April 27, 2016

Stroll Through Alan Ward’s “Luminous Landscapes”

  • By: Katherine Flynn
  • Photography: Alan Ward
Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio

Burnett Tomb and Cedar Lake at Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Landscape architect Alan Ward, FASLA, has channeled his love of photography into a second career spanning nearly 40 years. He took his first photograph in 1978, the same year that he started working at the Watertown, Massachusetts architecture firm Sasaki Associates, using a large-format view camera with a tripod to capture an image of Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Ward’s photography work is currently being featured in a retrospective of sorts at Washington, D.C.’s National Building Museum. Luminous Landscapes, which will run through September, showcases the history, evolution, and sheer beauty of American landscape design, as well as Ward’s own keen eye and skill with a camera. We chatted with Ward about his transition from film to digital photography, and about some of his favorite landscapes.

Can you tell me about the cameras that you used to take these photos?

The cameras are actually on display in the exhibit. There’s a 4x5 view camera—this is an old-style camera and a kind of a technology that originated in the late 19th century, and architectural photographers used it until being supplanted by digital cameras. Most of the photographs are with a 4x5 view camera. In more recent years I started using a medium format camera, with a Hasselblad 2-and-a-quarter-inch negative. I also used a panoramic camera, which is also medium-format. It uses roll film, but three frames of a 2-and-a-quarter-inch negative.

The last two sites in the exhibit were done more recently with a digital camera. All of the landscapes that were done on film were with either the 4x5 view camera or the medium-format. I would have the negatives processed and make a print in the darkroom that met my requirements for lightening, darkening and cropping. Once I got the print I liked, I would send it with an overlay of notes on what I did to manipulate the print to a master printer who would scan the negative, make adjustments to match my print, and send me a proof that was printed digitally. He would then make a final print.

So, what you’re actually seeing are digital prints. The original, in most cases, is from a negative. It’s a hybrid process.

Can you tell me a little bit about the concept behind this exhibit?

Early on [in my career,] I was asked to photograph certain designers’ work for an exhibition, and that was the work of [landscape architects] Dan Kiley and Beatrix Farrand. And then, in the mid-'90s, I had an opportunity to do a book on my photography, so I took what I had and I supplemented it with sites that I had selected.

The idea is that these are some of the most significant landscape designs in the country. Either they were a new project type, like Riverside, Illinois, the planned community, or Blue Ridge Parkway, or Mount Auburn cemetery, or the University of Virginia. Either they were new project types, or they were just extremely influential as designs. For example, the Miller Garden in Columbus, Indiana, was a very important design in the modern era. Prospect Park [in Brooklyn, NY] was a significant early park by Olmsted, but also influential in design terms.

Spirit Path, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden

The Spirit Path at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Seal Harbor, Maine.

Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.

Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.

How long have you been a landscape architect?

My first degree is in architecture, and my second degree is in landscape architecture. I started working at Sasaki in 1978 as an urban designer and landscape designer. Early on, I did mostly planning and urban design. In recent years I’ve done more landscape design and the rehabilitation of historic landscapes, such as the rehabilitation of the landscape at the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool here in Washington. It’s been a long career in planning, urban design, and landscape design.

I read online that you’re interested in the generational influences that past landscapes have had on the present. Can you talk about that idea?

There was a book done on the Miller Garden for which I did photographs called “The Miller Garden: Icon of Modernism.” These images were reproduced many times in professional journals, magazines, books, as well as the monograph of the garden itself. As a result it’s had a significant influence on designers in the last few decades, and the images are quite powerful in terms of what Dan Kiley did at the Miller Garden. I think it has had some influence over several generations of designers now, in landscape architecture.

Preservation Magazine: J. Irwin Miller House and Garden

Exterior of the Miller House

The Indianapolis Art Museum recently completed a digital archive project of materials relating to the Midcentury Modern J. Irwin Miller House. Learn more in the Winter 2016 issue of Preservation magazine.

So, is this exhibit a retrospective of photographs of landscapes that you’ve taken over your whole career?

Yes, it is. I selected photographs that I thought were the most interesting and the most compelling images. At the same time, I had to tell a story about the evolution of landscape design and landscape architecture in this country. The gallery spaces were three rooms that fit nicely into three periods of landscape design—I think that’s a reasonable way to break down the evolution of landscape design in this country.

So, there are works from the 18th century through 1900 in the first room from the “pre-professional era,” to 1900, to the conclusion of Frederick Law Olmsted’s career. The last project in that period is Biltmore, one of his last significant projects. And then there’s 1900 to 1950 in the second room, the height of the “country place” era—this was when there was new affluence in the country, and owners engaged landscape architects to create remarkable landscapes and gardens outside of cities.

There also were new project types in that era, like the Blue Ridge Parkway, which was done in the ’30s. 1950 to the present is the third period. There are hints of the rise of Modernism in the second room, in the last project, Naumkeag. Modernism emerges after the war with the Miller House, and then there’s some significant modern works like Gas Works Park in Seattle, which reclaims an industrial site and turns it into a public park, and keeps some of the old industrial gas works as kind of sculpture and the sense of the past. There is another of Kiley’s project, Fountain Place in Dallas. It is an oasis, a water garden in the city. The exhibit concludes with the September 11 Memorial in New York.

So in terms of all of these landscape designs, do you have any particular favorites or ones that you particularly enjoyed photographing?

I went to the Miller Garden three times, and the images that came out of that—I see them reproduced so many times. That's perhaps my favorite, from the modern era. In the second period, from 1900-1950, I think Naumkeag, in Western Massachusetts is fascinating—it’s the work of Fletcher Steele and at the end of that country place era, where it was retrospective with historical influences. Steele then overlayed some elements of Modernism at Naumkeag in the 1930s.

In the first period, up to 1900, my favorite would be Biltmore, which is a remarkable landscape design of an enormous site, originally over 100,000 acres. There was reforestation, as well as more formal gardens adjacent to the house.

And, you know, from your point of view, preservation and stewardship has played a role in every one of these. They’ve had good care and attention, and remain mostly intact. Preservation is part of the story here, because after all, landscapes are fragile, need attention and are dynamic over time, and on occasion need to be rejuvinated. I think there is a preservation component to all of these selected sites.

Preservation Magazine: Living History

The gardens at Naumkeag, a Gilded Age estate in the Berkshire Mountains, are faithfully returned to their original design. Learn more in the Spring 2016 issue of Preservation magazine.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Maybe it’s worth mentioning, one other thing that I was trying to do here: you look at a lot of contemporary photography, and a lot of the focus has been a critique of the built environment, for example of suburban sprawl. I recently saw exhibitions on nuclear test sites and the resulting ravaged landscapes, and a show of old mining landscapes. There’s a lot of photography that is highly critical of the built environment.

What I’ve tried to show is that it’s possible to build far more wisely, and that there are examples of really positive relationships between designed landscapes and our culture. These are kind of quintessential examples of successful relationships between the built environment and our culture.

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.

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