"The American Survey image captured the expansionist desires of a fledgling republic after the Civil War. The surveys were meant to provide both valuable geological and topographical information about the West to the Congress, and were also a means of indirect subsidy for the private sector - to encourage land speculation and to attract the development of unsettled territories. Through their pictorial organisation these photographs demarcated land as possession, placing it under the singular view of a privileged eye. In demonstrating that the land could be encompassed in the monocular gaze of the camera lens, these images provided subliminal reinforcement of the idea that man could control it. Writing on the American West, Jane Thompson describes the power of these representations to locate an imperialist desire within the passive experience of the spectator, transferring an agenda in the service of a state apparatus to the psyche of the individual citizen. As she writes: ‘[the blankness of the plain] implies - without ever stating - that this is a field where a certain mastery is possible… the openness of the space means that domination can take place virtually through the act of opening one’s eyes, through the act, even, of watching a representation on a screen.’ As this experience of possession is ‘shared’ with the individual subject, the sense of triumph is claimed as a democratic realisation of personal freedom enabled by the state and economic opportunism. This defined a distinctly American mythology of the West as an area to be mastered and colonised and whose subordination could be experienced as a triumph on the personal level."
— Walead Beshty ”Notes on the Subject Without Qualities: From the Cowboy Flaneur to Mr Smith" in Afterall, No. 8 Autumn/Winter 2003
"Why landscape now? A few conjectures come to mind: it is certainly true that among educated, middle-class audiences, landscape is generally conceived of as an upbeat and wholesome sort of subject which, like mom and apple pie, stands indisputably beyond politics and ideology and appeals to ‘timeless values.’ This would sit well in our current conservative climate where images of the land (conceptual, historical, literary) from lakes Tahoe to Wobegon are being used to evoke the universal constancy of a geological and mythic America seemingly beyond present vicissitudes.
But this is too simple. Images of landscape cannot be perceived simply as an antidote to politics, as a pastoral fantasy lulling us back to some primordial sense of our own insignificance. Nor should landscape images be regarded simply as the occasion for aesthetic pleasure in arrangements of material objects in ironic constellations, found “happenings” for the lens whose references to the worlds beyond the frame rivet all attention on the sensibility of the artist.
These two prevalent constructions of landscape remind us that landscape as a subject of visual representation is a distinctly modern phenomenon. The taxonomic term “landscape” comes from European art history and refers to a genre of painterly practice that gathered momentum and prestige only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the aristocratic classical tradition of painting, landscapes were principally fields for noble action—carefully cultivated gardens suited to the gods and heroes who populated them. With the rise in the seventeenth century of the merchant bourgeoisie in Holland, a new sort of landscaper emerged—a seemingly more natural landscape that celebrated property ownership: the working water- or windmill, the merchant ship at anchor, the farmer’s field, the burgher’s estate. English landscape painting in the eighteenth century followed the Dutch model, though it supplanted the formulaic quality of earlier genre painting with scientific accuracy that reflected the increasing prestige and achievements of empirical science and its offspring, technology. The world landscape, in English, initially referred specifically to Dutch paintings and only later denoted the broader idea of a view or prospect.
Whether noble, picturesque, sublime or mundane, the landscape image bears the imprint of its cultural pedigree. It is a selected and constructed text, and while the formal choices of what has been included and excluded have been the focus of most art historical criticism to date, the historical and social significance of those choices has rarely been addressed and even intentionally avoided. (…)
Thus, whatever its aesthetic merits, every representation of landscape is also a record of human values and actions imposed on the land over time. What stake do landscape photographers have in constructing such representations? A large one, I believe. Whatever the photographer’s claims, landscapes as subject matter in photography can be analyzed as documents extending beyond the formally aesthetic or personally expressive. Even formal and personal choices do not emerge sui generis, but instead reflect collective interests and influences, whether philosophical, political, economic, or otherwise. While most art historical/curatorial scholarship has concentrated on the artistic genius of a select few (and the stake in so doing is obvious), it is time to look afresh at the cultural meanings of landscapes in order to confront issues lying beyond individual intuition and/or technical virtuosity. The sorts of questions we might ask concern what ideologies landscape photographs perpetuate; in whose interests they were conceived; why we still desire to make and consume them; and why the art of landscape photography remains so singularly identified with a masculine eye.”
— Deborah Bright “Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men: An Inquiry into the Cultural Meaning of Landscape Photography” (1985) in The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography (1996), or in Illuminations: Women Writing on Photography from the 1850s to the Present (1996)