Landscapes without memory


Fontcuberta, Joan. Landscapes without Memory (New York: Aperture Foundation, 2005) 4-7

Orogenesis, Landscapes without Memory, (C) Joan FontcubertaOrogenesis, Landscapes without Memory, (C) Joan FontcubertaBodyscapes, Landscapes without Memory, (C) Joan FontcubertaBodyscapes, Landscapes without Memory, (C) Joan Fontcuberta

Batchen, Geoffrey. ‘Photography by the Numbers’ Landscapes without Memory (New York: Aperture Foundation, 2005) 9-13


[referring to Joan Fontcuberta new landscape images and the first pictures sent from the surface of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon] Worlds apart, the two pictures nevertheless share a common conceptual infrastructure. Both have been generated by visualisation software; both comprise sets of numerical data posing as photographs; both are landscapes no one has ever seen; both collapse any remaining distinctions between reality and representation; both raise troubling questions about the state of photography today.

Famous landscapes by Cézanne, Gainsborough, Dali, Hiroshige, and Watkins, among other great names from art history’s pantheon, are all turned by Fontcuberta’s chosen software into so many generic postcards, soothing and predictable in their precise, mechanical arrays of gray, green, yellow, and blue.

They are also surprisingly familiar. Terragen [software] knows what we want and a rocky, blue-skied landscape is apparently it. The software is predisposed towards unconquered mountains (I’m betting it was designed by a man)

[…] these photographic landscapes induce terror through their relentless, banal, undemanding repetition of pictorial clichés; they are terrible in the way they give themselves up so easily to the demands of common taste.


Being by definition unrepresentable, Lyotard argues, any effort to represent the sublime must end in failure, must be a failure. Perhaps that is what Fontcuberta’s hackneyed computer-generated landscapes are all about – the impossibility of fulfilling their own visual rhetoric, of bridging the gap between desire and experience.

Fontcuberta’s photography conjures the sublime as kitsch, but also recalls the visual economy of the picturesque. Emerging as a key aesthetic concept in the eighteenth century, the picturesque advocated that nature be studied and represented through a prescribed set of conventions drawn from the established masters of landscape painting.

“Orogenesis” does not so much posit the history of painting as the origin of nature as it makes visible an impossible convolution of both these defining terms, nature and landscape (reality and representation).

In this sense, Fontcuberta’s project is as much a critique of art history as it is of landscape or photography.

In making copies from ideal models, Fontcuberta employs a working method that obediently repeats one of art’s oldest traditions. But the end result remains indeterminate; neither art nor nature, his landscapes are a simulacrum of both.

Reality, the very thing photography is meant to confirm, is here left out of the representational equation altogether, and is thereby cast into doubt.

[Fontcuberta’s photographs] are better understood as stills, photographic frames grabbed from a potentially endless process of mutation driven by computers programmed to maximise human desire (or, more accurately, to placate our most pressing anxieties about our place in the world). They show us only what we want to see.


[Referring to Komar and Melamid’s project Most Wanted] No wonder these “Oregenesis” landscapes look so familiar! Haunted by both high and vernacular artistic practice, they represent nowhere and everywhere – they are the generic anywhere of psychic self-affirmation. In other words, Fontcuberta’s landscapes turn out to be interiors, not views of an outside world.

As generic images, these landscapes also reference photography’s own repressed underbelly – stock photography. Although never included in histories of the photographic medium, the stock photography industry accounts for about two billion dollars in annual sales worldwide.

In the world of stock photography, human experience comes suspended in the sickly sweet amniotic fluid of commercial demand. As Jennifer Tobias has pointed out, in refusing to make any distinctions in quality, genre, or context, stock photography “has played an important if unwitting role in displacing fixed divisions between commerce, journalism and art … and in engendering cultural anxieties about photography and its underlying epistemologies. Fontcuberta’s repetitive landscapes are therefore part of a much wider historical sea change, the end result of which is that all photography – no matter what its subject matter – has become just so much reproducible stock. In an age of information technologies, analog photography is itself now a generic.


As I have already tried to suggest, in Fontcuberta’s hands, photography has become a philosophical activity, not a pictorial one. He asks us to think as much as to look.

Photography now faces the same impossibility [as painting], having been definitively superceded in its informational capacities by the computer and its omnivorous algorithmic notations. In these two projects, Fontcuberta perversely harnesses photography to its nemesis in the interests of producing an “experience of the impossible,” sublimely banal landscapes that never have been and never will be.

Coming to us in the midst of daily reports of the effects of global warming, Fontcuberta’s landscapes may have no definitive origin, but they certainly direct us to one inescapable referent – our own increasingly fragile planet.

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