Norwegian exhibit travels to TU: Environmental degradation transcends time and place

By: Stephen Lynch, Contributing Writer 

Coming to Towson University (TU) all the way from Norway, the Center for the Arts (CFA) has collaborated with Norwegian artists to host traveling exhibition “Across the West and Toward the North: Norwegian and American Landscape Photography.”

Created in collaboration with artists Shannon Egan and Marthe Tolnes Fjellestad, Dr. Erin Lehman, Director of the Holtzman and CFA Galleries and art lecturer and Dr. J. Susan Isaacs, Curator of the Department of Art + Design, Art History, Art Education Galleries, the exhibit officially opened to the public, and virtually, Feb. 9.

The exhibit compares distinct similarities of traveling American and Norwegian photographers in the late 19th century. 

Screenshot of virtual exhibit

Showcased are images of rocky landscapes, indigenous peoples and their living situations and the early waves of railroad development across difficult terrain. Norwegian photographer Knud Knudsen is heavily featured throughout the exhibit and plays a prominent role in Egan’s thesis for her lecture as Knudsen’s stylistic motif is noticeably similar to that of American photographer Edward Curtis. 

It also composes the notion that there is a correlation between the photographs themselves and ideology associated with nationalist identity, primarily the way in which citizens of these countries identify themselves with their country. 

“We have worked with [Egan] in the past,” Lehman said. “It is always a pleasure to collaborate with her. This traveling exhibition is an excellent example of her exemplary scholarship and curatorial vision.” 

Egan, co-curator of the exhibition officially unveiled the new exhibit during a lecture on Feb. 11.

“The notion of Manifest Destiny which is understood as the conquering of the American West by white settlers with the claim to Divine Sanction has been a common narrative in the creation and reception of much American landscape imagery,” Egan said. “The photographic survey expeditions westward coincided with greater territorial expansion and increasing statehood in the west. As well as an effort to establish a sense of Americanness.”

Ron Perisho, an art collector who contributed a majority of the American photographs for this exhibition, collects the antique photo equipment used by these photographers. According to Perisho, there was difficulty in maneuvering the heavy equipment that early photographers used to capture the world. 

“The best example of difficulty that they involved was that Carlton Watkins was hired by Union Pacific to photograph 90 photographs along the railroad,” Perisho said. “It was a very difficult situation. Especially when you are at that time these images could not be enlarged so every image you see is the size of the negative.”

Egan emphasized the impact environmental degradation has had on these lands. As these photographers accompanied the expansion of the railroads across the American West and the Norwegian North, images showcased frontier living and the way in which railroads shaped industrial expansion.

“With the concept of the Anthropocene in mind,” Egan said. “Namely, the current geological epoch of human impact on the environment. The photographs seen here can be further discussed in relation to studies of ecocriticism and environmental history.”

Norway’s territorial and industrial expansion and the noticeable effect on the environment is also present in the photographs presented at the exhibit.

Screenshot of virtual exhibit

“Lindahl’s photograph of a wood pulp factory also takes advantage of the landscape for industrial gain,” said Egan. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has influenced the rollout of this exhibition. According to Lehman, the pandemic pushed the department in a direction they had planned on going for a while now. 

“(COVID-19) has forced us to do what we have wanted for quite a long time which is to create robust online versions of our in-person exhibitions,”Lehman said. “We are very proud of the website, and credit a huge team at TU for helping make it a reality. It’s a lot of extra work on our part and on the part of the gallery staff and the people who assist with the websites.”

“Across the West and Toward the North: Norwegian and American Landscape Photography” will be available for viewing until April 24.   The exhibition can be viewed online and by select in-person appointments. 

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