I’m often asked about the influences on my work. The easy answer is some of the many famous photographers, in addition to contemporary, perhaps less well-known photographers. But in addition to them as the obvious answer, my early influences include painters.
Painters of the Hudson River School
Many landscape photographers cite the Hudson River School among their influences. Hudson River School painters worked from 1826 to 1870, and, as the name implies, began painting landscape scenes from around New York State, but as Manifest Destiny drove the exploration and expansion of the west, these painters also traveled across the country, exploring the landscape, and then returned to their New York studios to paint large scale works of epic landscapes, emphasizing the grandeur of the North American landscape, while depicting man as but a minor inhabitant of these scenes.
These painters, such as Thomas Cole, created immersive experiences for the viewer, rife with symbolism. The paintings, defined by their realism, and their epic, larger-than-life vistas, spoke to people both intellectually and emotionally, leaving them with a sense of wonder about the landscapes depicted. This is the style that first spoke to me when I was in college, learning about art and finding my way in this world. While I studied art history going back to various movements such as Baroque, Rococo, and Renaissance art, it was the Hudson River School, depicting scenes that felt close to home as I attended a school (SUNY New Paltz) in the Hudson Valley, that spoke to me.
Thomas Cole is generally considered the founder of the Hudson River School. Cole, an immigrant from Lancashire, England who settled in Catskill, NY in the 1820’s, was primarily self-taught. A friend who had purchased five of his paintings financed a trip to the Hudson Valley, where he painted landscapes featuring Kaaterskill Falls and Cold Spring, among others. Cole passed away in 1848 in Catskill. The fourth highest peak in the Catskills is named in his honor, and his home, Cedar Grove, is a National Historic Site, open to the public.
The area around Kaaterskill Falls became a favorite subject of mine when I lived in New York. I made several trips there to photograph the falls and creek at various times during the year. My favorite was always autumn, where I could wander up the trail at leisure and enjoy the foliage, the sound of the creek washing over the rocks in the creek, and the rumble of the falls in the distance as I climbed the trail to the main falls.
Asher Brown Durand
Asher Brown Durand, another of the Hudson River School painters, lived just a few towns away from where I grew up, calling Maplewood, NJ his home. Durand began his career as an engraver before turning to painting around 1830 at the encouragement of his patron. He was a friend of Thomas Cole and accompanied Cole in 1837 on a sketching expedition to the Adirondacks. Soon after that his full attention turned to painting landscapes, spending summers sketching in the Catskills, Adirondacks, and White Mountains. Durand is noted for his tribute to Cole, a painting called Kindred Spirits, showing Cole and poet William Cullen Bryant in a landscape in the Catskills. The painting was inspired by Cole’s death in 1848 and completed in 1849.
Albert Bierstadt was a German immigrant who came to the United States at just one year of age. His family settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He is known for his lavish, sweeping landscapes of the American West, including landscapes of Yosemite, Colorado, the Pacific Northwest, and more.
Bierstadt began painting with oils in 1851, studying for several years in Düsseldorf, Germany before returning to New Bedford in 1857. After receiving honors for a painting of a Swiss landscape in 1858, he began painting scenes in New England and upstate New York, including the Hudson Valley.
In 1859 Bierstadt accompanied a land surveyor working for the U.S. government, with the goal of adding the western landscape to his work. Returning to his studio on Tenth Street in New York City, he finished numerous paintings from the sketches he made.
In 1863, Bierstadt traveled to Yosemite Valley for seven weeks, using those sketches as the source for large scale paintings he made for the remainder of the decade. These trips to the west enabled him to produce immense canvases and established him as the preeminent painter of the American West. While some have decried his work as oversized and gaudy, and a champion of Manifest Destiny, others have posited that his work created support for environmental conservation and the establishment of Yellowstone National Park.
Bierstadt created over 500 works in his lifetime, making him one of the most prolific painters of the Hudson River School.
The Hudson River School was America's first great art movement, giving Americans a sense of pride about their country, and idealizing the wilderness for those who were finding themselves tied to the growing cities. They depicted man connected to the landscape, working with it, even as those landscapes were disappearing due to America's growth. These painters spurred the earliest environmental conservation movements.
While I don't pretend to compare myself to these great masters, I think their influence on my vision of the landscape is pretty clear. I know I'm not the only photographer to feel this way about these works, and I think the connection to contemporary photographers from these original American landscape artists provides necessary background to to understand the work of today's photographers.
For myself, trying to convey the majesty of the landscape has always been my goal. Capturing that feeling of being dwarfed by mountains, looking down from a cliff on Maine's rocky coastline, or across the badlands of North Dakota and being able to share that with others, is why I do what I do. I may not always be successful, but I find my most successful photographs hearken back to the works of the Hudson River School masters.
Bob Ross and the Joy of Painting
While some may consider this a far cry from fine art, I can’t deny the influence Bob Ross has had on me as an artist. Despite the fact that most of his scenes seem to be painted from his imagination, inspired by places he’s been, I often find myself looking at his paintings and wanting to see the place that inspired it. Thus, my wanderlust was born.
I won’t go into Bob’s history as much, as it’s more widely known, but I want to talk about his influence. When I was in high school, I would often come home from school and find “The Joy of Painting” on TV on one of the PBS stations. I don’t know what it was exactly- maybe the soft, dulcet tones in which he spoke to the viewer, almost hypnotic in describing the techniques he was teaching, or maybe it was the ease in which he transformed a blank, white canvas to a detailed, inviting, awe-inspiring landscape. Whatever the draw, I found it hard to look away once he began painting, and I couldn't wait to see the completed piece (in just 27 minutes!).
The paintings and landscapes are the obvious connection. The not-so-obvious connection is the way he taught. As someone who leads workshops and teaches classes in photography, I’ve found Ross’ instructional technique to be something to admire. He spoke softly, breaking things down in simple terms, simple techniques that people can learn, practice, and master.
Whether you consider his work fine art or pop culture schlock, Ross has been influential in making painting in particular, and art in general, accessible to everyone. I try to take the same approach when teaching photography.