Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Boston, MA



View From Above: The Photographs of Bradford Washburn

November 24, 1999 - April 30, 2000


Mountain climber, explorer, cartographer, aerial photographer, Bradford Washburn (born 1910) was director of Boston's Museum of Science for 40 years. Washburn began climbing and photographing in the French Alps in his teens, and spent much of his adult career exploring Mount McKinley and the Alaska Range as a climber, mapmaker and photographer. The exhibition, which consists of a gift from the Washburn to the Museum of some 80 black-and-white photographs, covers 50 years of his photographic career. While these photographs of high peaks, glaciers and the Grand Canyon were made for purposes of exploration and mapping, the sublime beauty of their spaces, their light and the force of their abstract patterning make them glorious works of art that capture an epic landscape as well as a modern vision. This is the first major exhibition of Washburn's work in an art museum.


An Essay by Clifford S. Ackley, Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Curator of Prints and Drawings, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Mountain climber, explorer, cartographer, aerial photographer, Bradford Washburn has always been rather reluctant to discuss his photographs in aesthetic terms, as art. Yet anyone who sees the sweeping views of saw-toothed mountain chains or stately glaciers that he had already begun to make in his teens will have no such hesitation. It is a commonplace of the history of art and of the history of collecting and museums that something initially made for a purely practical or functional purpose is over time rediscovered for its sheer beauty of form or image. So it is with Washburn's photographs. They have not lost their historical documentary value, but we can also appreciate them for their surprising or dizzying spaces, for the intricate interplay of light and shadow over pristine blankets of snow, or their revelation of natural textures and patterns of startling abstract beauty. Some of these photographs give us a sense of infinity, of an exhilarating, god-like overview of vast spaces while others, lacking a horizon, are tantalizingly disorienting with regard to their scale or even their identity.

Aerial photography has long been singled out by those wanting to establish a relationship between the worldviews of modern science and technology and those of modern art. The view from above results in images that can be of great use to the military, to ecologists or city planners, but which are also satisfyingly abstract in character. It is therefore not surprising that abstract painter and experimental photographer Gyorgy Kepes, who for many years was Professor of Visual Design at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, should have used some of Washburn's aerial photographs in his 1956 book The New Landscape in Art and Science. This should not be regarded as an attempt to make Washburn into an "abstract" photographer like Aaron Siskind, whose close-ups of lava flows were made with the intention of discovering metaphorical imagery (here billowing draperies) in these petrified forms, but only to point out that similar abstract or metaphorical values can be discovered in Washburn's work alongside its obvious descriptive function.

The modular repeated elements or marbled organic patterns that Washburn's camera isolates in drifted snow or glacial flows are difficult not to relate to principles of modern design. As recorded by Washburn's airborne camera, glaciers would appear to be numbered among our leading abstract artists.

Washburn (born 1910) is an archetypal New England achiever, not content merely to discover and understand, but equally driven to share and explain. For forty years director of Boston's Museum of Science, he was already publishing in his teens on mountain climbing (Among the Alps with Bradford, 1927; Bradford on Mount Washington, 1928). Washburn's father was Dean of the Episcopal Theological Seminary at Harvard. His mother, an avid amateur photographer, presented him with a camera when he was thirteen. He first sought out high altitudes in New England to alleviate the symptoms of childhood hayfever. At age sixteen he made his first Alpine climb, Mont Blanc. In subsequent years he was guided at Mont Blanc and introduced to Alpine photography by Georges Tairraz, member of a family of guides and innkeepers that had been catering to climbers in Chamonix ever since the late eighteenth century. At this time, in the second half of the eighteenth century, the fashion for Alpine climbing developed alongside a new Picturesque and Romantic sensibility that experienced a pleasurable thrill of awe and terror when confronted with the sublime grandeur and danger of the heights and depths of the Alps. Alpine paintings by early nineteenth century Romantic artists such as J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) were succeeded in the second half of the nineteenth century by photographs that provided souvenirs of such famous tourist attractions as the great Alpine glacier, the Mer de Glace, or the vicarious experience of climbing the high slopes around Mont Blanc.

In America, in the second half of the nineteenth century, photographers documented the newly acquired grandeurs of the Western American landscape, often in large scale prints. Some of them accompanied federal survey expeditions as official photographers or were commissioned by the new railroads to record the more spectacular sights to be experienced along the rails. These imposing photographs, many of which hung framed in New England parlors, identified American greatness (and economic potential) with the sublime vastness of the undeveloped landscape. In our own time, the dramatic Western photographic landscapes of Ansel Adams (1902-1984) have extended this tradition.

Washburn's principal subject, high mountains, whether the French Alps or Mount McKinley and the Alaska Range, has in all cultures been associated with the divine: the Greek gods dwelling on the heights of Olympus, Moses receiving the Tablets of the Law on Sinai, or the mountain itself, in the case of Mount Everest, as a deity incarnate. In pious nineteenth century America the beauty and scope of the American land was seen as evidence of the Divine presence: Yosemite was the American Garden of Eden. Today, in a more secular society, it is perhaps not far-fetched to observe that contact with unspoiled nature-increasingly rare-is regarded as a fulfilling religious experience in itself.

The act of scaling treacherous mountains or the capturing of remote high places with the camera is clearly a test of skill, endurance and organizational abilities. Should such actions be seen in terms of man's conquest of nature-the desire to set foot or record where no human foot or eye has gone before-or as a desire to retreat from the blight and confusion of civilization into the pristine and unspoiled, or both at once?

Aerial photography, first practiced from balloons in the nineteenth century (Nadar photographing Paris from the air in 1858 or Black photographing Boston in 1860), comes into its own in 1914 with its military application in World War I. Bradford Washburn began making aerial photographs as early as 1933. His most recent aerial mapping project was a series of flights over Everest in 1981-84, a masterpiece of diplomacy as well as of cartography, which involved obtaining permission from both the Chinese and Nepalese governments. In Washburn's lifetime almost every uncharted corner of the globe has been explored by foot or camera. Satellite photography for weather reporting or military surveillance is now a commonplace and our focus has been transferred to the moon and planets, as with the recent mapping of Mars by remote-controlled spacecraft.

No matter how strange and unfamiliar geologically or dramatically patterned in an abstract sense Washburn's aerial images may be, one thing they are not is flat. They are bold relief maps captured in extreme raking light. Washburn's optimum times for aerial photography are one and one-half hours after sunrise or one and one-half hours before sunset. The earth becomes a living relief map sculpted by the light with a magical precision.

Not all of Washburn's photography is airborne, of course. The numerous Alaskan expedition albums he has put together since the Thirties are full of carefully sequenced picture essays that detail the organization of supplies or camp conditions. The precise and factual close-ups of supplies and equipment often become striking modern still lifes. The albums include portraits of expedition members such as his wife, Barbara, who has been a key participant in many of the major climbs and mapping expeditions. They also document colorful characters and situations encountered along the way.

Perhaps the central visual message of Washburn's aerial photographs is the revelation of how the earth works. This is at once good science and expressive art. All the earth's secrets, its geological movements, its upheavals and erosions, the slow march and retreat of glaciers, the essential inter-connectedness of the earth's bones, veins and muscles is laid out before us with exemplary clarity.

Essay reprinted from Bradford Washburn: Mountain Photographs (The Mountaineers, 1999)

Ed.: To see dozens of photos by the artist archived by Panopticon click here. To see the MFA article of the artist click here.



Bradford Washburn Chronology





































1932 - 33
































































































































































































Chronology reprinted from Bradford Washburn: Mountain Photographs (The Mountaineers, 1999)


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