Cornfield by the West Branch of the White River, Rochester, Vermont
© Paul Mozell
When photography was in its infancy in the early 19th century, the art of landscape painting was approaching a new zenith. Work of the members of the Hudson River School and later, the White Mountain School, was growing in popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. The art of these painters, sometimes collectively referred to as the Luminists, was rediscovered by the public in the mid and late 20th century, and draws crowds and admirers to this day. Present-day landscape and nature photographers, can learn a great deal about their art and craft by studying the work of these 19th century masters of paintbrush and canvas.
As a landscape photographer, my work and sense of perception has been influenced as much by these painters, as it has been inspired by the work of renowned photographers Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Eliot Porter. These painters and photographers have been my virtual mentors, as I have explored the trails and photographic viewpoints in the Hudson Highlands, the Adirondacks, the Catskills, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and the Rocky Mountains. And, like many of these artists I hope that my images will encourage others to appreciate, and work to preserve, the American wilderness for future generations.
Thomas Cole, Alfred Bierstadt, Asher Durand, John Frederick Kensett, and many other followers of the Hudson River School, worked their canvases in fair weather, often at locations nearby the mountain resort hotels of the Catskills in New York and the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The Crawford House, The Catskill Mountain House and the Mountain Washington Hotel would often host established painters as artists-in-residence for the summer season. They were free to paint, sell completed works, and accept commissions during their stay.
Today, equipped with a camera backpack, light-weight tripod, and film or digital cameras, I can work in just about any conditions. Staying at a plush mountain resort would have its attractions, but most of my best shots have been taken while residing in a nylon tent. When I work with my 4×5 view camera, a Toyo Field, I feel that I am spiritually closest to the Hudson River Painters. I am forced to slow down and carefully consider the value of each exposure, because of the weight, the complexity, and the cost associated with each click of the shutter when working with these bulky cameras. Shooting with digital cameras such as the Nikon D200 gives me a different kind of artistic flexibility because of the instantaneous feedback I get about each exposure. Later, back in front of my Macintosh computer, multiple exposures of the same scene can be merged and edited on my digital canvas.
Scenic spots such as the Kaaterskill Clove, a waterfall and gorge whose waters ran into the nearby Hudson River, and Mount Chocorua, a bald and imposing peak just south of the Swift River and the village of Conway, NH, were repeatedly painted by the 19th century masters. Whether shown in different seasons over and over again by the same artist, or depicted by students and admirers of the painters who first popularized those landscapes, these locations were kin to the locations that today’s landscape photographers shoot over, and over, again. Images of Yosemite Valley in the Sierras, The Grand Teton of Wyoming, and Mt. Katahdin are so familiar to us all, yet we are still drawn to shoot them, offering our own interpretations of those majestic summits.
The Hudson River School painters employed techniques that were near-photo-realistic in quality. But as detailed as these paintings were, they did not always accurately portray the true landscape. Rather, these works depicted idealized interpretations of the view; with mountain peaks, water gorges and trees, strategically moved or altered in order to convey the artist’s feelings of awe, reverence, and tranquility in the presence of nature’s wonders. I have visited many of the locations depicted by my favorite painters on the Massachusetts coast, at Storm King Mountain on the Hudson, at Mt. Chocorua in the White Mountains, and the Newburyport Marsh in Massachusetts.
Equipped with either a 4×5 view camera, or a zoom lens on a film or digital 35mm body, I have never been able to frame a shot that matched what I saw on the canvas. Modifying an image composition by pasting in some extra clouds, or painting in branches to cover a distant patch of pavement, are techniques I occasionally use to enhance an image so it is faithful to my recollection of a scene.
The modern photographer’s quest for near-perfect images is inspired by the 19th century painters’ renderings of ideal landscapes, whether consciously or unconsciously. Often the challenge for me is to find a way to create a dramatic or memorable image when the environmental conditions and lighting are not ideal. These painters created works that were composites of many hours and days spent in the field.
The term sublime was often used when referring to the landscapes whose spiritual beauty was determined in heaven. When time and weather conditions permit, I try to sit and become immersed in the beauty or drama of a scene before setting up my tripod. I have never had the luxury spending the entire summer in one locale working on my photographs. At best I have minutes, or a perhaps a few days to make a scene work for my camera. But a few moments of quiet observation and contemplation can enhance one’s appreciation of a simple scene. Try it, and you’ll see that rectangular compositions or virtual picture frames start appearing in your mind.
When I first thought of writing this article I planned to find the exact locations in New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire depicted by my favorite artists and photograph them with my view camera. More often than not, when I found the locations and set up the correct lens to approximate the field of view in a given painting, I was disappointed that I could not create a pleasing photograph. I came home with a mere historical record comparing the modern scene to the 19th century place. Although this kind of photograph certainly has merit, I altered my strategy, and began making images that were inspired by certain artists or paintings, rather than being photographic re-creations of their work. The results have been more satisfying.
© Metropolitan Museum of Art. Used with permission. View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, The Oxbow, 1836
Thomas Cole (American, 1801-1848) Oil on canvas; 51 1/2 x 76 in. (130.8 x 193 cm) Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1908 (08.228)
Storm King Mountain on the Hudson River, seen from the summit of Breakneck Ridge. Nikon F2, Kodachrome 64, Nikkor lens. © Paul Mozell
© Metropolian Museum of Art. Used with permission. The Beeches, 1845 Asher B. Durand (American, 1796-1886) Oil on canvas; 60 3/8 x 48 1/8 in. (153.4 x 122.2 cm) (15.30.59)
Three Yellow Birches on a stream in Vermont. Nikon, Fujichrome Velvia. © Paul Mozell
© Metropolitan Museum of Art. Used with permission. Heade; Martin Johnson; Newburyport Meadows; c. 1872-78; Oil on canvas; 26.7 x 55.9 cm (10 1/2 x 22 in);
Hay Bales at Appleton Farms. Ipswich, Massachusetts. Toyo Field, 90mm Schneider lens, Fujichrome Velvia. © Paul Mozell
Museums with notable collections of work by the Hudson River School painters
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art
- The Wadsworth Atheneum
- The National Gallery of Art
- The Hudson River Museum
- The Brooklyn Museum
Additional landscape photography by Paul Mozell can be seen at mozellstudios.com