed, is compelling. It gives purpose to the photography of place, as it gives to photographers not just the power of expression but also the role of revelation.
“Sense of place” was also the title of the first Jackson book I picked up, A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996). It was before I knew anything significant about cultural geography, when I was still only a writer and photographer who was also a lover of place. One day I saw it on a shelf and idly picked up a copy at the Burnside Powell’s Books in Portland, and skimmed through it. I can’t remember now if it was chance, or if it had been recommended to me by another photographer.
What I do remember was finding a book of essays by a man who dared to suggest that roads belonged in a landscape, that the way that humans change the world is as much a part of the world as is nature itself.
Above all, it was a work by someone who clearly loved place, and for me, place had always mattered. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, in what Stewart Holbrook (who was not a cutural geographer and yet often wrote like one) called the nation’s Far Corner (New York: McMillan, 1952). I had always felt that somehow the soil of the fields, the stones of the mountains, and the water of the Columbia river were mixed in with my blood. I still do feel that way. So it is little surprise that I loved Jackson’s work. I put $4.95 down on the checkout counter, and the book went home with me. Little did I know that almost ten years later I would be the student of one of Jackson’s students, and helping teach his class. (The experience was special, and for which I am profoundly grateful.)
Some might question how an undergraduate education in communications meshes, in any way, with the cultural landscape studies, but the uncanny thing is just how much connection there actually is. Treating landscape as a subject of interpretation is to treat it like a text to be read. Meaning, message, medium; all are present in the landscape. Power dynamics, conflict? You can’t find a place that is not shaped by them. The study of cultural landscapes, then, is in many ways a communicative method that analyzes and interprets one of the greatest texts ever crafted: the Earth itself.
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A note on sources: much of the story of cultural geography and J.B. Jackson came from many conversations with Paul Groth, as well as several of Jackson’s works, most especially Landscape in Sight, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000).