Ever since i saw Badlands (1973) three years ago, I became a fan of Terrence Malick. I picked up Days of Heaven (1978) and couldn’t help but notice how much it seemed to have in common with the new breed of American photography that was developing alongside it, as pioneered by Richard Misrach, Stephen Shore, Mitch Epstein, Joel Sternfeld, and Joel Meyerowitz.
Terrence Malick, “Days of Heaven” film still, 1978; Joel Sternfeld, A Blind Man in his Garden, Homer, Alaska, July, 1984, from American Prospects
The style and story of Malick’s films seemed to anticipate their works. As far as I know, Days of Heaven was in the making before any of the photographers’ color work had received wide-spread critical acclaim, which would lead me to believe that Terrence Malick and his cinematographer, Néstor Almendros, were no different than the group of color photographers in their approach and sensibilities. Shore’s first major color exhibition was held at MoMA in 1976, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art published a limited-edition portfolio of 12 prints the same year; Meyerowitz showed Cape Light at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1978; Sally Eauclaire’s seminal The New Color Photography, in which she writes at length about the new photographers, was not published until 1981; both Sternfeld’s American Prospects and Misrach’s Desert Cantos books appeared in 1987; Sternfeld did not even begin touring America until 1978, when he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. For the majority of the photographers, their photos were not widely seen until the late 1970s.
Terrence Malick, “Days of Heaven” film still, 1978; Richard Misrach, Desert Fire #249, 1985, from Desert Cantos
All the photographers were working in a sort of self-reflexive manner, photographing, for the most part, solely within America. Their pictures are completely in touch with their times, suggesting a shifting of the idyllic American society and a collapse of American politics. Malick’s films are concerned with many of the same aesthetic principles that interested the pioneering color photographers, such as light, color, and emotional depth, but what is most compelling is how their conceptual interests were completely attuned to one another. That is, the visual similarities are a point of departure, but beyond that, their interest in American mythology and its corruption is at the core of their work.
Richard Misrach’s photographs of the devastated American desert in the Desert Cantos and Bravo 20 (1990) recall Cold War politics, armament, environmentalism, and other international issues while remaining contained within a plot of Nevada desert. Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects describes a dilapidated American landscape, populated with the same disenchanted characters that can be found throughout Malick’s films.
Terrence Malick, “Days of Heaven” film still, 1978; Joel Sternfeld, Bear Lake, Utah, July 1979, from American Prospects
Sternfeld, like many other contemporaneous color photographers, understood that if color photography were to be taken seriously, it would have to compete with painting.
In “Corrupting Photography,” Kenneth Brougher’s forward to the newest imprint of American Prospects, Brougher writes: Sternfeld aspired to “paint” a larger canvas or worldview that brought together figure, landscape, and narrative into one master frame that slowly reveals its secrets. His goal was to create a contemplative and slow viewing experience without returning to the late-nineteenth-century photographers’ mimicry of painting techniques with such “special effects” as diffused lighting and silhouetted imagery. He wanted to depict man’s place within the complex contemporary world, to reinvest the landscape with a sense of narrative, to offer vistas peppered with myriad details rendered in crystal clarity that, as much of traditional landscape painting, leave the viewer with a mystery yet to unravel. Bruegel, as well as other painters ranging from the Limbourg brothers to Jacob van Ruisdael used compositional and perspectival methods to bring the macrocosm into the microcosm, to examine man’s relationship to both tamed and untamed nature; their work offered Sternfeld a way of thinking about photography’s ability to create landscape imagery imbedded with meaning.
Terrence Malick, “Days of Heaven” film still, 1978; Jean-François Millet, Les Glaneuses, 1857, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Terrence Malick, “Days of Heaven” film still, 1978; Jean-François Millet, L’Angélus, 1857-59, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Just as the 19th Century Barbizon painter Jean-François Millet used the landscape and its inhabitants as the backdrop for a sociopolitical stage, Sternfeld and Misrach created beautiful and relevant images with the same subtle gradations of tone and respect for their subjects. Millet’s almost religious paintings of French peasants tending to their work seemed to reflect the plight of the workers in Days of Heaven, and the desolate and bleak landscapes of Misrach and Sternfeld. The crepuscular activities of Millet’s peasants were always described with a muted color palette, adding to the solemnity of the images. While Millet’s paintings were never meant to be a critique of French society or the terrible working conditions of the French peasantry, the sober tone was certainly established within the frame, and his stance towards his subject matter is understood. Similarly, Sternfeld and Misrach’s work articulate observations that neither condemn nor praise American life, yet their visions are clear and efficient enough for us to understand the larger picture at hand.
Terrence Malick, “Days of Heaven” film still, 1978; Jean-François Millet, Bergère avec son troupeau, c. 1863, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
In the work of all four of these visual artists, man is connected, bound, and defined by the earth. The connection is clear in Millet and Malick’s case, where the peasants are inextricably chained to the earth. In the same way that modern architecture defines the space and characters in Antonioni’s films, I find that the American landscape does the same for Misrach and Sternfeld’s work — it becomes a character that forms and interacts with those who inhabit it. The restless and outlawed nature of the killers in Badlands is shaped by the endless sprawl of suburbia and the American countryside. The characters in Days of Heaven are as defined by the landscape as the real-life Americans who left the cities to find work in rural America. As Brougher stated in “Corrupting Photography,” the figures within Sternfeld’s landscapes are completely intertwined, each notifying the other. For Misrach, they identify one another, yet because his work is the most overtly political, he posits that man has destroyed his surrounding landscape, which in turn, destroys him.
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