'The Eye is a Door' - Anne Whiston Spirn photos on view at Smith College

Last modified: Monday, May 05, 2014
As Anne Whiston Spirn sees it, photography can serve a number of functions — as art, as documentary evidence, as historical chronicle — but its most important role may be as a means for building greater understanding of the connections between people, places and things.

To put it another way, photography can be a way of thinking visually — and visual thinking is an increasingly important skill, she believes, that cuts across many fields.

That philosophy provides the backdrop for “The Eye is a Door,” an exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art that features selected landscape photographs Spirn has taken during a career in which she’s worn many hats: photographer, landscape architect, writer, designer and teacher.

But Spirn, who teaches landscape architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, sees her work as all of a piece. Photography, as one example, is a means for understanding and “reading” a landscape, she says, and being able to read a landscape — its history, its details, its subtleties — is an essential skill for anyone involved in designing and planning outdoor parks or structures.

“I’m a visual thinker,” Spirn said during an interview last month at SCMA, where her exhibit was being prepared. “I organize my thoughts visually, in part by paring and sequencing photographs, and then I do my writing.”

The 46 color photos in the Smith exhibit, taken over the past 35 years, come from 11 countries, including the United States, and they reflect Spirn’s travels for research, business and pleasure. From Uluru, or Ayer’s Rock, in Australia to the wild terrain of Iceland, and from ancient fields in Scotland to modern parks in France and Sweden, the photographs focus not on nature’s grandeur but on the play of natural forces, small details, and the relationships between human-made and natural landscapes.

The exhibit is also an extension of Spirn’s most recent book, “The Eye is A Door: Landscape, Photography, and the Art of Discovery,” which combines her photos with essays on photography and the concept of visual thinking. In addition, Smith College will use the exhibit all semester as an extension of the classroom for students from various fields, from art to environmental studies to history.

“Visual literacy is big part of what we seek to do [at Smith],” said Aprile Galant, the museum’s curator of prints, drawings and photographs. “The interdisciplinary nature of these photographs is amazing. ... It’s something to use to teach people to see what’s around them, to not see just flat, inert things but to take it out into their environment.”

For about the past 10 years, Spirn has also been a periodic lecturer at Smith in the college’s Landscape Studies program — she’ll be lecturing at the college Feb. 10 — and she’ll also give a gallery talk at SCMA in June. Her photos will be on display through August, Galant notes, which is a longer run than most exhibits at SCMA.

Force of nature

One of the most striking images in “The Eye is a Door” is a photograph Spirn took in March 1989 on the high plains of eastern Colorado. A small, white-framed house is boxed in, as if in a giant jail cell, by beech trees that tower above it. Except for smaller, more scraggly trees by other houses on the photograph’s left, the landscape is flat and mostly featureless.

The trees, Spirn notes, were almost certainly planted as windbreaks many years ago, since the wind is a constant force on the plains — she remembers having trouble opening her car door the day she took the picture — and trees there are generally only seen along streams and rivers and by houses.

“I think that’s what appealed to me about this image,” she said. “I look for places where you can see the relationship between the deep structure of the landscape and the human settlement that’s been built on it. You have this elemental force of nature here, the wind, that we have to adjust ourselves to.”

That photo is also a good example of the way in which Spirn has combined her interests over the years. She studied art history as an undergraduate and also developed an interest in photography. Then, in her senior year, she came upon a book by the Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange in which Lange had photographed American women in a variety of rural habitats and also offered some text on the subject.

“I thought, ‘Wow — this woman was an artist, an ethnographer, she was working for social change, she did all these things,’” Spirn said. “And my next thought was, ‘Why can’t I do that?’ I wanted to bring all that together, too.”

Though she initially attended a doctoral program in art history at the University of Pennsylvania, Spirn discovered landscape architecture and soon switched over to that. After graduation, she worked for a planning and design company, then became a professor in landscape architecture at Penn; along the way, she developed her photography as a research and teaching tool.

That said, she added, “I’ve always been at heart an artist and a photographer as well as a teacher and scholar. I was inspired by Dorothea Lange to bring it all out.”

Poetry of nature

The Smith exhibit offers a number of examples of that convergence. In several cases, Spirn has paired photographs of very different locales to invite viewers to find congruencies that might otherwise be overlooked, or to consider what might be called the poetry of nature.

One picture shows a curved stretch of beach in Nahant, the town north of Boston where Spirn lives. In one spot in the ocean, a large, roughly circular pool of foam has formed. Next to this photograph is one from Saguaro National Park in Arizona, where amidst the distinctive cacti, dry hills and sparse grass is a boulder with a small, circular petroglyph.

“It’s really kind of interesting to see these kind of symbiotic relationships,” said Galant. “And even in the most remote places, you can see signs of human action.”

The text in the exhibit includes what Spirn calls “some significant details” about the photos, as well as a few clues in their titles, that will invite viewers to look carefully to “use as a strategy for doing [their] own examination of the picture.”

Another photo, dating from 1978, shows a rough stone wall stretching into the distance across treeless, grassy hills in Scotland, gray skies overhead. There’s much history here: Spirn says this area is part of an infamous chapter of Scottish history known as “The Clearances,” in which poor farmers were forcibly removed by landowners, primarily in the 19th century, to make way for sheep grazing and wool production during a boom in fabric manufacturing.

Though she writes in her new book that she’s not a conventional landscape photographer, Spirn also notes that she follows basic photo precepts in her work. She says good photography depends on finding the right vantage point — “knowing where to stand” — using light effectively, and a certain serendipity.

During a visit to Uluru in 1988, she enjoyed a little of the latter. A sore neck prevented her from hiking to the top of the massive desert rock; instead she walked along its base.

“When I did, I discovered this,” she said, pointing to her photo of a tranquil, tree-shrouded pool that’s invisible from the outside. “It was like another world — there were birds singing, the air was more humid. It was extraordinary.”

That photograph is paired with one of a section of Uluru’s wall above the trees by the oasis. The wall is marked with vertical lines of different colors and shades, showing where rainwater hitting the top of the sandstone monolith has streamed down over eons to form the pool.

In the end, Spirn hopes the exhibit will provide a window into her thinking as well as an opportunity for viewers to consider what photography can accomplish. As she writes, “Photography is to seeing what poetry is to writing: a concentrated way of thinking, a condensed telling, a disciplined practice that may produce insight.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“The Eye as a Door” will be on view through Aug. 31 at the Smith College Museum of Art. For museum hours, prices and other information, visit smith.edu/artmuseum/. For more information about Spirn, visit her website at annewhistonspirn.com.

Related program: “Threshold: An Evening of Dance, Music and Image,” a collaborative performance with Spirn, dance improvisors Chris Aiken and Angie Hauser, and musician Mike Vargas, Feb. 11 at 7 p.m. in Theatre 14, Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts, Green Street, at the college. A Q & A session will follow. Free.