By Angela Stapleford
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Political Landscapes

This article is over 12 years, 7 months old
Magnum Print Room, London
Issue 343

Landscape photography is rarely just a celebration of stunning views and nature’s beauty. The genre has often been ideologically loaded.

For example, early images of the US landscape were a celebration of the supposedly empty land being opened up to colonialism. The genre can also be used effectively to highlight the impact of war, development and capitalism on the landscape. Landscape photography has developed along two routes: artistic and documentary. There is often a crossover between the two.

Photography that traces an event has recently come to be described as aftermath photography. It is considered a new phenomenon and, though having political subject matter at its heart, it is likely to find an audience as much in expensive coffee table books as in newspapers and magazines. But a new exhibition at the Magnum Print Room reveals that the camera has long recorded the frightening after-effects of conflict and disaster.

Magnum is an international cooperative agency founded after the Second World War to allow photographers the freedom and independence to follow their own assignments. It has usually been closely associated with documentary photographers and photojournalists but has also included art photographers.

The exhibition includes Bruno Barbey’s stunning and shocking images taken in the warzones of Kuwait and Vietnam. One shows destruction in the wake of Operation Desert Storm in 1991 (above) – the Kuwaiti landscape blackened by pollution as oil fields blaze in the distance. Other photographers, such as René Burri in Lebanon in the 1990s and Werner Bischof in Germany and France during the Second World War, show the devastation of towns and cities after bombings. The images inform and impress upon us the horrific destructive forces of war.

Donovan Wylie’s work in Northern Ireland reflects the way the landscape changes through conflict, showing hills topped by British watchtowers which have become part of the familiar landscape and are an enduring reminder of violence. Other images show bleak landscapes littered and overtaken by industry and more explore poverty and exploitation in South America. The global scope of the exhibition is impressive.

While some images show the devastation caused by human-made and natural disasters to our urban landscapes, others reveal how capitalism is affecting the planet and the natural landscape. Some of the most stunning images are Stuart Franklin’s dramatic visual evidence of climate change as Europe’s glaciers slowly melt away. They are disturbingly beautiful, provoking a sense of awe as well as horror.

The exhibition contains some of the best documentary and informative landscape photography and is both visually stunning and thought-provoking.

Political Landscapes is at the Magnum Print Room, 63 Gee Street, London EC1V 3RS until 5 February 2010.

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