The elements of landscapes

This week’s readings in the “Language of Landscape” talked about landscape as grammar with codified meanings and relationships. There is an interplay between the elements of a landscape, where each element – whether it is the leaves on the trees, rocks on the ground, or natural or manmade objects – has a unique role and contributes to the overall meaning of a landscape. To me, a landscape is not just visual or physical – it involves every sense. From sight and touch to sound, smell, and taste, these sensory perceptions add to our understanding of what is around us. There is also a fourth dimension of time and movement that creates a multi-layered experience. In this perspective, landscapes change over time, elements can move with the changing wind patterns, and scenes can go from light to dark in a matter of minutes. All of these elements combine to form a landscape that can be understood universally, understood by a few, or interpreted differently depending on who the viewer is. This creates landscapes that evoke a variety of emotions and thoughts, or even the opposite – a sense of detachment.

Take, for instance, my site, which consists of the MIT railroad tracks and laboratories parallel to Albany  St. For the past two weeks, I’ve been photographing the railroad landscape, walking along the tracks and photographing the blue and grey rocks on the ground in between the wooden railroad ties. On one of the photo shoots, I notice a bright orange cone that is lying haphazardly on its side a few feet from the tracks. A couple of yards away, a rock that has been painted the same caution orange color tries to blend in amongst the subdued colors of the other rocks. The steel barriers and the linear shapes of the smokestacks make horizontal and vertical lines very prominent in the visual scene. All of these elements have a role in the industrial landscape. The rocks probably keep the tracks in place and provide a rough surface that is flexible, yet stable. The cones and bright orange colors call attention to parts of the rail that might need work or are dangerous. The smokestacks and the steel barricades serve their own function as a conveyer of excess gases, or a barrier against trespassing. All of these elements have a role, yet they are so intrinsic to this type of landscape that they are necessary to make the scene complete. It’s as if we’re staging a scene of a movie and need to make sure that the railroad scene is realistic. Railroad ties and rocks? Check. Orange caution colors and cones? Check. Smokestacks and other industrial shapes? Check. Noticing these significant details, these elements that are essential in both the working nature of the railroad and the industrial landscape, gives me a greater depth of understanding what lies before me.

The “Language of Landscape” talks about how a multitude of relationships can exist. A landscape has contexts that interact or are independent, with highly related or loosely related or even unrelated patterns. Multiple contexts may be fused, parallel, overlapping or continuous.  During another photo shoot, I was particularly interested in the view of the railroad tracks from Mass Ave. This is a prominent crossing where hundreds of students a day probably traverse the tracks and don’t pay much attention to the awe-inspiring view that they get to witness every day. To the left, a giant historic fireproof warehouses stands guard. To the right, a monolithic nuclear reactor lab stands with a single red brick smokestack that doesn’t ever smoke. Instead, a constant stream of white smoke or steam puffs out off to the side, morning to night. In the morning, the wind is in one direction, with the steam billowing out over the parking lot. Towards sunset, the wind changes direction and billows up, maybe to the left or to the back towards the horizon. The smoke casts dancing shadows on the storage building and makes you aware of the passage of time and light. There is also a prolonged moment when the setting sun is aglow in a fiery orange and glances sideways towards the storage building. What ends of happening is that the upper portions of the lab’s smoke are lit up in an ethereal and otherworldly glow. The nuclear reactor, probably billowing out steam from boiling water, looks instead like it is on fire, ablaze in this beautiful light that quickens my heartrate and makes me try all different shutter speeds and exposures to capture it before it disappears. The steam, one element in this industrial landscape, is probably taken for granted because it is constant. However, the relationship between all the elements – the light, wind, time, smokestacks, the tracks, and everything else, makes it such a unique and wonderful scene. Swarms of people are heading home and walking along Mass Ave while I am completely entranced by this scene in front of me. I am apparently oblivious to the multitude of people staring at me, perhaps wondering what the heck I’m doing, or maybe in admiration because I am noticing a thing of beauty that they haven’t noticed before. Some stop and watch what I’m doing briefly. Others just walk by as if nothing special has happened.

The metaphor of language is an interesting one to use because it depends on who understands it. I, for one, am understanding it more after having to photograph it in detail. Others might not understand but can appreciate the beauty of the language. And yet others are so detached from what lies in front of them, that they ignore it altogether. I hope that through my photographs, people can get a glimpse of what they are missing, and for those who already know, can enjoy it every day.

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