Roberta Bondar and the Traditions of Landscape Photography

By Mia Johnson
March 20, 2006

Roberta Bondar, Dune Shadow, © 2003-06

Over the past 150 years, artists in Canada and the United States have taken a number of approaches to landscape photography. Four traditions have predominated: a romantic view of the “wild” landscape; a presentation of its “taming” by civilized forces; a reactive environmental focus; and a new realism highly dependent on advanced camera, film and printing technologies.
The oldest tradition was inspired by early colonists in North America. Photographers treated vast areas of their adopted landscapes as “untouched” and even mystical by ensuring there were no traces of human civilization in their dramatic images. In the late 1800s and the early 20th century, photographers proud of social progress in the new land focused on the re-structuring of nature by railways, bridges and cities. By mid-century, a sense of urgency developed among photographers keen to address the impact of de-forestation, global warming, industrial zoning and urbanization. In the late 20th century, a post-modern nostalgia for the construct of “nature” prompted a new pictorialism. Photographers began using long exposure shots and high quality printing processes in an effort to capture the essence of landscape.

Ansel Adams, Sand dunes, Death Valley, California © 1948

Roberta Bondar’s new desert photographs, ranging from panoramic to intimate, demonstrate a complex mix of several traditions. Bondar first showed an extensive collection of her desert photographs, both black-and-white and colour, at the prestigious Hoopers Gallery in London, England in the spring of 2005. Ancient Ruins and Desert Dunes provided the Western world some of its first glimpses of the Roman ruins found in the Libyan portion of the Sahara Desert, as well as panoramas of the deserts of Libya and Qatar.

Bondar had seen the vast deserts from space in 1992 while working as an astronaut on board the space shuttle Discovery, and had resolved to visit them. In 2002, Canada established diplomatic relations with Libya and Dr. Bondar was finally able to experience what she describes as these “deep” deserts. The London exhibit included her photographs of deserts in the American Southwest and the Canadian Arctic, which she had begun taking in 1996.

For Desert in Time at the Diane Farris Gallery, Bondar selected images that best represented the wide horizons of the Libyan and Qatar sand seas; the eroded rock formations of the Acacus with their prehistoric drawings, and the ruins of ancient Roman cities Sabratha and Leptis Magna. The exhibit also shows deserts in the Arctic, the American Southwest, Mexico, and intimate images of small desert life forms.

In particular, Bondar sought to capture what she describes in the accompanying catalogue as “the sharp edge of our planet as it makes abrupt contact with the surrounding atmosphere… [seen] best over vast expanses such as oceans and mountains that create a horizon distinctly demarcated from the atmosphere that we call the sky.”

Applying the earliest photographic tradition, Bondar’s panoramas show the deserts untouched by civilization, divested even of the vehicles and armed guards who drove her to each Libyan location, and of the friends in every location who “followed me more than once into dust storms, early hours before sunrise, twilight, and the heat of daylight, watching for my safety, even drawing me back from the edge of Earth itself.”

These pieces are reminiscent of the landscape photography of Ansel Adams, an early American photographer inspired by both a sense of the mystical in the natural world and a strong sense of stewardship – one likely experienced by Bondar as well, from the humbling heights of the space shuttle. Bondar similarly shares with Adams a fascination with small plant forms growing in remote areas.

In the context of a later tradition, Bondar shows remote landscapes “tamed” by rock drawings and archeological ruins, the latter by ancient desert people who managed to carve their wilderness into exquisite architectural structures.

Bondar is also a socially committed photographer, enormously concerned about environmental impact. With her photographic work, she hopes to imbue the people of the world with a sense of their environmental responsibility. Her book Passionate Vision (2000) was published in large part to urge Canadians to protect their natural resources. In Desert in Time, she shows the global public their first glimpses of the Libyan archeological ruins before other travelers were permitted to visit and potentially alter their appearance.

In yet another photographic tradition, Bondar as a scientist uses sophisticated camera equipment and printing technologies. They are instruments of “truth” for her, used to capture transient subject matter in bold, sharp images. And transient many of them are. The deserts themselves are subject to constant wind and water erosion. One of the small plants shown in this exhibition grows for 35 years before it blooms, and even then it proves very difficult to photograph.

Her strengths as a scientist, her inherited creativity, and her passion for color and pattern have been formed by years of studying how we see the world around us. Transcending her scientific eye, however, is a more poetic expression of nature. The exhibit might be called “the intimate and the sublime” for the manner in which she seeks out emotionally-resonant qualities of landscape.

Coupled with the naturally-ephemeral nature of photography itself, Dr. Bondar’s images above all retain a strong sense of spirituality.

© 2006 Mia Johnson

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