Landscape, Change and Selective Memory

Since our main purpose in coming to New England this year was to gather fall color photographs, and material for magazine stories, this decline in color affected us. Only by using a few photographers’ tricks I have been able to get enough color images for the several stories we will eventually produce from this trip. I see a moral issue here: if the trend of poor color in New England continues; should we contribute to attracting people to New England when they are likely to be disappointed, as we were? Certainly the travel industry and chamber of commerce fall color web sites we regularly visited didn’t mention that the colors were spotty, washed out and weak. Their job was to fill the motels and B&Bs for as many weekends as possible.

But my disappointment was part of a bigger issue: how landscape is a product of change, and selective memory, and bound to, sooner or later, disappoint.

New England, for example: I grew up in the East, and yet the New England of my dreams came from calendar photos and Robert Frost poems. The poems were written in the 1910’s and 1930’s when New England was an agrarian society where people mostly made their living from the land. They built fences of stone and carved meadows and fields out of the forest, ground grain with water power, plowed and timbered with horses. They built covered bridges, not from a sense aesthetic, but for the practical reasons of climate. The calendar photos I saw were taken no later than the 1950’s and already the photographers had to find just the right spots to make sure the images they presented matched those poems of many years before.

So I went to New England expecting say, North Conway, NH to be a bucolic village of a few hundred souls, church steeples, a meeting hall and country store; this inviting place would be surrounded by farms equal parts bright orange and yellow maples and meadows, each cornfield and pasture surrounded by a lovingly maintained stone fence. There is a little of all of that in and around North Conway, very little. What there is a lot of is factory outlet stores, by the hundreds, or so it seems. There is a Wal*Mart, for which we were thankful, carefully hidden away unlike the outlet stores which line the main street almost to the middle of town.

So, what’s a photographer to do? Cheat of course: hide all the power poles and lines, all the outlet stores and non-stop traffic jam; train the lens on a church steeple, detail of Colonial architecture with a hint of fall color blocking the satellite TV antennae. This is difficult for a photographer to do. In order to make pleasing compositions, ones that direct the viewers eye, inner and outer, to the essence of the subject, we must first see the subject dispassionately, warts and all, otherwise we get an image of warts. You see, your eyes are only a lens, not a camera. Your film, or memory card, is your brain, and your brain is far from objective: all grandparents know that their grandchildren are the most beautiful and most intelligent children ever to grace the universe. This of course is impossible, subjective, but oh so very true for them.

Your eye lens takes in a general scene that approximates a standard lens on a 35mm camera of 50mm. The content of that frame is imaged in total objectivity and passed on to your brain, where almost anything can happen to it, depending on the processing of your brain. If there is a running dog, aimed at you, your brain, unlike the eye, will immediately recognize it as a possible threat, zoom its attention in to 200mm, ignoring all around, make an evaluation based on the barred teeth (and growl) of the dog that it is time to initiate fight or flight. That ability to zoom in on what might be important is unique to the combination of eye and brain that no sophisticated camera has been able to achieve.

Photographers can only compose the image to direct your attention to what we want you to focus on: the beautiful white church steeple and blazing red tree, cropping out the tourist trinket store nearby, the streetlight, the parking meter and Hummer, and that annoying brat skateboarding past just as you are about to press the shutter for the perfect moment, the moment that will recreate New England Village of 70 years ago. It is a bit easier for painters, they can just leave out all evidence of modern life, or paint from very old photographs. It’s hard for a photographer to put a horse and elegant carriage cantering past in place of the skateboarder, without a Hollywood budget, but even that can be done if the advertising budget is large enough.

Which brings up why photographers, painters, illustrators and graphic designers, go to so much trouble to remove those warts? Motivation number one is money. A coach tour company selling a fall leaf tour wants photos for its brochures and ads to evoke romanticized images that will create nostalgic responses about what a New England fall visit should be, not the unvarnished truth. The idealized images trigger selective memory of a landscape of another age, dimly remembered from a childhood in New England, or more likely from second hand images. Motivation number two is simply aesthetics. Creative people want to put their stamp on any image they create. This could just as well mean making those streetlights, parking meters, Hummer and skateboarder the center of focus, to point out the true experience of a modern North Conway. Both are valid uses of selective imaging, but neither can be the whole truth for any one person. You have to be there and make those choices for yourselves, deciding whether the New England of today is what you expect, seen through your own glass darkly.

For me, my first New England experience left me disappointed at not being able to find more examples of the images my reading of Robert Frost had embedded in my young mind in middle school.

There was much more traffic than we are accustomed to in small towns in the West, and found that often the line of traffic stretched from one village to the next. New England’s narrow streets were built for horse and buggy, but then so were streets in the West; perhaps when Easterners headed west, they built new cities with very wide streets; did they know the automobile was coming? I doubt it; but what was the reason?

Visiting the New England of today, however did change my perceptions and expectations, and I found I liked parts of it after awhile. Peacham, Vermont has too many power poles and lines, TV dishes and cars, but after some time there, those things mostly disappeared and I saw the lovely old cemetery as a treasure, remembered the church basement dinner and the people, the meeting house steeple sticking above the green and gold leaves and the meadow and cornfield from a high ridge above the village. So, over time, I created a new landscape of that place, selecting out the unwanted, unromantic, unaesthetic and having it my way. That is human nature. We select out what we don’t like in a landscape, and focus on, hold on to, the things we treasure.

That is a good thing, and a bad thing. The good part is we can enjoy our local landscape even though it is becoming crowded with those factory stores we like to shop at, but would prefer not to look at. The bad part is it allows us to selectively ignore those things we don’t like to see, and so allow unexamined growth to overtake and ultimately subsume our uniqueness. That is what has happened to North Conway, New Hampshire, but has not occurred (yet) to Peacham, Vermont.

The Loss of Robert Frost’s New England

The loss of Robert Frost’s New England began with the Industrial Revolution, when many left the farms to work in the water powered textile mills of the larger towns. Whole families moved to town to work in the mills, leaving the farms behind. Neighbors bought the farms, but had to mechanize to take care of the additional acreage. Horses began to give way to tractors, which meant fields were enlarged, and the first loss of those famous stone fences began. With World War II came an avalanche of change that would inevitably bring relatively rapid change to the landscape of New England. The young men went to war, the young women went to build B-17s, and their families lost ground to the encroachments of nature for at least four years. The GI Bill of Rights meant many of the young men went off to college, something few farm boys could ever dream of. After college few returned to the family farm and ma and pa lost more ground to time and age, and the farms began to grow up in brush first and finally small trees.

Some young men stayed home and tried to hold out, but the economics of city life drew most of them away. By the 1960’s the patchwork quilt of meadow, field and sugar patch, all delineated by well-kept stone fences, had given way to young forest. The few farms and dairies had to greatly enlarge and further mechanize in order to survive, and the landscape was again altered. Now, the abandoned farms host expensive single-family, mostly second homes, or small developments, surrounded by maturing forests. The stone fences have long fallen, overtaken by forest, moss and neglect. Time changes everything. Robert Frost’s New England landscape is made of memory, on Christmas cards and in the souvenir shops between the outlet stores in North Conway.

Most (not all) of the pictures you see here are fictions of a sort, crafted of real places, but carefully made to produce a pleasant colorful image that fulfills the dreams of what our eventual magazine readers’ idea of a New England autumn.

For a few photos of New England:

Perhaps someday I will go back to New England, and allow my camera to dispassionately record what is, not attempt to recreate what was.


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