Lay of the land: Eyes on nature


Since the invention of the camera, photographers have been enthralled by interpreting the natural world. We (viewers), in turn, are captivated by what their cameras reveal.

As we spring forward, we’re all eager to enjoy the landscape as it emerges from its winter “hibernation.” It’s the subject of Heckscher Museum of Art’s current exhibition, “Viewfinders: Photographers Frame Nature,” on display through April 16.

Viewfinders explores artists’s varied responses to the relationship between nature and humans. These lens-based works reveal the divergent ways in which nature continues to fuel documentation of the human experience and imagination — from images symbolizing the untamed power of nature, to those where the landscape has been abused for human consumption. The exhibit — featuring 64 works from 34 artists — traces the lure of photography through the centuries, culminating in contemporary times where every person with a smartphone has the power to “frame” nature.

Guest Curator Susan Van Scoy, associate professor of art history at St. Joseph’s University, combed through the museum’s permanent collection to explore the myriad ways artists respond to the landscape and how their responses have shaped our perception of nature.

“Landscape and photography have always been closely intertwined. In fact, the world’s first automatic photograph was a landscape and photography was first referred to as ‘sun pictures’ or ‘drawings from nature,’” Van Scoy says. “Artists have long used landscape as a vehicle to explore other issues such as poetry, spirituality, philosophy and environmentalism. The images in Viewfinders are no exception. They are teeming with hidden meaning.“

Legendary American photographers such as Edward Steichen, Larry Fink and Berenice Abbott are represented, as are newly acquired photographs by Kenji Nakahashi and Jeremy Dennis. Van Scoy also selected a substantial number of works by notable Long Island image makers.

Beyond traditional forms of landscape photography, Van Scoy was excited to introduce what she describes as the “contemporary takes,” which explore environmental issues such as climate change and reclaiming the land.

“Everyone enjoys seeing landscape, now it’s being used as a background for protest,” she says. “Artists have an important role to help people shape the future of the environment and change our behaviors.”

Visitors will notice a “local flavor” to the exhibit, such as N. Jay Jaffee’s photo of Lloyd Harbor’s Caumsett Park Preserve.

As Van Scoy explains: “The Olmsted family landscape architectural firm created some of the most famous and unnatural ‘natural’ sites in the world, including New York City’s Central Park and Caumsett State Historic Park Preserve. Yet some visitors view these parks as nature in its untouched state. Caumsett State Historic Park Preserve has been a favorite subject of artists such as Jaffee and Neil Scholl, whose photographs capture the landscape architects’s signature picturesque landscapes in the park.

“Visitors just love the Caumsett shot,” she says. “Many people don’t realize its history.”

Picturesque scenes are just one aspect of what’s on view. From the whimsical — such as Barbara Roux’s mise-en-scènes in wooded areas with frames or mirrors placed against a leafy ground, to natural images that show the power of nature in Kenji Nakahashi’s abstract take on Hurricane Gloria — nature in all its forms is documented.

“I want people to be able to look at these works and relate to them,” she says. “I love when you can relate an image to your everyday life and also learn something new at the same time.”

The takeaway from Van Scoy: “We are reminded that humans are always small in relationship to the power of nature.”